Pitt's new wrestling coach faces a mountain of challenges
April 20, 2017 12:00 AM
New Pitt wrestling coach Keith Gavin speaks to the media after a NCAA bid committee press conference at PPG Paints Arena on Wednesday.
By Craig Meyer / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As she alternated between discussing her new employer playing host to the 2019 NCAA Division I wrestling championships and Keith Gavin, her most recent head coaching hire, Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke couldn’t avoid the word “fortuitous.” What other way was there to explain that the new wrestling coach’s first day on the job came one day after the NCAA announcement?
What might feel serendipitous to Lyke was the end result of a calculated process. Gavin’s hiring, interesting as the timing might have been, was no accident. It was what Lyke thought to be a necessary step to tap into the wrestling program’s full and enticing potential.
In two years, Pittsburgh, if even for just three days, will be the center of the college wrestling universe. Lyke hopes, with Gavin in place, the city’s top collegiate program eventually can reach that same status.
“This is a destination wrestling head coaching job,” Lyke said. “I don’t know if we want to call it a sleeping giant, but it has unbelievable potential. This was a job we didn’t want to rush into. We wanted to find the absolute perfect fit for Pitt wrestling. I think we found that.”
For Lyke, the process often was frenzied as she was thrust into an ongoing search when she officially began her job at Pitt March 28. From the time she began, Gavin was a candidate, one she was eager to get to know, not only because of his background with the Panthers as a Pitt graduate in 2008, the same year he won a national championship at his weight class, but because of an impressive resume that included assistant coaching stops at Virginia and Oklahoma.
Back at his alma mater, Gavin will be tasked with rehabilitating a program that was in turmoil much of last season. A tumultuous series of events crescendoed in January with the ouster of former coach Jason Peters after an investigation into an incident involving members of the team at an Evanston, Ill., hotel. With a new coach will come a steadier, stronger sense of leadership and order or at least Pitt hopes so.
“There needs to be a culture of accountability, a culture of discipline and a culture of raising the bar of expectations,” Lyke said. “Student-athletes like structure and love discipline. In fact, I think they do better when you continue to raise the bar because you tend to meet what your expectations are. I think the challenge is to come in and start to build that culture of excellence. I’m very confident coach Gavin knows what that looks like.”
Gavin’s future performance notwithstanding, the program is set up for improvement. Renovations to Fitzgerald Field House are presumably on the table as part of an overall facilities master plan undertaken by former athletic director Scott Barnes. Gavin hopes that plan can go one step further and that Pitt could, one day, construct a regional training center, which would house post-graduate wrestlers training for the Olympics and other competitions. Those same athletes, in compliance with NCAA rules, can work with a program’s current wrestlers, making them de-facto coaches.
“Every top program in the country has one now,” Gavin said. “You can’t really win without one.”
Even without such a facility, Gavin shares Lyke’s vision for what the program can become. Nestled in one of the nation’s most fertile wrestling recruiting regions, the sleeping giant reference is a common one. Now, a former standout at the school who is well-versed in the challenges the program faces will now look to shed that label and turn that potential into something more tangible.
“The wrestling community here is probably the strongest in the country,” Gavin said. “That comes with support, and we have easy access to top recruits. All the things with the wrestling culture here are a big advantage for any coach.”
Lower levels in mix, too
The NCAA’s release of its championship sites from 2019-22 was highlighted locally by four Division I sports — men’s basketball, men’s hockey, women’s volleyball and wrestling — having postseason tournaments in the Pittsburgh area.The bulk of the 22 preliminary rounds and finals in Pittsburgh, the most of any city, take place beyond the Division I level.
The Division II fall festival, an Olympic-style event in which a number of championships are at a single site over several days, will have Clarion and Slippery Rock collaborating as hosts in 2018. The joint bid will utilize Palumbo Center and Rooney Field at Duquesne, as well as Highmark Stadium and Schenley Park. Slippery Rock later will be play host to the Division II men’s and women’s soccer championships in 2019, as well as the men’s and women’s cross country regionals in 2020.
At the Division III level, Saint Vincent will play host to the 2018 women’s volleyball championship at Palumbo Center, Carnegie Mellon will serve as host for the men’s and women’s cross country regionals in 2019 and the championships in 2020, both at Cooper’s Lake in Slippery Rock, and the Presidents’ Athletic Conference will play host to the women’s basketball championship in 2022 at Palumbo Center.
“We’re in a pro sports town with three Division I colleges; we know we get lost sometimes,” PAC commissioner Joe Onderko said. “It would have been easy for [SportsPittsburgh executive director] Jennifer [Hawkins] and the rest of the folks there to concentrate on Division I exclusively, and I don’t think anyone would have begrudged them. They chose not to do that. They really reached out to the folks in Division II and Division III. They were really intent on making this a comprehensive bid.”
Craig Meyer: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG.
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