During a Tuesday morning interview on 93.7 The Fan, Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke discussed a number of issues affecting the Panthers football team, including the status of the series with Penn State and whether or not to tarp off sections of Heinz Field.
Lyke kicked off the interview by answering questions about her efforts to renew the rivalry with Penn State, which seemed to be derailed when the Nittany Lions filled their 2020 schedule by adding Nevada and San Jose State as nonconference opponents on Feb. 12.
“We have been in communication with Penn State, and they’re evaluating their scheduling philosophy, their decision on whether or not they want to renew the series. And we’re hopeful that it will be,” Lyke said.
When asked about the importance of the rivalry, Lyke described it as a meaningful experience for fans on both sides, but she also noted that if a deal can’t be struck, it’s not essential:
“I think there’s tremendous value in the rivalry. And I think there’s tremendous value in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania and what that rivalry represents and the memories that people have of going to that game over the years. It’s tough to replicate that. For us, we’re not bending over backwards. We’re making an offer. We’d love to play. We’d love to do a home-and-home. We’d love to do another four-game series. And if it works, great. And if not, we’ll move in a different direction.”
The AD previously said the series was “very close” to being extended in a November interview with The Canton Repository, calling it a “huge priority.” So the news regarding Penn State’s 2020 schedule had to be viewed as something of a disappointment by Lyke and many fans.
Of course, the fanbase has been just as passionate about another issue Lyke broached in her discussion with the Repository, when she said, “The opportunity we have at Heinz Field is to rightsize the stadium, to banner, to intentionally wrap [the excess seats].”
That comment sparked debate over whether Pitt should tarp off sections of Heinz Field due to the football team’s general inability to fill its 68,400 seats during games not involving Penn State, and Lyke provided a more definitive answer regarding that issue on Tuesday.
Colin Dunlap of “The Fan Morning Show” told the athletic director he had heard from alumni that Pitt would not be making an effort to rightsize the stadium, and more specifically, tarps would not be applied. To that, Lyke said, “That is correct.”
Lyke noted that the decision came after a “comprehensive review of our football program and game-day experience,” and her focus seemed to be on improving the fan experience rather than addressing the optics of the stadium’s empty yellow seats:
“Frankly, I believe that we can do a much better job in a lot of ways with regard to the game-day experience for our fans, for our students, for everybody who comes to Heinz Field for a Pitt game. And that is going to be our focus moving forward at this point in time. If you were rightsizing the stadium, many people are doing it. It’s not a bad decision. It’s just I don’t think it’s the best decision for us [at this time].”
Toward the end of the interview, the topic swung back to football rivalries, with the obvious question being, if not Penn State, then what about West Virginia?
When asked if she’d been in contact with West Virginia athletic director Shane Lyons about potentially making the Backyard Brawl an annual event again, Lyke gave a response that should be heartening for fans of the rivalry.
“I think we definitely could. Shane’s a dear old friend of mine, and I think there’s definitely an interest there,” she said.
As it stands now, Pitt is scheduled to play Penn State in 2018 and 2019 before the series is discontinued again in 2020. The Panthers are then scheduled to resume the Backyard Brawl with West Virginia in 2022 in a four-game series that will run through 2025.