Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke and former Pitt running back James Conner were honored at the 83rd Annual Dapper Dan Dinner and Sports Auction on Wednesday night. Lyke took home the Sportswoman of the Year award, and Conner was named the Sportsman of the Year. The awards were voted on by readers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“It’s never about one person,” Lyke told Brian Batko of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I know everybody says, ‘It starts at the top.’ It does, but I don’t think anyone can argue with the fact that it’s all about the people you bring in, because when you hire great people, they hire great people. I think that we tried to put our athletic department in a position where people really start to believe internally that we can go win ACC and national championships, and then let’s see if it can permeate externally.”
Since being hired as Pitt’s athletic director in March 2017, Lyke has made sweeping changes to the school’s sports landscape. Most notably, she fired Kevin Stallings and hired Jeff Capel to take over the men’s basketball team, leading to an immediate recruiting boost and improvement on the court. She also extended Pitt head football coach Pat Narduzzi’s contract in an effort to establish continuity in that program. Thanks to Lyke, Pitt is also set to renew its rivalry with West Virginia on the gridiron, as she brokered a deal to play a four-year series with the Mountaineers in the 2020s.
Lyke made additional coaching changes to the school’s stagnant baseball, softball, women’s soccer and women’s basketball programs; eliminated women’s tennis; and added women’s lacrosse. She is also spearheading a redevelopment plan aimed at providing the volleyball, wrestling and gymnastics teams with a new 3,000-seat venue and upgrading other teams’ practice facilities.
In short, just two years into her tenure, Lyke has already left an indelible mark on Pitt athletics, and it appears the school’s teams are trending in a positive direction under her leadership.
The Pitt athletic director’s fellow honoree spoke at the Dapper Dan dinner after an introduction from Los Angeles Rams star Aaron Donald, who was his teammate at Pitt during the 2013 season.
WATCH: Aaron Donald presents James Conner with the sportsman of the year award at the he 83rd Annual Dapper Dan Dinner and Sports Auction Wednesday evening. (video by @alexandrawimley ) pic.twitter.com/SD9fnH3eh0— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (@PittsburghPG) February 21, 2019
”Nothing that you do great comes by yourself, and my teammates, I wish they all could be here,” Conner said. “With everything that went on this season, they believed in me from day one. ... They just believed in me, and they always had my back in every situation. So thank you to everybody. ... I’m going to keep working hard. Pittsburgh, I love you.”
Conner had a breakout year with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2018, running for 973 yards and adding 497 yards through the air for a total of 1,470 yards from scrimmage. He also contributed 13 touchdowns and was named the AFC Offensive Player of the Month after posting three 100-yard games in October.
While this year’s Dapper Dan ceremony was notable for its inclusion of recent Pitt luminaries, it marked the first time that two people affiliated with Pitt were ever honored by the organization on the same night.
Lyke was the first woman affiliated with Pitt to be honored by the Dapper Dan organization since former Panthers basketball star Shavonte Zellous earned the Sportswoman of the Year Award in 2008. Pitt men recently honored by the organization include Panthers basketball broadcaster Dick Groat in 2015 and Pitt legend Mike Ditka in 2011. Both won Dapper Dan Lifetime Achievement awards.
With that said, Pitt men have only won the Sportsman of the Year award three times since 1990, as former Panthers receiver Larry Fitzgerald took home the award in 2003 and former Pitt basketball coaches Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon won in 2002 and 2010. Pitt women have done a bit better, bringing in three Sportswoman of the Year awards since 2000. In addition to Zellous in 2008, former Pitt women’s basketball coach Agnus Benerato was honored in 2005 and 2007.
The Dapper Dan organization was established in 1936 by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sports editor Al Abrams to raise money for local charities. It is the oldest organization of its kind in western Pennsylvania.