Pitt wrestling shows improvement under Keith Gavin


Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

Micky Phillippi only has one loss in the season and is ranked No. 2 in the 133-pound weight class.

By Sami Abu-Obaid, Staff Writer

When reviewing the resumé of Pitt wrestling head coach Keith Gavin, it’s no surprise that the wrestling program is heading toward success. A year after going 4-11, the Panthers have started 8-1, beating every non-conference opponent they lost to last year.

Gavin, a former national champion for Pitt who ranks eighth for career wins in school history, is now creating a new foundation for the program. Drawing on his experience coaching with the University of Oklahoma and the University of Virginia, he intends to change the culture of the team, relishing the opportunity to coach at Pitt.

“I love Pitt, I love the City, this is my alma mater,” Gavin said. “In wrestling, good head coaching jobs come up far and few between.”

While Gavin has a history of individual success in wrestling, he has assembled a coaching staff that have also wrestled successfully in college. Associate head coach Jordan Leen is also a national champion, having added three All-Americans to his name while wrestling at Cornell. Leen is entering his second season on the coaching staff with the Panthers, helping create a team of All-American wrestlers aiming to take the National Championship.

Assistant coach Drew Headlee is also a Pitt alum as well as a former successful wrestler. Entering his fifth season on the wrestling staff, Headlee has tremendous experience in wrestling on a big stage. Having earned an All-American honor at Pitt, Headlee was also a three-year captain of the wrestling squad while lettering in all four years. After graduation, he wrestled in the Olympic Trials and U.S. Open.

Although the coaches all wrestled in different weight classes and have varying degrees of success as individual wrestlers, they are all committed to the success of the program.

“In staff meetings, everybody has their own voice and I’m listening to different ideas from the staff, and they do a great job of sharing what they think,” Gavin said. “They care a great deal about this program and I’m very fortunate to have the staff that I have. They do a great job and deserve a lot of credit.”

In his second year as head coach, Gavin led the Panthers to an 8-0 record before they fell to No. 3 Oklahoma State this past weekend. Despite the loss, the wrestling program’s 8-0 start was the best since the 1975-76 season. The team has garnered national attention as well, ranking as high as No. 13 in the Top 25. Along with the team’s success, Gavin and his coaching staff have helped some of their individual wrestlers achieve ranked status.

Star redshirt freshman Micky Phillippi is ranked No. 2 in the 133-pound weight class, with just one loss on the season. Redshirt junior Taleb Rahmani is currently ranked No. 11 in the 157-pound weight class. Another redshirt freshman, Nino Bonaccorsi, worked his way to the rankings to hold down the No. 12 spot for the 184-pound weight class. The last ranked wrestler on the team is junior Demetrius Thomas, who is the No. 13 heavyweight in the country.

Even though there are only four ranked wrestlers on the team, Gavin and his staff are focused on constructing a culture that is conducive to winning. While such a feat doesn’t happen overnight, the coaching staff is determined to reach their goals, taking it step by step.

“Our approach has been every day we are trying to get better and each individual on the team has their own area of concentration that we are trying to attack,” Gavin said.

While some wrestlers may be more invested in the sport than others, Gavin notices the culture of the team is improving because of the dedication of his wrestlers. A coach can only do so much and it is important that the team leaders help push each other.

“It’s contagious when you have people that compete hard and train hard and take this thing seriously,” Gavin said. “It’s easier for the other guys to jump on board. It’s more than just me and the rest of the coaches saying it. We have guys living it out and that’s caught on to a lot of guys.”

Another important change in the culture is that the coaching staff are all on the same page. Each pushes the message that players should focus on taking one match at a time and work hard every day to be the best wrestler that they can be.

Practicing at the Fitzgerald Field House a few days before the Oklahoma State match, most of the wrestlers spar with a partner for five minutes with little rest in between. Those who are not sparring still work hard, doing push-ups, jumping rope or riding the stationary bike to stay active.

“That’s what we talk about before every match, he tells us if we go out there and outwork this team, there is no reason we can’t beat them,” Phillippi said. “There is no reason we can’t beat them, so that’s what we try to do is just outwork everyone when we wrestle and we put the time in.”

An advantage comes with having a coaching staff that have wrestled at varying weights. Four current Pitt wrestlers have achieved ranked status across different weight classes, showing the recruiting strength of the staff that Gavin has assembled.

“The guys on this team have earned our expectation and they have wrestled with an expectation to win. And we’ve seen that, we’ve gotten accustomed to that,” Leen said. “I guess we expect them to win now and when they don’t, we’re surprised and that’s a good thing.”

While other teams like football and basketball might gain more attention, Pitt’s wrestling program are fighting their way into the spotlight alongside the University’s other premier programs. Gavin is an alumnus who is hungry to bring his school success and has assembled a decorated staff who all follow the vision he has for the team. Although they don’t need any more motivation, the 2019 NCAA Wrestling Championships are hosted in Pittsburgh this year, which has the team excited for a chance to win in their backyard.

“Our sport really boils down to the end of the season, we want our guys on the podium in March,” Gavin said.