Extreme Makeover: Pitt unveils ambitious ‘Victory Heights’

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pittsburgh athletic director Heather Lyke believes the Atlantic Coast Conference is the toughest league in the country, both athletically and academically. She think it’s past time that Pitt’s athletic facilities live up to that pedigree. All of them.

Saying the Panthers need to raise their expectations across the board, Lyke unveiled plans for the $250 million “Victory Heights” on Tuesday. The project, which will include a new arena to house Pitt’s gymnastics, volleyball and wrestling programs and a 300-meter indoor track, is a key part of the university’s 30-year master plan.

“We have not performed across the board where we expect to be,” Lyke said of the Panthers, who moved from the Big East to the ACC in fall 2013. “Our job as a leader and my leadership team is to chart the course and make the plan to get there.”

A course Lyke began putting together shortly after she was hired in 2017. She provided a vague outline of what she’d like “Victory Heights” to look like a few months after replacing Steve Pederson. The outline has turned into something far more concrete in her nearly three years on the job. Construction for the 3,500-seat arena and an athletic performance center will begin in summer 2021 and is scheduled to open in fall 2023.

The start of other major projects in the plan — including the eight-lane 300-meter track and space for the school’s marching band — will begin after the arena and performance center are completed.

The facilities will replace aging Fitzgerald Field House, which has served as a multipurpose venue for 70 years. Lyke said the cramped nature of the field house — which often hosts practices in multiple sports simultaneously — was “not an ideal teaching environment for our coaches and student athletes.” Lyke stressed that won’t be the case later this decade.

“When you put great coaches in great facilities they can build and sustain success,” she said.

The facilities will have a direct impact on 16 of the university’s 19 varsity sports. The arena, which will be adjacent to the Petersen Events Center, could potentially allow the school to host NCAA postseason events in sports like gymnastics.

Volleyball coach Dan Fisher, who has built the Panthers into a national power during his tenure, said the new arena will provide a better experience for both athletes and fans. His squad would sometimes warm up at the field house, then walk down the hill to the events center and warm up again.

“For us to have our own practice facility and a competition facility is an absolute game changer,” Fisher said.

One that will come with a hefty price tag. Lyke said the goal is to raise as much money as possible to offset the cost to the university. She said she already lined up 10 donors who have agreed to contribute “six or seven figures” to the project and she expects private financial support to spike now that the plan has crossed over from a possibility into something far more concrete.

Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said donations will provide “a big fraction” of construction costs.

Track coach Alonzo Webb, the longest-tenured coach at the university, said he used to tell recruits for years that the Panthers were planning to finally provide the program with an official home. Time would pass and plans would fall through. Eventually, he stopped mentioning the possibility of new digs to recruits. Those days are over.

“It’s the biggest step by far,” Webb said. “Nothing else is even close.”