Lyons Sees Path To National Prominence For WVU
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Outside the weather is sizzling, summer trying to make a lasting impression before we turn from swimming pools and iced tea, from hitting balls from rough to rough, to hitting on a football field.
Shane Lyons’ office on the second floor of the Coliseum has the air conditioning cranked up. West Virginia University’s director of athletics sits behind his desk and muses over the questions that were tossed his way a day after the Big 12 Football Media Day concluded and two weeks before the West Virginia basketball team heads for an exhibition tour of Spain.
Like it or not, athletic departments are judged by how their football and basketball teams perform on a consistent basis, and with that, the question posed was just where West Virginia’s athletic department stood in the overall scheme of things. Could it possibly jump up a notch or two?
Anyone who follows sports knows that there is a group considered the elite royalty in the business – Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, Texas, Oklahoma and a few others. These are the prime time performers, the ones who dictate their schedules and TV appearances, who pack in 100,000 football fans.
Others play games, but they play for championships … and Lyons had been asked if WVU could ever make that leap.
“We can be who we want to be,” he answered. “We just can’t ever accept complacency and mediocrity. We have to keep getting better.”
He knows it doesn’t come easily and that you have to earn it.
“I look at our history and look back at the late ‘80 with Coach (Don) Nehlen and the early ‘90s and some with Rich Rodriguez here in football in the 2000s,” he goes on.
He knows what has been done, even if no football or basketball national championship has come WVU’s way.
“Do we have a chance to compete for National Championships? Yes,” he said, answering his own question.
“What we have to change is to believe in that we can get there. Unfortunately, there’s always a lot of naysayers – ‘We can’t do this. We can’t do that.’”
Lyons doesn’t want that from his staff, within the offices at the Coliseum, at Milan Puskar Stadium, at the Basketball Practice Facility.
“When I talked to our staff to start the year two years ago my message was, ‘Why not us? Why not West Virginia?’” he said. “Last year I had a one-word message for everyone to remember … ‘Belief.’ If you don’t believe you can do it, you can’t do it.”
Lyons is not looking for miracles. He’s not looking to wake up in the morning with the trophy cases full of national championships.
“Is it going to happen overnight? The answer is no. We have to invest in our programs. It was interesting yesterday because I read some articles about Nick Saban. They played for the National Championship last year and some of the press said [at Media Day] he was acting like they went 8-5.
“Working with Coach Saban for a number of years at Alabama I saw with him it’s always how can we get better, we have to keep getting better. We have to keep investing in our program. We can’t just stay status quo. If you stay status quo, you can’t get better.”
It has to be a department-wide effort, a university-wide effort, even a statewide effort, Lyons believes.
“We all have to do it together. Yes, I lead this department but we all have to come together to support this program. It’s the financial support, it’s the philanthropic support to help us build, I’ll do what I can do from a budgetary standpoint but we can’t just say we’ll do what we need to do with what we currently have.”
The problem is you really can’t be thinking about your place in national status until you elbow your way to the top of your conference. Playing in the Big 12 there is Oklahoma and Texas, two of the college sports richest programs and two with the deepest pockets.
Lyons kind of shrugs when you bring that up.
“In every conference you kind of have those dynasties. Look at the SEC, you’re talking the Alabamas, the LSUs, the Floridas,” he said. “But I think things are cyclical. Look at Texas. People forget, we’ve beaten them three of the past four years.
“Geographically we may not look like a fit in the Big 12, but we are like institutions in the conference and we fit well,” Lyons continued.
And when you have like institutions, everyone has a chance.
“Lately the Oklahoma States have had great seasons in football. Iowa State has come on. That’s what we’re chasing. We need to get over that hump. We haven’t been fortunate enough to beat Oklahoma.
“We’ve been close. It’s not like we’re getting blown out. It was three points against Oklahoma.”
And, for solace, Lyon could look at Texas Tech, a school that once employed him, to see how you can come to prominence.
Last season Texas Tech’s athletic department won the NCAA Men’s Track and Field National Championship, went to the NCAA Basketball Final before losing to Virginia and went to the College World Series before losing to national runner-up Michigan.
The Red Raiders made the leap WVU wants to make and now are hoping a football coaching change will get them over that hump.
“I was at Texas Tech in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. I saw what they were trying to build then and what they have built. It’s an investment process. It’s continuing to believe and it has paid off for them,” he said.
The same can happen at WVU and Lyons points to the Mountaineers’ women’s soccer program as an example.
“It’s no different than our women’s soccer program. We invested in it, Nikki Izzo-Brown has done a great job, and we were fortunate enough to play for a National Championship a couple of year ago,” he said.
Of course, you need some luck. You need Major Harris to stay healthy and to beat Pitt when you are favored by 28.5 points, but you have to shrug that off.
“We have some disappointing losses, and it’s like all people want to talk about are the disappointing losses rather than the successes we had,” Lyons said. “We had a great, great baseball season, but it seems everyone wants to talk about losing to Texas A&M.
“But the thing is we wouldn’t have been playing there if we were still in Hawley Field. We wouldn’t have the baseball program we have. We invested in the stadium. We invested in baseball, being in probably one of the toughest leagues in college baseball, and we’re competing at a very high level.
“It’s a process. We live in a world of instant gratification. People don’t understand how hard it is to win.”