West Virginia University’s announcement Monday that it was parting ways with Shane Lyons as Director of Athletics and Associate Vice President was a stunner. Speculation in recent weeks had focused on the fate of football coach Neal Brown, but there were no hints that Lyons was on the hot seat.
That changed Saturday when ESPN’s Pete Thamel said on GameDay what we already knew—that Brown’s job is “squarely in flux.” However, then he added the “fate of Athletic Director Shane Lyons is squarely in the cross hairs.”
That is because, according to Thamel, Lyons gave Brown a two-year extension in 2021 that left the University liable for the remaining amount of his contract—at least $16 million—if Brown is fired at the end of this season.
Lyons’ hiring of Brown from Troy in 2019 was praised by those inside and outside the University, but it was his hire and his decision to try to lock Brown in long term. It is important to point out that WVU’s administration approved Brown’s hiring and the extension.*
It is also worth noting that earlier this year, WVU President Gordon Gee gave Lyons an extension on his contract and praised his job performance. One must wonder, if the WVU football team’s record was eight and two or seven and three would Lyons have gotten canned?
So, there is more to this move by WVU.
Gee said in a prepared statement Monday, “I believe this is an opportunity to bring a fresh perspective to our program.” That is a polite way of saying that the college sports landscape has undergone unprecedented upheaval in a short period of time and that Gee does not believe Lyons is the best person to manage athletics during these changes.
More specifically, how will WVU manage name, image and likeness?
Lyons’ background is in rules, compliance and conference administration. Like many athletic directors, he has struggled to define a pathway that keeps his sports teams competitive utilizing NIL, while not losing complete control to those outside the University.
His desire for that oversight may have conflicted with the Country Roads Trust, the NIL collective headed by former WVU Athletic Director Oliver Luck and University donor Ken Kendrick. They wanted Lyons full-throated endorsement of their fund-raising and player payments.
The college sports landscape of the future is wildly unpredictable. Not long ago, the template was to follow the rules, or if you bend or break the rules, don’t get caught. Now there are no rules, which means survival depends upon a new paradigm and figuring out the most effective ways to navigate the chaos.
The new athletic director will need a clear vision on that. He or she also must be prepared to make the most important decision of any athletic director at a Power Five school—who will be the coach of the football team?
Meanwhile, WVU and Mountaineer Nation owe a debt of gratitude to Shane Lyons. He brought professionalism and passion to the job. He skillfully managed the unprecedented pandemic, oversaw significant improvements in facilities and achieved national stature through his roles on Big 12 Conference and NCAA committees.
He has been a loyal Mountaineer.
* (Editor’s note/correction: An earlier version said the WVU Board of Governors approved Brown’s hiring and the contract extension. That was inaccurate. According to WVU, while the BOG was briefed on the decisions, and there were no objections, the board did not vote to approve the contract or the extension.)