LION-HEARTED: Frances Lyons is enjoying herself as she acclimates to the campus at Stuart Country Day School. Last month, Lyons took over as the new director of athletics at Stuart, succeeding Justin Leith, who is now serving as the AD at the Bullis School in Maryland. Lyons comes to Stuart from The Brearley School in New York City where she was the associate AD. (Photo provided courtesy of Stuart Country Day School)
By Bill Alden
After producing a superb senior season for the Brooklyn College women’s basketball team in 2009-10, Frances Lyons was looking to play pro ball overseas.
But when potential opportunities in Poland and Puerto Rico fell through, Lyons decided to take another path.
“I kept training and signed with an agent,” said Lyons. “But if I was not going to go in normally and know that something is guaranteed, I would rather just stop and go into what I wanted to do which is coaching and teaching.”
Lyons, a Brooklyn native who was an All-New York City performer for James Madison High, started substitute teaching in New York City schools and got a job coaching basketball with the Asphalt Green program, a nonprofit sports, swim, and fitness organization in the city.
While working with Asphalt Green, she also started coaching middle school hoops at The Chapin School, an all-girls school in New York City.
Having taken on some administrative duties at Asphalt Green, Lyons went to The Brearley School, another all-girls school in NYC in 2019, where she served as the associate director of athletics.
Last month, Lyons came south to New Jersey, becoming the director of athletics at Stuart Country Day School, succeeding Justin Leith, who is now serving as the AD at the Bullis School in Maryland.
Lyons found a natural fit at the all-girls environment of Stuart.
“There needs to be a sanctuary for girls,” said Lyons, 34. “I knew that is what type of school I wanted to be at. I want the girls to know that this place is for you, you are not competing with anybody. You have the space, the facilities are here for you, the support is here for you and it is here for you to develop as an athlete. That was important for me.”
It was two guys, though, Lyons’ older brother and father, who got her into sports.
“My brother was a big football player; he was always around sport and since I am the baby, I wanted to be around him,” said the affable Lyons with a laugh. “I would see him playing so I just picked it up. Sports came naturally. My father was a big time baseball player in Brooklyn as well. My mom thought I wanted to put on dresses and play with dolls but I said no, I want to go with them.”
Under the influence of her brother and father, Lyons ultimately directed her energies to the basketball court.
“I don’t get into organized basketball until I was about 11, that is when I started playing travel,” said Lyons. “I just started getting better, I started training with my uncle and dad. I ended up going to an AAU team in Harlem. Basketball was every day and I loved every minute of it.”
Growing to 5’10, Lyns enjoyed a stellar career for the James Madison girls’ hoops program where she was First-Team All-City performer as a junior and senior.
“I was a forward because of what we had on the team,” said Lyons. “I am a small forward, I like to shoot the ball but I also like to get in there in the post and rebound. The highlight was the retirement of my jersey number, it is a big thing.”
After high school, Lyons headed to Monroe Community College where she helped it win the Division I National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) national championship in 2006 and finish seventh the next season. Lyons then joined Hofstra’s Division I program but things didn’t work out and she took a break from the game.
Lyons then came home to Brooklyn College, intending to focus on academics and not play for its hoops team. But after playing some pickup games with team members, she got the bug to come back to hoops and joined the squad. She made the most of her one year with the program, averaging 15.9 points and 9.5 rebounds per game and earning 2010 All-Metropolitan Division III Third Team honors.
“I went to the coach and said, ‘I think I am ready’ and he was like, “Are you sure, there is no pressure,’” said Lyons, who helped Brooklyn to a CUNY Athletic Conference (CUNYAC) South Division Championship and a second straight appearance in the ECAC Division III Metro Tournament.
“We would love to have you and then I fell in love with it. I got back into it, I started training again. I was helping Brooklyn College build their program, now they are kind of a powerhouse, winning championships.”
After deciding not to pursue a career in pro ball, Lyons began coaching middle schoolers at Asphalt Green and with The Chapin School while also working as a substitute teacher.
“It became natural to teach; that is where I fell in love with the development of the player,” said Lyons. “Once you got to the level where you know you are good and you can play, I then passed that on. My focus came around with the development of the player as a whole in different aspects mentally, physically and giving them that confidence. That is where my strength came in. I saw it for myself because I actually had to do it myself.”
Diversifying her involvement in athletics, Lyons started getting into the administrative end.
“At Asphalt Green, I ended up taking a position in community programs,” said Lyons. “I would run sports leagues in underserved communities in the Harlem area, that is when the administrative side came in. I was running leagues in flag football, soccer, and basketball.”
Lyons decided that she wanted to change her career path to focus on athletic administration.
“The director of athletics at Brearley reached out to me and asked me if I would be interested in running their field house and being their JV basketball coach and coach the middle school girls volleyball,” said Lyons.
“I said absolutely, this is what I want to do. I had the opportunity to learn from her. I jumped from field house manager to associate director of athletics. I was running all of the operations of athletics, from the hiring of coaches, posting jobs, scheduling all of the games and all of the practices and the transportation. I was involved in every aspect of athletics. I started going to the national athletic directors conferences. It is great networking, I met so many new people.”
At the point, Lyons decided that she was ready to head a program.
“Once I hit my third year at Brearley, I knew it was time,” said Lyons. “I am trained, I feel good, I feel confident and I knew that type of school, I wanted to be at. No matter what, I wanted … to be at an all-girls school.”
Looking at opportunities, Lyons learned that Stuart was looking for a new AD and she did some research.
“I went on the school website, and I said this is fantastic,” said Lyons. “You could see the care they have for athletics. They are into it and it is all girls. After that, I see the facilities and the manicured field that they have for themselves, the other fields that they have in the back and the two field houses.”
Duly impressed, Lyons put her hat into the ring and applied for the job. After a Zoom meeting, she had an on-campus interview this spring.
“Coming up to it and I make that turn, I see that field and am thinking this is amazing,” said Lyons. “Then I come in and everybody is so nice and welcoming. It was a day of interviewing. I am meeting parents, people from diversity and admissions At some point in the interview, I got to meet some girls and I am like they are way more into sports than they are at Brearley. The questions they had for me showed that they knew that they wanted someone in here who was going to care for the program, care for them, give them support, and was going to go to bat for them. The questions that they had were just great. I had to prove myself to them, it was fantastic.”
Apparently proving herself, Lyons didn’t have to wait long to learn how the interview went.
“I was just like wow — I felt it was good, I felt at home,” said Lyons. “I felt that this was place where I could see myself for a long time and a place I can build. They called me that night and offered me the job. I said, ‘yeah, this is it.’ I had the same feeling when I went to Brearley and saw their school. You know, there is just something there in the gut that you know it is right. When I heard, I was ecstatic.”
As she takes the helm of the program, Lyons is looking to continue the progress Leith made in getting the school’s athletes to take a more serious approach to sports.
“I want to continue a lot of things Justin was doing, building the culture,” said Lyons. “It is OK to win and be at an all-girls school and want to be a powerhouse. When people are looking at the school, I want them to go to Stuart because all of their facilities go to girls, they are a powerhouse, they take it seriously, they are competitive, they empower each other and they are committed to what they are doing. That is the vision that I want to continue to put out there.”
Working with school’s coaching staff is at the top of Lyons’ to-do list.
“I am starting to really hone in on our coaching development, getting to know the coaches and letting them know that I am here for them,” said Lyons. “I want to be giving them the support that they need but also work on the professional development with them and what do they need to feel better and make them feel more connected with our students.”
Noting that Stuart is sending athletes to college programs on an annual basis, Lyons is looking to help with the recruiting process.
“With my background, I have the strength on that side and can give parents that support,” said Lyons. “I can let them know what college coaches are looking for and what the process is. We are strong on the academic side which is great but then there is another side. It is what are you doing this summer, what camps are you attending, and who are you playing for during that offseason. All those things count for getting recognized.”
Lyons is determined to get Stuart more recognition as it looks to expand its enrollment and athletics.
“Stuart is committed as a school to getting that enrollment up, that is us really promoting our school, getting the word out there,” said Lyons, noting that Stuart is considering adding soccer and softball programs at some point.
“It is me getting out there, going to tournaments and introducing myself. I want them to know what we offer here. There is that competition among schools. It is really showing off our facility and letting girls know, you have your space. That is what I want people to know about our athletics program and our culture. All of this is for you, you can develop as an athlete, you can develop as a person and develop as a leader and see where sports can take you as a woman.”
While sports has certainly taken Lyons to many places, it looks like she has found a home at Stuart.