Alum takes the reins as Illinois State athletics director
Larry Lyons ’86 is a sports fan, avid golfer, and an accountant. In other words, he likes to keep score.
So when Lyons rattles off his goals as Illinois State’s new athletics director, he’s quick to reference a 2006 plan called Redbird Renaissance, a $39 million wish list of athletics facilities improvements touted by then-director Sheahon Zenger. Before Lyons can plot his own priority list and find ways to pay for it, he wants to look back and grade Zenger’s. They’ve got the new baseball field, the new tennis complex, the renovated Hancock Stadium, but what did they miss?
“We say we want to do these things. But we need to give ourselves a scorecard, so that we keep accountable to our student-athletes, our coaches, our fans, our donors, and our alumni,” Lyons said.
Lyons took over as athletics director July 1, leading the department after 26 years as one of its most effective role players. Now, the longtime Redbird is plotting his own renaissance, and one that extends beyond facilities. He’s focused on reorganizing his administrative team, bolstering support for his student-athletes, reaching out to student fans, and recruiting and retaining top-notch coaches and staffs.
And Lyons, an Illinois State graduate himself, has a special message for his fellow alumni. He wants them to invest in Illinois State however they can—with their time, talent, or dollars. And for the thousands of alumni who live in Chicago area, the addition of Loyola to the Missouri Valley Conference next year will only increase the Redbird presence in the Windy City.
“I’d ask (alumni) to find some way to give back to the institution that helped them move along in their chosen career paths,” Lyons told STATEside.
Lyons graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Illinois in 1978, but his application to optometry school was rejected twice. Looking to take his life in a new direction, he took a claims adjuster job at a Bloomington insurer and began night classes at Illinois State in accounting.
It was the mid-1980s, when college sports were getting big—big enough that Athletics needed its own numbers guy. So in 1987 they hired Lyons as the first-ever assistant director for business. He didn’t have any higher education work experience, but he was a sports fan—and by then a certified public accountant.
“It was a leap of faith on both parts,” Lyons said. “In 1987 everything turned from orange and blue to red and white, and that was fine.”
Building up experience
He wasn’t just the numbers guy for long. Most recently serving as executive associate athletics director, Lyons oversaw business operations, facilities, external operations such as marketing, human resources, and the Weibring Golf Club, plus oversight of several sports over the years. He’s also directed several major construction projects, including the long-awaited Hancock, and built strong ties with campus by serving on multiple University committees over the years as the main Athletics liaison.
The Pontiac native’s 26 years in Athletics—that’s a lot of nights and weekends—also meant his family was part of the team. He and his wife, Maureen, have two adult children, Matt and Kristin. Matt, M.S. ’10, now works for the Redbirds too, as the assistant athletics director for development.
“It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle,” Larry said.
Lyons liked not being pigeonholed, and he wants to foster that same kind of professional development for his staff, which he says is stacked with “a lot of really good young talent.” Job No. 1 this summer was a reshuffling of administrative roles, required in part by his move to the top job for a three-year term.
Lyons succeeds Gary Friedman, who announced in May he planned to step down after two years on the job. Lyons previously served as interim athletics director between Zenger and Friedman.
“I dubbed this succession planning,” Lyons said. “Then, whoever comes along (after me) won’t have to deal with that. They step into a department that’s efficient, and functioning well, and moving forward.”
Moving forward means setting priorities. Lyons wants to open up the 2006 Redbird Renaissance, grade its progress, and then draft a new one. He expects a new softball complex, lights for the soccer field (so Illinois State can host MVC tournaments), an indoor replacement for Horton Field House, and a team store, Hall of Fame space, and more office space at Redbird Arena to all make that list.
He also wants to continue building stronger ties with students. Last year the Athletics marketing team, which reported to Lyons, added a new position (coordinator of fan experience) charged with engaging students and bolstering the Red Alert section. Their regular meetings with student leaders have already paid dividends, Lyons said, such as last year’s shift for men’s hoops that moved student fans to the “end zones” to increase their impact on the game. And this fall, students will take over half of Hancock’s west-side grandstand, giving them access to improved concessions and other amenities.
This coming year, Athletics hopes to attract even more students by offering free tickets for every sport except men’s basketball and football.
“We have to find ways for a busy student body to give them incentive to be part of the athletic experience here,” Lyons said. “Students are such a big part of game atmosphere.”
Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.