Keith Gavin Ready to Begin 'Dream Job' at Pitt

Keith Gavin saw what was being written about the head coach position at Pitt.

He heard his alma mater being called cheap and that Pitt’s administration wasn’t committed to the program. He watched as an established head coach back away from the opportunity. Then another. And another.

Eventually, Pitt decided to give Gavin his first opportunity to be a head coach.

And he couldn’t be happier about it.

“It’s awesome. It’s a dream job for me for sure,” Gavin said during a half-hour long telephone interview from Oklahoma, where he was packing up to return to his Pennsylvania roots on Friday.

Gavin’s hire was officially announced Friday morning, although PA Power Wrestling had broken the news on Thursday afternoon, before new Pitt Athletic Director Heather Lyke had told team members about the hire.

“We are thrilled to announce Keith Gavin as the new head coach of the University of Pittsburgh wrestling program,” Lyke said in a news release. “He has an exceptional wrestling pedigree and is one of the top dynamic coaches in the wrestling profession. His passion and commitment to Pitt wrestling will enable our program to build on its rich tradition on and off the mat. We look forward to Coach Gavin leading our program to the ACC Championships as well as continued success on the national stage.”

“For me, I’m pretty passionate about Pitt wrestling,” he said. “It’s not like I’m leaving something I already (built). To have the opportunity to (build a program) at my alma mater is pretty special.”

Pitt’s puzzling process

Lyke has been the subject of much speculation in the wrestling community. She has been on the job for less than a month, and this hire is her first true test. She joined the Panthers shortly after the NCAA Tournament, and had a chance to land Lehigh head coach Pat Santoro, who was a two-time national champion at Pitt. Santoro opted to stay with the Mountain Hawks. Shortly thereafter, Tim Flynn – a second candidate recommended by a search committee – said that he was staying at Edinboro.

In addition to Matt Kocher and Drew Headlee – who were assistants under Jason Peters but took over as co-head coaches when Pitt dismissed Peters in January – Lyke also interviewed former Army head coach Joe Heskett and South Dakota State head coach Chris Bono.

It wasn’t until Bono declined Pitt’s offer that Gavin was hired.

Gavin, who spent two years as an assistant at Virginia and one at Oklahoma, isn’t worried that he might not have been Pitt’s first choice.

“I don’t see it as a negative at all,” he said, although he did admit to being frustrated when he saw what he said was inaccurate information being spread about hiring process. “They were talking to some really accomplished coaches. I’ve talked to those guys after that have turned it down. They all have good things to say about the commitment level. It was never a concern. I think people underestimate how difficult it is to take a head coach that has established something and ask him to start over.”

That’s not a concern for Gavin.

“For me, I’m pretty passionate about Pitt wrestling,” he said. “It’s not like I’m leaving something I already (built). To have the opportunity to (build a program) at my alma mater is pretty special.”

Gavin is confident that Pitt is in a position to succeed.

“The commitment level is definitely there,” he said. “It’s better than it has ever been. It’s exciting. I’m excited to work for Heather Lyke. I know a lot of people in the wrestling community and a lot of people that I respect have a great deal of respect for her.”

Choosing a staff

Gavin will be returning to Pittsburgh next week, and his first order of business will be to put together a coaching staff. Sources told PA Power Wrestling that Pitt’s administration wants to “clean house” and start anew after the program experienced off-the-mat problems under Peters.

Gavin said that is not true.

“I’m just encouraged to find the best people that I can,” Gavin said. “There’s no restrictions. I’ve been talking to a few guys.”

Although he knows Kocher, Headlee and volunteer assistant Tyler Nauman well from his days as a Panther, Gavin said he wouldn’t hesitate to go outside of the program if he thinks it’s in Pitt’s best interest.

“Its difficult and then it’s not,” he said. “I haven’t had conversations with those guys yet, so I don’t want to speak out of turn. I have to find out where they stand and what they want to do.

“You’re trying to change the culture, move it in a different direction,” Gavin said. “I think everybody understands that. That’s not to say I’m not going to keep somebody on staff.”

“I’m trying to figure that out now. I wish I could give you a definite answer,” he said.

Club life

Another big priority for Gavin is mending some fences in and around the Pittsburgh area. The Pittsburgh Wrestling Club has, at times, competed against local clubs such as Quest and Young Guns at national events.

“I want to get away from that,” Gavin said. “I’m going to reach out to some guys that run clubs to see how can we mend these relationships. I don’t want to be in the club business.”

Even though the No. 1 club in the nation is in its backyard, Pitt has routinely lost out on the top western Pennsylvania recruits from Young Guns. In addition to Big Ten powers Penn State and Iowa, Young Guns wrestlers dot the rosters of Virginia and Virginia Tech – Pitt’s rivals in the ACC. That likely will need to change if the Panthers are going to grow into a power program under Gavin.

“That’s going to be a big focus for us is locking down that area,” he said. “I think the teams that do well have a lot of guys from their home area.”

Gavin has already shown his ability to recruit the Pittsburgh area. He recruited North Allegheny’s Jake Woodley, Pennsylvania’s #7 recruit in the 2017 class, to Oklahoma. While Gavin was at Virginia, the Cavaliers landed Derry Area’s Micky Phillippi (#4 in 2016) and Hempfield Area’s Sam Krivus (#2 in 2015).

While his Pennsylvania roots – he was a state medalist for Lackawanna Trail High School his senior year – and at Pitt, where he won a national title at 174 pounds in 2008 and was a runner-up in 2007, are important to recruiting the Keystone State, so is his experience at Virginia and Oklahoma.

“It really is extremely valuable,” Gavin said. “Every place has its advantages and disadvantages. You learn to use those when you’re recruiting. Virginia has different advantages than Oklahoma. The way they do scholarships is different. If I had just stayed at one place, you wouldn’t see the different ways of doing things.”

“He loves Pittsburgh and he will be a great addition for Pitt’s program.”

RTC is key

Gavin didn’t necessarily want to leave Pitt after he graduated. In fact, he stuck around for a season as a graduate assistant, but he quickly realized that he couldn’t achieve his goals of wrestling for world and Olympic medals while coaching at Pitt.

“I’d be over in Russia when the team had a dual meet. It wasn’t fair to them,” he said.

And, since Pitt didn’t have a Regional Training Center, he couldn’t get the kind of competition that he needed to have an impact on the international scene.

Instead, he left for the Lehigh Valley Athletic Club in Bethlehem, where he got to know Santoro. In 2012, Gavin’s wife, Carrie, got a job offer in Columbus, Ohio, which prompted him to join the Ohio Regional Training Center, where he wrestled under Lou Roselli.

Prior to moving to Columbus, Gavin said he routinely would make the three-hour drive from Pittsburgh to work out there.

He doesn’t want elite-level wrestlers in the Pittsburgh to have to do that in the future. Instead, Gavin will concentrate on building an RTC in the Steel City. Pitt is certified to be a regional training center, but Gavin said that having top-notch wrestlers competing there is critical to his program’s success.

“You’ve got to have one nowadays. Just having it registered isn’t enough. We need to have someone and each year add to our roster,” he said. “It’s essential in building our program. I saw that firsthand at Ohio State. Anyone there will tell you that’s a big reason they won a national title.”

Gavin plans to use the lessons he learned in Ohio as he returns to the Keystone State.

“I learned a ton about how to build a program,” he said. “I learned the importance of surrounding yourself with good people. My experience there was pretty invaluable.”

It also cemented his relationship with Roselli, who tapped Gavin to be his assistant when he was named head coach at Oklahoma last summer.

“We loved having Keith here at OU,” Rosselli said in a story on the Sooners website. “He did a great job here and will be missed. He loves Pittsburgh, and he will be a great addition for Pitt’s program.”

“I think it will happen quicker than some people think, but nonetheless it will take some time.”

‘There’s really no limit’

While many see Pitt as a sleeping giant in the wrestling world because of its proximity to wrestling hotbeds in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, questions about the university’s dated facilities at Fitzgerald Field House have led some to question if top recruits will ever pick the Panthers.

Gavin expects the administration to address those concerns.

“There’s no question that the facilities need to be upgraded,” he said. “There are plans to do that. That stuff takes time. I think they’re planning on renovating the Field House at some point. It’s not just Pitt wrestling. They’re going to try to upgrade the track program.

“As you know, college wrestling is kind of like an arms race,” he said. “Everybody’s trying to get the nicest facility, the newest facility. It matters, but at the same time it doesn’t. You could throw a mat in the backyard and get better. (But) that is going to be a focus, to get that done, to make it a place to get better.”

While there was a certain amount of negativity surrounding the coaching search and questions about Pitt’s commitment to the program, it also showed that there are people who are passionate about the Panthers and there is a market that his program can tap into.

“I think there are people out there that will support it,” he said. “If you go to the Pittsburgh Wrestling Classic, it’s packed. Ideally, that’s what our dual meets should look. I think its easy to jump on the negativity train. Pitt wrestling fans need to believe and have faith and be positive. I think it will happen quicker than some people think, but nonetheless it will take some time.”

Gavin’s not ready to make any brash predictions about where the Panthers will be in five years.

“It’s tough to say. Obviously everybody knows the potential of the program,” he said. “It’s in a hotbed, recruiting-wise, and there are some talented kids there already. The focus is going to be on improving daily. I’m not going to say we’re going to be ACC champs and Top 10 in this many years. That can be detrimental. We’re going to focus on what we can control. If we put our focus on the process and what we do day in and day out, I think we’ll be happy with our product.

“There’s really no limit to what we can do at Pitt,” he said. “Obviously it’s not going to happen overnight. We’re going to start placing value on the things that matter and the end result will take care of itself.”

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