Lyons Interview, Part 7: An Overview On Sports At WVU And Around the Country
Each summer dating back to Fred Schaus, I’ve gotten a chance to sit down with West Virginia University’s director of athletics for an in-depth interview on a wide range of topics. From conference realignment to coaching changes to facilities renovations, we’ve covered an extensive landscape over the last three decades.
This summer I got another chance for a lengthy one-on-one interview with Shane Lyons, who was hired as WVU’s A.D. in January of 2015. As usual, the questions involved a variety of subjects. In a series of articles over the course of the next few weeks, we’ll look at Lyons’ view on those topics. We kicked off this series with a recap of Phase 1 of facilities improvements, then followed that up with details on Phase 2 of West Virginia’s athletic facilities renovations, which Lyons will reveal publicly in the next month. Part three of the series covered his thoughts on the expectations surrounding the Mountaineer football team heading into the 2018 season, while part four dove into expectations for the 2018 football team. Part five gathered his thoughts on the future of college sports on television and via other media, while part six discussed his views on the WVU basketball program.
In the seventh and final piece in this series, we get an overview from him on not only Mountaineer athletics but the state of college athletics in general.
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Running a major college athletic department is akin to running a big business.
With a couple hundred full-time employees and hundreds more student-athletes, West Virginia director of athletics Shane Lyons oversees a department that has close to a thousand people under him, as well as hundreds of thousands of ticket-buying “customers” and a total budget that eclipses $100 million.
Indeed, the Mountaineer athletic department is a very big business. The most highly paid public employees in the state of West Virginia are WVU coaches.
And just like any business, there is pressure to succeed, though in athletics, there are many more outside opinions on what constitutes a sufficient level of success.
Is making earning a spot in a bowl game or the NCAA Tournament good enough? For some it is, and others it is not.
The Mountaineer football team has gone to a bowl game in 15 of the past 16 seasons, including six of the last season years under current coach Dana Holgorsen. How does that rate?
West Virginia’s men’s basketball coach Bob Huggins has led his Mountaineers to the NCAA Tournament in nine of his 11 seasons at WVU. Is that adequate?
Beauty is all in the eye of the beholder. Holgorsen’s club has made regular trips to the postseason but it has lost three of its last four bowl games, and it hasn’t yet made a serious push for the Big 12 championship yet, though 2018 may change that story.
Huggins has taken West Virginia to five Sweet 16s in his 11 seasons coaching his alma mater, but his squad was only able to punch through the Sweet 16 barrier once, that being in the Final Four run of 2010.
Every college program – other than maybe the current versions of Alabama in football and Villanova in men’s basketball – has room for growth. The Mountaineers have been pretty good in most sports in recent years, but Lyons would like to see each achieve even more.
“We’re playing at a very high level,” said West Virginia A.D. “That’s what we want. We don’t take that for granted, though, and we do want to keep building upon it. We want all our sports competing at the highest level, winning league championships and competing for national championships. Obvious men’s basketball and women’s soccer are right there. Baseball is improved, though it was a couple games away from returning to the postseason this year. Volleyball continues to grow and made it to the postseason. Men’s soccer was one of the first teams left out of the NCAA Tournament this past year. Their bracket is only 48 teams rather than 64, so that makes things tougher. Women’s basketball has been very successful, though it suffered some tough injuries this year. Across the board we had a very good year, but the expectation is that we continue to grow and get better and learn from what we did the previous year and build off of that.”
Lyons’ job is to provide his coaches with the pieces they need to build successful programs. He’s not drawing up plays or watching film. But as the CEO of Team WVU, his job is to try to provide each program with the tools it needs. Now the budget isn’t limitless, so every wish can’t come true, but Lyons tries to provide what he can.
“As an athletic director, you have to be a servant leader,” he explained. “My job is to see how I can help our coaches be successful. A lot of that starts with the facilities. It’s not the only ingredient, though. You also want to provide a good student-athlete experience. What we’re doing academically is important. I’m very proud to say that from an academic standpoint all of our student-athletes in all of our sports this year had a combined 3.2 grade point average. They’re graduating. They’re performing community service. We’re very proud of them, and that’s important.
“I’m charged with being a servant leader in helping our coaches and providing them opportunities to be successful,” he added. “That’s first and foremost when we have our discussions. What do you need? How do I help you? Then it’s my job to try to help them be successful.”
For Lyons, it’s always about communication. He meets regularly with West Virginia’s coaches and most of his athletic department staff to discuss expectations.
“It should never come as a surprise when you have to make a tough decision,” he said. “They know what my expectations are. Every year after the season I sit down coaches and talk about the season and the highs and the lows. We talk about our expectations and whether we met those goals. Then we look at the next year. For instance, you talk about Coach (Mike) Carey. The expectations for women’s basketball last year were very high. But then you lose your best player before the season even starts to an injury. And then you lose another player in midyear to a broken foot, so your expectations have to be adjusted. You have to look at the totality of it. Wins and losses are important, but other things go into the evaluation of a program as well.
“I think we have a great stable of coaches who are performing at a high level. We did make a change and brought in a new wrestling coach last year. (Tim Flynn) had great success at another institution, and hopefully that program can climb higher under his guidance.
“But it all comes down to communication,” Lyons continued. “You don’t want anything to come down as a surprise. I tell them where I think we need to be, and we sit down and talk about it.”
It also goes beyond just winning and losing. Many college athletic departments have been wracked with scandal. Baylor, Michigan State, Penn State, North Carolina and Miami are just some of those who have been caught up in ugly messes in recent years. West Virginia has not been marred by such an incident, and Lyons plans on keeping it that way.
“Just like most things, it starts with communication,” explained Lyons. “We have monthly meetings with our coaches, and we talk about some of the national issues. We also talk about it with our senior staff to insure it doesn’t happen on our campus, to make sure we have the proper policies and procedures in place. We want to be ready if a red flag does pop up. It boils down to education. We are aware of the national issues that have taken place, and we have to make sure to have the proper policies in place here to help deal with any situations on our campus.
“It starts with me. The expectation is that we want to compete athletically at the highest level possible, but at the same time we want to do it with integrity. You can’t get complacent.”
Lyons says WVU won’t sacrifice its integrity to make it to the top, but that doesn’t mean he will accept mediocrity either.
“We want to always climb higher,” he said. “Sustaining success is the most difficult thing. That’s why we have to keep people motivated and passionate.”