Lyke discusses future of men’s basketball program


By Stephen Thompson, Sports Editor

Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke met Tuesday with select local media at the football program’s practice facility on Pittsburgh’s South Side. While spring football practices happened on the fields and in the buildings around her, the topic of conversation was the direction of the men’s basketball program — a team that has underperformed relative to its success in the early part of this century since former head coach Jamie Dixon left in 2016.

On the heels of the program’s fourth losing season in as many years with its current head coach at the helm, Lyke fielded questions for 25 minutes about her evaluation of the program and her decision to retain Jeff Capel.

Just 14 games into second season as head coach of the Panthers, Lyke and Pitt agreed to a two-year contract extension that would keep him in Pittsburgh through the 2026-27 season. Lyke said she made the decision based on positivity from Capel’s hire and modest early success.

She issued another public vote of confidence in Capel less than two weeks ago, saying in a statement that Pitt is “committed to Jeff Capel as our head coach” and confident he will “work tirelessly” to make the program better. Lyke was much more critical on Tuesday.

“I would say that, this season, I think early on, we lost some games that we certainly should not have lost,” Lyke said. “I think we were trying to figure out who we were and probably disappointed that we weren’t as prepared as I thought. … And then probably later in the season, there was just a lack — I don’t know if it was belief or confidence, but we ended up getting down by 20 and that’s tough to always battle back against good ACC teams.”

This isn’t new for Capel-led Pitt teams. Small moments of optimism like wins over good Florida State teams in 2018 and 2019, Duke and No. 16 Virginia Tech in 2021 and North Carolina this past season, have been overshadowed by long limps to the finish. Capel has averaged just about five wins and 13 losses in conference play over the past four seasons at Pitt and has never finished better than 11th in the final standings (the Panthers ended 2022 in a three-way tie for 11th).

Capel will return for his fifth season next fall and, according to Lyke, hefty buyout sums attached to his contract — reportedly somewhere between $15 and 17 million, which Lyke declined to confirm or deny — are not the reason why.

“If your question is, ‘Did the buyout deter me from making a change?’ the answer is no,” Lyke said. “I mean, you don’t make personnel decisions based on buyouts at the end of the day. You do it based on the ability and the leadership qualities of that person, and your confidence in them and their belief in what they’re doing. That’s why we kept Jeff.”

As far as where to go from here, Lyke said her conversations with Capel did not include specifics about his plan for the future. Rather, they discussed the mood around the team and her view as athletic director.

“This was more of reflection and a deep dive into how he’s feeling, how he’s approaching it, his desire to continue to be at Pitt and build this program and then a little bit of my reflection on what I’ve seen as a program from my lens, things that we need to evaluate and do better,” Lyke said. “I’ll meet with all of his coaches and staff and then we’ll circle back and talk about the changes.”

Lyke acknowledged the dissatisfaction of many fans, but thinks Capel’s rebuild will take more time. Ultimately, she placed responsibility for improving the program firmly on Capel.

Lyke said she would not force Capel to add or subtract from his coaching staff, but did have some statistics and points of emphasis ready to share with Capel — areas in which she would like to see improvement. She didn’t share what those numbers or areas were specifically, and instead said her evaluation of the program looked at all the facets that make up Pitt men’s basketball’s struggles.

“I think that’s between Jeff and I to really evaluate the details of the program,” Lyke said. “Ultimately, it falls on him. This isn’t about one player, one recruiting group, one transfer, anything like that. This is really ultimately a full-program analysis.”