Friday morning, Pitt Director of Athletics Heather Lyke announced the hiring of Keith Gavin as the head coach of the Pitt wrestling program. Gavin is no stranger to the University of Pittsburgh. The native of Factoryville, PA graduated from Pitt in 2008 where he won an NCAA championship at 174 pounds. He was named an All-American twice and his 120 career wins rank eighth in program history.
Gavin steps into his first head coaching role after spending last season as an assistant coach at Oklahoma University. He spent three years as an assistant at the University of Virginia where he helped the Cavaliers win the 2015 ACC championship.
Gavin is a two-time EWL (Eastern Wrestling League) champion, two-time EWL Wrestler of the Year and is a member of the EWL Hall of Fame. He was a member of the U.S. national team for more than six years, finishing third at the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials.
Gavin takes over a historic Pitt wrestling program that has produced 76 All-Americans and 16 national champions but saw the Panthers finish the 2016-17 season at 11-5 and out of the top 25 of the USA Today/NWCA Coaches Poll. Pitt went 2-3 against ACC opponents this season, but posted a third-place finish at the ACC Championship, which was highlighted by three individual champions, the most since the 2014-15 season.
Pittsburgh Sports Now spoke with Keith Gavin Friday afternoon.
How does it feel to come back and become the new face of Pitt wrestling? How does it feel to be leading your alma mater?
It’s an amazing opportunity for sure. It’s a dream job for me. I’m incredibly excited and grateful for the opportunity. My wife’s family is from Pittsburgh. My family is from Northeast PA so, you know, on a personal level too it’s big for me.
What are your goals for the Pitt wrestling program?
We are going to focus on just improving. I think that there’s a lot of talent in the area for wrestling and there’s talented kids on the team right now. Recruiting should go well. We’ve got talent on the team right now. It’s a young team so, you know, it might take some, there’s going to be some bumps in the road. We’re going to focus on making incremental improvements. If we can do that then who knows what the limit is. I’m not going to go ahead and say I want to do this and accomplish that because when you put those things out there you’re starting to focus on the wrong thing. You’re focusing on the end result instead of the whole process. My whole thing is to get these guys to value the work and enjoy the process of getting better at wrestling. If we do that then we will be very happy with where we end up.
There has been talk regarding upgrading the wrestling facilities at Pitt. During your negotiations with new athletic director Heather Lyke were facilities discussed?
Yes. We talked a little bit about it. I think there are plans to upgrade the facilities for wrestling. I think that the plans are to make upgrades to the entire Fitzgerald Field House. Obviously that stuff takes time. You know, they didn’t say that it’s going to happen at this point or anything but I know it’s been talked about and there are plans in the works to eventually get that done.
This will be your first head coaching opportunity. Talk about the transition from an assistant coach to a head coach. Do you believe your past experiences have you prepared to lead the Pitt wrestling program?
Yes. I think so. I mean, I’ve had some pretty unique experiences in wrestling. I wrestled internationally for a while and I’ve been all over the world. You know, my knowledge of the sport, I’ve got a lot of experience in that area I guess you could say. And then the rest of it, recruiting and managing and leading the program, that comes from good decision making, sound judgements, things like that. Those are things I have a lot of confidence in myself in. So yes, I know there’s a lot of work to do but that excites me. It doesn’t intimidate me. I’m looking forward to it.
You will soon be filling out your staff. Do you already have a number of assistant coaches in mind? What characteristics do you want your coaches to have?
Yes. The wrestling community is a pretty small community so yes, I certainly know a lot of people that are ready, that would be good fits. You know, it’s just kind of finding what works and who the right guy is. But as far as characteristics go and what I’m looking for, I’m just looking for somebody who shares the same vision that I do and views the sport the way that I do. I want somebody that’s going to be in it to serve the student athletes rather than make it about themselves. I think that that’s a pretty key role in a coach. Like I said, I know a lot of great people in the sport. I’ve been fortunate enough to be around some pretty special people. I’m hoping to put together a nice staff.
Recruiting, like any other sport, if the life blood of a program. In addition to Western Pennsylvania, what geographic areas will you be attacking on the recruiting trail?
Pittsburgh is in a nice location because Western Pennsylvania, in particular, has a lot of depth as far as wrestling goes. The whole state of Pennsylvania is a great wrestling state but Western Pennsylvania, in particular, has plenty of good wrestlers. And then also, Northeast Ohio, around the Cleveland area is, a lot of great wrestlers come from there too. We don’t have to look too far to find good wrestlers. I mean, that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to get kids from all over, you know, if you’re good, you’re good. We will find you and recruit you, for sure.
What I bring to the table with recruiting is I have strong ties to the area. I know a lot of people in that area already from being there and spending a lot of time in Pittsburgh. I think that recruiting is all about building relationships and when the prospect trusts you and the parents trust you with their son, it’s a good thing. I think that I have the ability to do that, to build the relationship. I’ll put the time in to do that and make sure that the guy that we are recruiting is the right fit for us and we are the right fit for him, make it work that way.
You mentioned wrestling is a small community. Are you relatively connected to the high school wrestling coaches in the Pittsburgh area?
Yes. I know a lot of the high school wrestling coaches in the area, some pro coaches. Yeah, I know quite a few people in the area.
Who are your mentors? Who has molded you in the wrestler and coach that you are today?
I’ve been fortunate enough to be around a lot of great people and some of the best in the business when it comes to wrestling. Lou Rosselli who is the head coach right now at Oklahoma. He was my coach when I was wrestling internationally. He’s been a huge influence on my wrestling and in my life. Tom Ryan, the head coach at Ohio State, has also been really great to me. I was there wrestling for the high regional training center and Tom is an incredible coach and a great person as well. So those two guys. Pat Santoro the head coach at Lehigh has been a mentor for me since I was in college. I mean, he’s a guy that I’ll call up, ask any question, somebody you can trust and will always give you great advice.
You know, those couple guys in the last few years have been instrumental in my wrestling, my coaching and life in general. And like I said, growing up from the time I started this sport, to high school, to college, to international wrestling, I have consistently been around great people. So there’s a list full of people who have influenced me and mentored me.
What do you like about wrestling? What does the sport mean to you?
Well, wrestling is, to me, it’s a lot of fun. I think that it’s really hard. Anybody that you ask about wrestling talks about how physically demanding it is and how difficult it is, and it is. But I also think that that’s what makes it so enjoyable and so rewarding is because when you’re able to overcome obstacles and do things like that it’s a very rewarding experience. Wrestling’s a lot of fun for me and I try to bring that to the guys I coach is, sometimes we get caught up and have a very tough guy, macho imagine, and I think that a lot of that is deserved.
Sometimes you get caught up in that and forget the fact that you probably started doing this because you enjoyed it. Focusing on enjoying it and enjoying the process, that’s what it means to me. I’m very grateful to be able to be at this point in my life and still doing something that I love. Again, that goes back to focusing on the right things and something I’m going to tell my guys is be grateful for this opportunity that you have. It goes by quick and not everybody gets a chance to do something that they enjoy for as long as they will be able to.
You are one of Heather Lyke’s first hires at Pitt. What was your impressions of her during the interviewing process?
I’m really excited to work for her. She has a great reputation from the people that I know that know her, have a lot of respect for her. She is an incredible worker, has an amazing work ethic. When we talked and when we met, she has big visions and she wants to do big things at Pitt and it’s exciting.
Harry Psaros can be found on Twitter at @PittGuru