Pitt wrestling 'a sleeping giant'
The Pitt wrestling program has a bit of a label.
“It’s always had the perception of a sleeping giant, because of where it’s located geographically. Pittsburgh itself is a really strong high school wrestling area.”
Those are the words of Eric Knopsnyder, the co-operator of PaPowerWrestling.com, a popular website devoted to covering wrestling in the state. Knopsnyder has long been a source for wrestling knowledge in West-Central Pennsylvania. He was also a former wrestler for Pitt.
So how does Pitt lose the identity of being a sleeping giant and become an actual giant? It’s simple really: it comes down to recruiting. Knopsnyder sat down the Panther-Lair.com to discuss where the program was, where it is, and where it is going.
Where it was
The Pitt wrestling program has been going through some lean seasons in recent history. The once-proud program saw the removal of head coach Jason Peters during the 2016-17 season amid controversy.
Newly hired Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke joined the coaching search to replace Peters late in the process, and soon announced the hiring of former Pitt wrestler, Keith Gavin to become the program’s next head coach. At first, Gavin was thought to be a bit of an underwhelming hire, given Pitt’s pursuit to lure some top national candidates for the job like Edinboro's Tim Flynn (now with West Virginia) and Pat Santoro of Lehigh.
In Gavin’s first season at the helm, the Panthers crawled to a 4-11 record and finished 31st out of 40 schools in the team scoring at the NCAA Tournament held in Cleveland.
Part of Pitt’s issues may have stemmed from a bit of a culture problem. Despite sitting in one of the most fertile recruiting areas in the country, the program struggled to attract some of the biggest names to Pitt.
“In year’s past they haven’t gotten those top-name recruits and a lot of times was because of the perception around the program that too many kids were interested in partying and doing other things than really getting to that next level,” Knposnyder said.
“I think that has changed since Coach Gavin has come in, in that they’ve really tried to root out that party mentality.“
One of Pitt’s top recruits for next year’s class is Jared McGill of Chestnut Ridge HS in Bedford County. He cited that sentiment to Knopsnyder following his recent commitment to Pitt.
“He (McGill) was originally committed to Army, so that tells you of the mindset that he has and that you would think he’s a pretty straight-laced kid if he was thinking about going to West Point,” Knopsnyder said. “And that was his comment that everything had really changed (at Pitt) with the coaching position. Coach Gavin came in and it really has a different look and feel now.”
Where it is going
In addition to McGill, who is the nation’s ninth-ranked 182-pound wrestler, Gavin has locked down two more impressive commitments for the 2019 recruiting class. Pitt stayed local to secure the commitment of Ryan Sullivan from Shaler; he is ranked fifth in the 128-pound weight class nationally according to FloWrestling.com.
The Panthers also have a pledge from Austin Cooley, the third-ranked senior at 195 pounds. He is originally from Somerset, Mass., but wrestles for a powerhouse prep school, Wyoming Seminary in the eastern end of the state.
“It’s starting to show in the recruiting process,” Knopsnyder said. “He’s getting these top guys and that there’s hope for the future.”
In 2008, Gavin became Pitt’s 16th individual national champion at 174 pounds - that was also the last time the Panthers had a national champion. So if anyone knows what it takes to be a championship wrestler and knows how to win at Pitt, Gavin may actually be that guy.
His first season did not go as planned, but as with most coaches in a new job, he will need time. Knopsnyder said the mindset and perception around the program are starting to change, even without the results, much in the same way Jeff Capel has given a resurgence to the basketball program.
“It hasn’t shown up in the results yet,” Knopsnyder explained. “Last year wasn’t exactly a year that you look at and say, ‘Wow, I can see where it’s headed’ but again it was just more of the feel around it, that they are doing things the right way.
"Even if the results didn’t show up on the mat last year, you have to give him some leeway and say, ‘I know that these aren’t his kids in the program’ you have to give him time to recruit and get his guys in there and see what they can do.”
In basketball, AAU is part of the fabric of the sport; every big-time recruit typically plays on the travel circuit in the offseason, and that has largely been a big part of the recruiting process. The wrestling equivalent of AAU are wrestling clubs, and the top wrestling club in the country is based in Western Pennsylvania.
Young Guns Wrestling Club is operated by John and Jody Strittmatter. The two were very successful wrestlers at the Division II level for Pitt-Johnstown, and they now run practices and workouts for some of the best wrestlers in Western Pennsylvania.
“They are the No. 1 club in the country," Knopsnyder said. “If you can tap into that, which Pitt hasn’t been able to do in the past, if you can start landing those Young Guns guys, you have a chance to improve your program.”
So how good is the Young Guns program?
“I think if you just put Young Guns kids that were on college teams last year in the NCAA Tournament, they would have finished third in the country,” said Knopsnyder.
Pitt will be looking to turn things around, but it might be a bit of a slow rebuild. The Panthers have a young core, and some good recruits on the horizon, but they still might be a year or two away.
“It’ll be interesting, because they have a lot of guys that haven’t done anything yet collegiately. So there’s guys that have hype around them - like Nino Bonaccorsi is probably the biggest name guy,” Knopsnyder said. "He redshirted last year as a freshman and he’s a guy that really looks like he could do some pretty big things in the coming years.
“You get other guys like Micky Phillippi that transferred in from Virginia who had been recruited by Gavin there and he’s eligible this year now.
“They’re not going to be world-beaters this year. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect them to go win the ACC or compete for high placement at the national tournament, but I think they are starting to put those building blocks in place to where in a few years to where you can say, ‘Yeah, imaybe they can contend for an ACC title.'"
Awaking the Sleeping Giant
The transformation is seemingly under way, but it is still unclear how long it will take to get into the nation’s elite, or if it will ever happen at all. Rival Penn State has stormed from being a good program to a premier program in the country in relatively a short amount of time.
“Penn State wasn’t great until Cael Sanderson got there,” Knopsnyder said. “Once Sanderson got there and basically started out by getting all the really good Pennsylvania guys and now it’s expanded where they can get just about anybody in the country that they want.
“It shows you - he’s originally from Utah and went to Iowa State, left his alma mater to go to Penn State in part because of that recruiting area, knowing at Penn State he should be able to land those top guys much easier.”
So is there room for Pitt to join Penn State in the nation’s elite?
“I had one very highly respected coach tell me: previously the top guys in the area weren’t strongly considering Pitt and now it wouldn’t surprise him if any one of the top guys say they wanted to go to there.
“If you can keep the top guys from within 50-to-100 miles of Pittsburgh, you’ll be a top ten team, assuming you develop them a little bit more at the college level. The talent there would certainly put you in the top ten in the nation.”