Q&A: Gavin prepares for first head coaching gig


Tony Rotundo

Keith Gavin beat Michigan's Steve Luke to win the 174-pound national championship in 2008. (Photo Courtesy of Pitt Athletics)

By Steve Rotstein / Senior Staff Writer

The Pitt wrestling team’s 2016-17 season had a little bit of everything — off-the-mat incidents, suspicious absences, dismissals, a coaching change and even three individual ACC champions.
While the program was far from being in dire straits, it was in desperate need of stability. Newly-appointed Athletic Director Heather Lyke made sure her first big move was to provide that stability, hiring the Panthers’ most recent national champion wrestler Keith Gavin as the team’s new head coach April 14.

There’s still a couple months to go before Gavin, a 2008 Pitt graduate, and the new-look Panthers take the mat for the start of the 2017-18 season, but that doesn’t mean the first-time head coach has just been passing the time. Gavin has solidified his staff, bringing in another former national champion, Jordan Leen, as one of his assistant coaches, and he’s already secured a pair of high-profile transfers in his first few months on the job.

The Pitt News met with Gavin to discuss the team’s new additions, his first taste of being a head coach and what needs to be done to prevent last season’s mistakes from happening again.


The Pitt News: It’s been a few months since you got hired. Has it fully sunk in yet that this is your program now?

Keith Gavin: I don’t know … we’ve been really busy. There’s been a lot to do, so I don’t know if that has sunk in yet. I’ve been really focused on hitting the ground running and trying to get better, and that’s where our focus is. Obviously when I first got here, I had to get a staff together, and once we were able to do that, then we were able to start recruiting and do those kind of things.

TPN: Have you felt overwhelmed at all by the pressures of taking over as a first-time head coach?

Gavin: No, I haven’t … I had a pretty good idea what I was getting into. Being an alum, I followed the program pretty closely. I know some of the guys on the team, I knew the previous staff, so I had a pretty good handle on what I was getting into and what needed to be done.

TPN: How would you describe your first few months on the job?

Gavin: There’s been a lot of work to do, and we’ve been trying to get after it. The attack plan is pretty simple. We’re going to secure the top prospects that we can, and then we’re going to pour a lot of time into the guys that are currently on the team. We’ve been working on both ends there. We have a lot of guys here, taking summer classes or some have internships … there’s a lot of local guys too, so pretty much everybody that’s on the team has been here all summer. So we’ve gotten to spend a lot of time, and that was another pretty important piece of it.

TPN: How much practice have you been able to get in with the team?

Gavin: We have open room twice a week, and then we have our Regional Training Center practice twice a week. So a lot of our guys are in there four days a week. We brought a bunch of guys to the University Freestyle Nationals which were in Akron, Ohio. Taleb Rahmani wrestled in the Junior Nationals, which is 20-and-under, and also the Junior World Team Trials, too. So we had a couple competitions and the guys have been in the room as much as they’re allowed to.

TPN: You decided to keep Drew Headlee on staff as one of your assistant coaches, and brought in Virginia’s Associate Head Coach Jordan Leen as your other assistant. What went into the decision to hire Jordan?

Gavin: Jordan and I worked together for a couple years at Virginia. He does a great job at his job. He’s a hard worker, very committed to being good at his job. Together, we got some good recruits down to Virginia. A lot of them from this area, too. That was a big thing for me is that Jordan has a lot of ties to this area, because he would come up and do clinics and did a lot of recruiting here.

TPN: What did you say to convince him to leave another ACC school for Pitt?

Gavin: I think that he was at Virginia for six years, so I think that he was excited for a change. He understands, like a lot of the wrestling community understands, that Pitt is a place that has a ton of potential. So he’s excited about that. And we have a good relationship, we became good friends down in Virginia, so I think the idea of us working together again, he liked that idea as well.

TPN: You and Drew knew each other as well from your time here. Was he excited when you asked him to stick around as part of your staff?

Gavin: Yeah, when I got here I definitely wanted to be able to keep somebody that was here. I think that helps with the transition … when I got the job I had people calling me, saying, “You’ve got to keep Drew.” Parents of the kids on the team, the guys on the team … he had a ton of support. It was obvious to me that he’s been doing a good job.

TPN: Along with choosing a coaching staff, you’ve already made a couple of big splashes by adding former Pennsylvania state champions Kellan Stout and Micky Phillippi as transfers from Penn State and Virginia, respectively. How were you able to pry those guys away from rival schools?

Gavin: Well Kellan’s dad, Bryan, was the volunteer assistant when I was here. He would come in when he could, he had another job, but still he was a great wrestler in his own right, so he had influence on our team … having that relationship has helped out. We’re in a situation now with the transition at Pitt, a lot of the kids that we’re recruiting, this is their first time meeting us.

So we’re telling them, “Here’s what we’re going to do.” And it all sounds great, but they want to know, is this all talk or are you guys really going to do this? I think we’ve had success with these transfers because we already knew these guys. I’ve known the Stouts for a while, and Jordan and I both recruited Micky Phillippi down to Virginia. So he knows that what we’re saying is what we’re going to do, and same thing with Kellan.

TPN: Pitt’s program has had several off-the-mat issues over the last few years, from police being called to the hotel where the team was staying for last year’s Midlands Championships, to Edgar Bright’s multiple arrests culminating in his dismissal from the team in 2015. Is this something you were aware of when you took over? And if so, how do you plan to change the culture and instill more discipline into the program?

Gavin: Oh I noticed, for sure. That’s something that we have to get in order to be able to have any type of consistent success here. I think our guys understand that … it’s not going to be hard to do, but it’s not going to happen overnight. What I mean by “it’s not going to be hard to do” — it’s as simple as holding people accountable. That doesn’t mean it’s easy though, just because it’s simple. They’re going to have to buy in and trust that me and the rest of the staff are doing what’s best for the program in the long run.
And for me and the staff, we have to avoid looking for the quick fix. And what I mean by that is, we can’t let something slide just because we might win the dual meet. We have to hold everybody accountable and we have to treat everybody the same, whether you’re the returning ACC champ or whether you’re the walk-on. Everybody’s held accountable. And we have to remember that we’re in this for long-term, consistent success.

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