PITTSBURGH – Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke has only been on the job for a little more than a week, but she’s already facing her first big decision.
While it might not make a huge splash nationwide, Lyke’s choice for the next head wrestling coach will tell us a lot about the direction of the university.
Sources close to the university tell me that four potential candidates are being interviewed this week: Lehigh’s Pat Santoro was in on Tuesday, Edinboro’s Tim Flynn on Wednesday and interim head coaches Drew Headlee and Matt Kocher later in the week.
Headlee and Kocher stepped into the situation under very trying circumstances after Jason Peters was fired in January, and they did an admirable job. Not only were there off-the-mat issues with wrestlers that needed to be addressed, but it came at a time when Kocher’s family was facing a much bigger challenge.
With that being said, I’m not sure either young coach is ready to handle a Division I program in such a prominent position. If Lyke goes in that direction, it will be seen as the cheap way out. Fairly or not Pitt, like many other schools nationwide, has been viewed as a university that puts no emphasis on wrestling. The requirements for the job have seemed to be make sure the wrestlers graduate, don’t get in trouble and get to the NCAA tournament on a regular basis.
Interviewing Santoro or Flynn could signal a change in that strategy. Neither is likely to come cheaply. In fact, Santoro has reportedly told his Lehigh wrestlers that he will not take the position unless Pitt promises to upgrade its facilities as well as a give him a significant raise.
I’m not sure what Santoro is making at Lehigh, but it must be competitive nationally. A quick internet search shows that all the way back in 2008 – before he left Maryland for Lehigh – Santoro was the seventh-highest paid coach in Division I with a salary of $99,866.
If Lyke, who has a reputation for being supportive of the wrestling programs at Eastern Michigan – her previous stop before Pitt – and Ohio State where she was an assistant AD when the Buckeyes hired Tom Ryan, really wants to see the Panthers program thrive, she and the boosters need to step up.
Santoro is the top name being floated as a potential hire – and with good reason. He has done an outstanding job at Lehigh, which makes the rumors that some boosters are trying to push him out utterly ridiculous.
Santoro is still one of the biggest names in Pitt’s long wrestling history. He’s the school’s only four-time All-American and won national titles at 142 pounds in 1988 and 1989.
He’s got plenty of experience in the coaching ranks since leaving Pitt, having served as an assistant coach at Penn State, Duquesne and Lehigh before taking over as Maryland’s head coach, where he was named the ACC’s coach of the year in 2008.
Santoro’s also an excellent recruiter. He faces a difficult situation at Lehigh, which has stringent academic standards and tuition that is nearly three times that of Pitt’s. That means students who aren’t getting a full athletic scholarship, which few wrestlers do, are facing bigger obstacles.
Still, Santoro was able to lure four top-100 wrestlers to the Lehigh Valley in 2016 to give the Mountain Hawks the No. 4 recruiting class in the nation.
Pitt, meanwhile ranked 11th nationally. That’s not bad, but the Panthers were well behind No. 2 Penn State and No. 4 Lehigh in Pennsylvania as well as trailing No. 1 N.C. State in the ACC.
Of the four candidates mentioned, Santoro seems to have the best blend of credentials when it comes to recruiting and the ability to coach those blue chippers once they’re on campus.
Flynn has done a fantastic job at Edinboro, where he’s built the Fighting Scots into a powerhouse without consistently landing highly rated recruiting classes. While that’s an admirable trait, Lyke and the Pitt administration should be looking for someone with a track record when it comes to recruiting. In the heart of the WPIAL and not too far from the Ohio border, Pitt already is one of the most fertile recruiting grounds in the country. Its next coach needs to be able to capitalize on that. Combine that with Santoro’s ties to the Lehigh Valley and New Jersey, and the Panthers could become a national power in no time.