Pitt keeps it simple in achieving newfound football success

By Michael Smith

Pitt was one of the best stories in college football this season. The Panthers, picked to finish fourth in the ACC’s Coastal Division, claimed their first conference championship on their way to 11 wins. Pitt AD Heather Lyke and Deputy AD Christian Spears credited a surprising inspiration for how they accomplished it -- psychologist Abraham Maslow and his “hierarchy of needs,” which says people are more motivated when their basic needs are met, starting with food, shelter and clothing. Using Maslow’s guide, Pitt began setting the stage for this turnaround story.

LAYING THE GROUNDWORK: Lyke and Spears arrived at Pitt nearly five years ago expecting to find the extravagances that come with most Power 5 schools. That is not what they found. As they explored ways to improve the athlete experience, they applied Maslow’s hierarchy. “You go in and look at where the athletes eat, what they wear and where they live,” Lyke said. “For example, we didn’t have a fulltime nutritionist when we got here. Now, we’ve hired a nutritionist, they’re eating right, and it’s being tracked.”

GIMME SHELTER: Shelter was another critical piece of changing the athlete experience. The dorms were so tired-looking that they were not even part of the recruiting visit. Lyke worked with the university to find athletes housing in a new complex, The Bridge on Forbes: “This generation of kids has a different set of expectations, especially if you look at our competition, so we really had to modernize where they live.”

SO FRESH, SO CLEAN: The most visible change came in clothing, where Lyke and Spears worked with Nike on a rebrand to the blue that Pitt wore during the Tony Dorsett and Dan Marino days. The navy and gold “didn’t pop,” Lyke said. “We wanted to go back to the brighter blue that connects us to our past.” It’s the old, “You look good, you play good” mantra. Lyke: “There’s something to that. That’s why people invest in uniforms.”

CALLING THE PLAYS: Administrators like Lyke and Spears do not call plays and they do not develop game plans. “What we’ve tried to do is support what’s happening off the field,” Spears said. “Do our athletes know where to go to access resources? Do they feel cared for? Do they have genuine relationships with the people they’re surrounded by? That’s where the focus is.” To back that up, Lyke and Spears hand-wrote individual notes to every player and coach, and slipped them under the hotel door the night before the ACC football championship game. “It was just a little reminder to remember this moment and how special it is,” Lyke said.

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