Lyke tackles football’s return, coronavirus

Heather Lyke jokingly issued a warning to Pitt's football players before the majority of them got back to campus.

It happened not long after word began to spread about a possible return.

"You know as soon as they heard that we might be coming back, I was like, 'No, no. Don't book your plane or drive here yet.' So we had to, you know, hold them off a little at bay," Lyke said Tuesday night during Virtual Sports Roundtable, a Pittsburgh-focused discussion on dealing with the coronavirus hosted by Baker Public Relations. "You know they want to be around people and their teammates."

That opportunity came Sunday, when Pitt opened its doors to football players as part of a phased return in hopes of conducting supervised workouts with the team's strength and training staff, larger group sessions possibly as soon as next month and August training camp.

Getting there is a painstakingly long process, one that began shortly after the impact of the coronavirus pandemic hit in mid-March.

Shortly afterward, Pitt's athletic department formed three task forces. One focused on returning to work. Another dealt with returning to academics, practices and competition for student-athletes. The third focused on a return to hosting events.

Lyke detailed the process during her portion of the discussion, which was moderated by KDKA Radio's Larry Richert and included former Steelers running back, author and motivational speaker Merril Hoge, Upper St. Clair native and former Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Sean Casey, Pine-Richland head football coach and former Pitt linebacker Eric Kasperowicz, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and several media executives and medical experts.

"We brought our first group of staff back to work a week ago, and that's primarily our executive team and all of our head coaches and all the football coaches and assistants in football in order to prepare our student-athletes to come back," Lyke said. "So we've created a sort of phased-in approach for staff and student-athletes to return, hopefully, safely and with all kinds of protocols in place."

Among those protocols, Lyke said, is a two-week quarantine period for players who recently arrived.

Coaches are conducting virtual meetings. There are orientations for players, and they are being told about the processes and what to expect.

"It's really two weeks where we're monitoring them and their medical status, and then we'll start to let them lift with our strength coaches 10 at a time for two weeks, then 50 at a time," Lyke said. "Eventually, we've got it mapped out -- kind of backtracking, when's the first day of camp? -- and if we phase everything in, knock on wood, hopefully, safely and our kids stay healthy, then we will be able to be together and start a camp."

When Lyke said, "knock on wood," she tapped her head with her fist. She also joked that head coach Pat Narduzzi needs to stop playing bocce in his backyard.

But, all jokes aside, Lyke is well aware of the football team's importance to the athletic department. Based on data from the Department of Education, Pitt athletics had a total revenue of $76,596,213 for the 2018-19 school year. Football revenue was $39,176,605, or 51.1 percent of the total.

A study commissioned by ESPN and conducted by Washington University in May estimated the 65 schools in the Power 5 conferences could lose more than $4 billion if college football isn't played in 2020.

"You know, it's critically important, in all seriousness," Lyke said. "I just think for the sense of, we are coming back, but it is a new normal and there's a lot of adjustments and situations that we are going to have to adjust to. ... We want to have football. You know, it's critical, and I think if our students are in class, we're going to be in a pretty good situation. As long as we maintain all the healthy expectations — and those are still evolving, obviously, with the competition and what it's going to look like. I'm an optimistic person by nature. I wouldn't say I'm overly confident about what the fans and the stands look like."

Guessing what the NFL season might look like or if Major League Baseball will be played this summer is anyone's guess, but Hoge and Casey took their best attempts.

Hoge, a former NFL analyst for ESPN, shares Lyke's optimism about football being played in the fall — fans or not.

"Obviously, fans matter. That atmosphere changes with fans," Hoge said. "I practiced at Three Rivers (Stadium) for years, but we used to always practice and go, 'Man, it's a different environment when 65,000 fans are in here. It is just a different environment, but with that being said, in preseason, let's say you could experiment with how many fans you move in and out."

Hoge said playing preseason games with no fans would not be a problem for players, and if needed, it could be done during the regular season.

"When you go inside those white lines to compete, I'm going to tell you this, that environment doesn't change," Hoge said. "We used to scrimmage the Redskins all the time. There are hardly any fans at those scrimmages, and that environment didn't change. So how they go about playing a game won't change, [but] the ambience around it will."

Casey said he figured MLB would have an agreement in place by now to play with expanded rosters in case players became sick. The three-time All-Star who retired after 12 seasons with a .302 career batting average said he believes a season will happen without fans.

And he referenced a recent conversation he had with Pirates first baseman Josh Bell.

"Talking to Josh, man, he's ready to go. I think those guys, they want to get out there and play," Casey said. "But I think they also realize the business of the industry. They've got to figure out what they're doing with safety, and they got to figure out what the owners and the players are doing as far as compensation goes."

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