While some of West Virginia University’s spring sports are still ongoing, Shane Lyons is winding up his third full year as Mountaineer director of athletics and associate school vice president.
Athletically, WVU’s teams have fared well this school year. The Mountaineer rifle team finished No. 2 in the NCAA championships, the women’s soccer team was ranked No. 7 before falling in the NCAA round of 16, the men’s basketball team made the Big 12 tournament title game and NCAA tournament Sweet 16, the women’s basketball team made the semifinals of the WNIT and the women’s volleyball team went 21-13 and made the National Invitational Volleyball Championship tournament.
Yet there were also trouble spots. Lyons, for instance, fired wrestling coach Sammie Henson after the Mountaineers finished 6-7. Also, there were off-the-field issues, whether at WVU or within the Big 12, with which to tackle.
On Tuesday, the Gazette-Mail interviewed Lyons on all of the above.
G-M: Let’s get right into it. With the calendar school year coming to a close, how did your department do financially in 2017-18?
LYONS: We’re still closing out the books, but financially we’ll end up in the black. We budget conservatively and have put some funds aside in reserve — which we’ve never had the opportunity to do in the past. It looks like we’re in very, very good shape.
Now, this time of year, we’re starting to prepare budgets for next year. Our fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30. We feel we’re in a good spot at this point.
G-M: The football team finished 7-6. Will Grier’s injury obviously played a part in the season-ending downturn. Then this spring there were injuries. What’s your general take on the football program and are there concerns over injuries and attrition?
LYONS: Yeah, I think you’re always concerned about injuries. Unfortunately, it’s just a part of the game. There are some years the injury bug doesn’t bite you. In some it does. Unfortunately, in spring and early-season practices, we’ve had some ACL tears and different injuries. Unfortunately, those injuries will keep players out entire football seasons.
The injury to [quarterback] Will [Grier] in the Texas game kept him out the remainder of last season, but he’s back to full strength. The times I was at practice he threw as good, if not better, than before.
It’s something the coaching staff has to monitor. I think Dana [Holgorsen] does a great job in monitoring the number of contacts and what we’re doing in practices.
Some of the injuries in the past have been in non-contact drills. This year, it was a contact drill that [linebacker] Brendan Ferns got hurt on, but you have to have those [drills]. It’s just a part of the game. Unfortunately, Brendan, a great student, a great student-athlete, has gotten hurt every time he seems healthy. He works as hard, if not harder, than anyone in that weight room.
The attrition part doesn’t [concern] because I know the ins and outs. I’ve had some conversations with those that have decided to look elsewhere and transfer. You do want to keep student-athletes here, but they have their own personal reasons to look elsewhere. You do want to monitor that, though, and see what’s going on. To me, at this point, there isn’t any alarm going off.
G-M: Flipping to the basketball season. Was there any disappointment at all after the men made the Sweet 16?
LYONS: I think we had a dip. I was afraid of that after we climbed to the No. 2 [national ranking]. It was a lot of pressure and we weren’t real deep yet into the Big 12 schedule. I knew it would be a grind there.
We lost several games that dropped us [in the rankings]. But the way we bounced back was good. If you look across the Big 12 you’ll see it’s hard to get a road win. You’re trying to get some of those and then win at home.
Coach [Bob Huggins] has done a great job of continuing to keep this team at a very, very high level, competing at a high level. The NCAA bracket didn’t work out to our liking, but we ran into a very good team in Villanova that went on to win a national championship. They played very well that night.
Proud of the team and how they continued to fight throughout the season. They faced some adversity in late January, but fought through that and came together as a team. There’s a lot to be proud of.
G-M: In regard to the Olympic sports, you made a move by firing head wrestling coach Sammie Henson and on Tuesday hired Tim Flynn. What went into the decision to make a change?
LYONS: The reason for the change is I thought we could do better. These are tough decisions as an athletic director I have to make. I just felt it was time for a new direction for our wrestling program. We can do better and now was the time to make that change.
G-M: On a lighter note, the rifle team finished second in the country. How could you allow such a thing after the program has won so many national titles?
LYONS: [Laughs.] Yeah, Jon Hammond is on the hot seat now. Very disappointed in Jon. No, kidding aside, they got behind that first day. I was on the road with basketball, but I followed from afar. They just couldn’t make up the deficit and were defeated by a good Kentucky team we’d beaten earlier in the year.
You have to be proud of this rifle program. It continues a high level of success, not only on the rifle range, but in the classroom. And we’ll have the opportunity in 2019 to host the national championship in Morgantown. We’re excited about that opportunity.
G-M: Any news in regard to athletic facilities?
LYONS: We’re finalizing some stuff. In fact, we have a meeting this week. Because of the winter weather we’ve had to delay some meetings with our architect firm. But my plan was, by early spring, around this time, to roll out some plans, a facilities master plan, to show what we’re looking at for Olympic sports and the Coliseum and Milan Puskar Stadium areas. At the stadium there’s work on the locker rooms and different things there. Of course, we want to roll [the plans] out for fundraising to show the vision. There are a couple things being done now in the operations area of football. A new training room is being worked on. That will be ready to go in August. And then a training table area is being renovated as well.
G-M: You wrestled with the decision to cancel the Gold-Blue football scrimmage because of projected inclement weather. What feedback have you received on that?
LYONS: Honestly, aside from a couple people, I haven’t had negative feedback. In a perfect world, you could go right up to the date to make that call. But you’re dealing with a lot of logistics. There’s TV and everything that goes into that.
It’s Murphy’s Law. I knew as soon as I canceled it, we wouldn’t have a winter storm. Had I not, we’d have had the 8 inches of snow they were predicting.
I just felt as of Thursday morning the weather wasn’t going to be good, so we pulled the trigger. I know people were disappointed. I saw where Iowa State canceled its game as well.
We talked about injuries. I didn’t want people showing up and have bad conditions and the potential of student-athletes getting hurt.
G-M: A couple Big 12 questions. First, what was your take on the first football championship? Oklahoma did get in the College Football Playoff, but TCU was shut out of a New Year’s Six bowl at least partially because of it.
LYONS: Those are things you have to deal with. As far as the game is concerned, I didn’t attend, but the feedback I got from the conference is it was a great event with great exposure. This year, it will be on Saturday on ESPN. It’s the right thing to do from a conference standpoint.
What you worry about — and we’ve talked about this time and time again — is, yes, we were left out of a New Year’s Six bowl, but sometimes you can play into a CFP game. It’s always rolling the dice, but it’s the right thing to do. We talked and talked about not having a championship and not providing that 13th data point to the [CFP] committee. It was disappointing not to have a team in a New Year’s Six bowl.
G-M: Do you know yet how profitable the NCAA basketball tournament was to the league? Estimates are $32.2 million via 19 “units” earned by Big 12 teams.
LYONS: I don’t know the exact numbers. I think we ended up with 19. And what some people don’t understand is while the ACC had eight teams [in the NCAA tournament] and we had seven, that’s 50 percent of the ACC and 70 percent for the Big 12. Sometimes that’s missing. We had a great year in basketball. We had four in the Sweet 16. It proved Big 12 basketball was strong and we had great representation. That’s what you want.
G-M: Do you see the league revisiting expansion anytime soon?
LYONS: I don’t think anytime soon. We’re still fresh off the heels of talking about it a year ago. Expansion is always on the burner, just not on the front burner.
I think when we get to the early 2020s to the mid-2020s, there will be some discussions and the media will start asking more questions because you’ll have some media rights — the Pac-12, the Big Ten — coming up for renewal. That will stimulate some discussion.
Going back, though, I still firmly believe we did our due diligence going through the process and ended at the right spot by staying at 10 teams. We’re competing at a high level and aren’t disadvantaged by being at 10.
G-M: Lastly, you were named to represent the Big 12 on the Division I council. What will you do in that position?
LYONS: I don’t go on until July 1, when my term begins. It’s to have a voice at the table for the Big 12 and reinsert myself back into the governance structure and the issues that will impact the future of intercollegiate athletics. I look forward to serving in that role and representing the conference.