Ed. Note: Torchbearers is a College AD series profiling female leaders in college athletics. Torchbearers is presented by SM2. SM2 is committed to positively impacting the culture of social networking users in athletics, SM2 provides the only foundational education programs customized for global sports brands.
In her fourth year at the helm of the Eastern Michigan athletic department Heather Lyke continues to lead the Eagles to new heights, including the football team which is off to it is best start in 21 years. Lyke, EMU’s first female athletic director, came to Ypsilanti after spending 13 years at Ohio State. In our one-on-one conversation Lyke noted the importance of building genuine relationships with people that you work with, whether it’s peers or supervisors.
On Her Journey
“My parents were both college athletes and my brother too, so it was kind of in the genes.” Lyke continued, “playing softball at University of Michigan for Carol Hutchins, a legendary coach, who is the winningest coach in NCAA softball history, was a really exceptional opportunity to be able to play your sport at that level.”
Upon completing law school, Lyke came to a realization. “I didn’t think I wanted to be a lawyer, but I’d love to do something with college athletics. A firm called IMG, back in the day when they were more of a sports marketing firm, were more focused on professional sports. I worked in their Cleveland office… To get exposed to all of the professions that work in some capacity with sports was very intriguing to me.”
“Coming out of law school, I applied for the NCAA internship program. My parents were thinking ‘okay are you going to get a full-time job ever,’ and I said, ‘No, mom, I am going to be an intern for the NCAA making $600 a month.’ I was doing something that I knew I was going to love, and I really had an unbelievable experience starting out my professional life. I had a chance to work for David Berst, who is a phenomenal leader and person. I started in the compliance office, and realized my law degree was transferable in that realm. It is a natural fit to get into compliance with a legal background, so that is what I did at the University of Cincinnati.”
On Career Challenges
“The AD left within 3 months [at the University of Cincinnati], and in came Bob Goin,” Lyke said, “and that is when I realized the importance of who you work for. It is not necessarily where you are at or what you are doing, but I fundamentally believe it’s who you work for because he invested an interest in me just like Gene [Smith]did, just like Andy [Geiger] did, and they help you grow and teach you the things you don’t learn in college or law school necessarily. You have to have people who care about you and who are willing to teach you, and are modeling the behavior.”
On The Mentors Who’ve Guided Her
“I worked for Bob Goin for two and a half years at the University of Cincinnati, who is just a great person. Then I had the chance to go to Ohio State and work under Andy Geiger. I was a wolverine going to Buckeye Land, which wasn’t a necessarily popular move at all. It was not a natural move on it’s face, but the chance to work for someone like Andy Geiger, a legend, a visionary leader in our industry, to learn and be around him and see how he transformed Ohio State Athletics and made them better, was something I knew would be an invaluable experience. Andy gave me the chance to grow.
“After Andy left, I worked for Gene for nine years… A very different leadership style from Andy, but both incredibly successful and at the pinnacle of places. Gene is a very inclusive and engaging leader. He challenges you to think about your career and one day he just said to me, ‘What are you gonna do?’ I said, ‘Like today? Because I have this to-do list’ and he said, ‘No, no, not today, but with your life. What are your aspirations?’
“At the time, I was unsure. I loved college athletics, so I could stay there or I could teach law school. I have an education background. I love kids and I love to teach. I could go work for my father. I was all over the place. He said ‘Well Heather, when you figure it out let me know, and I’ll help you.’ It really challenged me to really think about it.”
On Advice For Aspiring Professionals
“You do learn a lot of lessons along the way. I don’t think you can replicate hard work. Working in college athletics is a lifestyle, it isn’t a job. It isn’t a 9 to 5 job or anything like that. Having a young staff, I see people on their phones and I see people working. There is a difference.”
“You have to be in the right place with the right people helping you. There’s no question that I am eternally grateful for the leaders that I had a chance to be around. It’s true that you learn through them. To this day, if I have a complex issue, I call Gene. He always responds within seconds and asks if we need to get together and that he is happy to talk it through… You have to stay connected to the board, all the leadership teams on campus, and all of the people who matter; and everyone matters. You stay connected to the janitors, the custodians, the ticket-takers, and every other person in your organization.”
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