Campbell: Lance White Just Not Right to Turn Around Pitt Women’s Basketball
Pitt women’s basketball head coach Lance White is now gone after five years with the program, as the University announced his firing Friday morning.
With White in charge of the program, Pitt was one of the worst teams in the Power 6 conferences over the past five seasons. He accrued an overall record of 42-99 (.298) and an ACC record of 11-74 (.129) since joining the program prior to the 2018-19 season. This is the worst five year stretch for any head coach in the 49 seasons in program history since it started in 1974-75.
The five years he coached Pitt marks the second worst record amongst all 76 programs in the Power 6 (ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC) during that time. The only program with a worse record is Xavier, who have compiled an overall record of 35-99 (.261) and 10-76 in the Big East (.116).
The Panthers also lost games by large deficits on numerous occasions under White. They lost 15 times by 20 or more points, eight times by more than 30 points, three times by more than 40 points and an 100-44 loss to the No. 2 Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Jan. 3, 2019 to top it all off. That loss to the Fighting Irish is the fourth biggest loss for the Panthers in program history.
White joined Pitt after a successful tenure as associate head coach at Florida State for 15 years under head coach Sue Semrau. During that time, Florida State made the NCAA Tournament 13 of the 14 final seasons he coached there, reaching the Elite Eight three times and the Sweet 16 twice.
He helped coach the offense and defense for the Seminoles and also developed to become one of the best recruiters in the country. He earned the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) National Assistant Coach of the Year for the 2016-17 season.
Pitt Athletic Director Heather Lyke took over in 2017 and made her mark by appointing seven new head coaches across the universities’ programs.
She chose to fire Suzie McConnell-Serio as a part of those changes, then head coach of the women’s’ basketball program. McConnell-Serio, a Pittsburgh legend in women’s basketball, had an overall record of 67-87 and 22-58 in ACC play in five seasons as Pitt head coach.
Bringing in White, Lyke paired him with an experienced and successful associate head coach in Terri Mitchell. Mitchell served as head coach of Marquette for 18 seasons, compiling an overall record of 348-215, a conference record of 151-112 and 14 total postseason appearances.
White struggled in his first year, but without a chance to bring in his own recruits, he worked with the players left from McConnell-Serio and her last recruiting class and did what he could.
The real test came in the years to follow for White, to see if he could recruit the way he did at Florida State and bring a program from the bottom of the conference to contending with the best in the ACC.
His second season with his first ever recruiting class saw the Panthers lose a program record 27 games in 2019-20. The only bright spot of the season came when they upset No. 10 Notre Dame, 67-65 in the First Round of the ACC Tournament, which to some, signaled a successful future despite the poor season.
White continued to bring in recruiting classes with players that listed in the ESPN 100 for their classes. He also brought in guard Jayla Everett from New Mexico, won won Mountain West Freshman of the Year in 2018-19.
Even with the new additions and recruiting classes, the Panthers continued to struggle, especially at shooting the ball.
The Panthers were one of the worst shooting teams in the conference during White’s tenure. They ranked no higher than 12th in the ACC and averaged less than 40% shooting from the field in each of his five seasons.
This proved to be the biggest downfall of White’s time at Pitt. The new players he brought in did bring length, height and other necessary skills to a program that needed to adapt to ACC play, but none of them could shoot the ball consistently well.
Pitt would improve defensively under Mitchell and White’s tutelage, but because shooting the ball proved too large of a task to achieve for many of the players, improvement in the win column continued to evade the program.
White also became notorious for his substitutions and different starting lineups throughout his time as head coach. One example is in the backend of this past season, is his use of platooning, where he would have five different subs come in at one time.
Only six Panthers averaged more than 30 minutes per game a season under White, with no players doing so in his final two seasons as head coach.
This allowed almost all of his team to play in every game, but it stopped teammates building chemistry with each other on both ends on the floor. In reality, it signaled that White did not know his best team or did not know what group of players worked best with each other to get the desired result.
Everett also was the only solid addition to Pitt from the transfer portal under White. Her addition to the program should’ve played a part in making Pitt a winning team again, but instead, White couldn’t get her to work well with guard Dayshanette Harris, as he never designated a proper, primary ball-handler. White would dismiss Everett from the program towards the end of the 2021-22 season.
The additions from his recruiting classes also struggled in certain aspects of the game that made them easy to exploit. This could be mid-range shooting, dribbling the ball, dealing with defensive pressure, etc.
While non-conference teams didn’t have the players to stop Pitt, ACC teams did. This allowed opponents to find different ways to defeat Pitt and cater a playing style to their players to achieve that.
ACC teams, in the 2021-22 season, realized that Pitt had success attacking the paint, but were poor from mid-range and especially behind the arc, as they shot 29.2%. Instead of playing a typical man-to-man defense, they would generally use a 2-3 zone to force longer shots and prevent Pitt players from driving to the rim for a layup.
The players White brought in also never developed to become true, solid ACC players. Honestly, most of them hardly developed at all. The deficiencies in individual players’ abilities at Pitt never seriously improved and it showed in the lack of wins throughout his tenure.
That is the biggest indictment on White throughout his time with the program. Lyke chose to go with a young, unproven assistant who had experience recruiting and coaching as an assistant in the ACC. White would bring in the players needed and Mitchell would help coach them into solid players over the years and the wins would come along too.
Instead, Pitt stagnated and is still in the same position it was when Lyke fired McConnell-Serio after the 2017-18 season, at the bottom of the ACC. Lyke found herself with no choice other than to make White the first head coach that she fired that she originally hired.
White brought a change in culture to the program by providing a sense of joy and happiness with how he coached his players and spoke to the media. He never backed down from questions by reporters and defended his team’s ability to grow, even in the face of some terrible losses.
His unwavering support for his team, did start to fade towards the end of the season. After an 85-55 blowout loss in his final home game as head coach on Feb. 19, White declared the game, “a terrible loss” and “one of the worst games I’ve seen us play ever” in the post game press conference.
Sophomore forward Maliyah Johnson, who was next to White at the press conference following the loss, signaled that her teammates were “giving up” later on in the season
“I feel like everyone is getting so comfortable with the fact that the season is almost over and being that we didn’t do very well in the ACC, I feel like everybody is trying to let go already…and just don’t want to play anymore,” Johnson said. “Just waiting for the season to be over.”
What Johnson said after the Syracuse loss exemplifies that White lost the locker room and players did not have good reception to his coaching. His firing, which if anyone questioned prior, became inevitable after that press conference.
Overall, White’s inability to recruit and adapt to find players in the transfer portal proved his undoing. Pitt hired White on his success in recruiting ACC players, and he just did not sign players good enough or find solid transfers to compete in the conference.
Firing White is the right decision in the end, but an easy one overall. The hard one going forward for Lyke and Pitt is who has the ability to change this program around from the bottom of the ACC to an actual contender?