Pitt’s marquee pair of head soccer coaches aim for new heights

After+parting+ways+with+former+women%E2%80%99s+soccer+coach+Greg+Miller%2C+Athletic+Director+Heather+Lyke+hired+former+Notre+Dame+head+coach+and+two-time+national+champion+Randy+Waldrum.+

Photo via Pitt Athletics

After parting ways with former women’s soccer coach Greg Miller, Athletic Director Heather Lyke hired former Notre Dame head coach and two-time national champion Randy Waldrum.

By Ben Bobeck, Senior Staff Writer

For more than 30 years, Joe Luxbacher was Pitt soccer.

A 1974 Pitt alum, the Upper St. Clair native led the Pitt men’s soccer program as a captain in 1973 before serving as its head coach from 1984 until 2015. Still the school’s record-holder for goals in a game with seven and career goals with 37, Luxbacher led the Panthers as high as seventh in the nation while claiming two Big East Coach of the Year awards.

But after nearly a decade and a half of lackluster results, with the team failing to eclipse the .500 mark since 2000, Luxbacher retired in December 2015 and opened the door for then Athletic Director Scott Barnes to bring new life to the program stalled in its own past.

“The lack of overall program success was obvious and the trajectory of the program needed to change,” Barnes said through a spokesperson for Oregon State, where he is now the athletic director.

To usher in a new era for the program, Barnes lured Jay Vidovich from the professional ranks back to campus to serve as the third head coach in Pitt men’s soccer history. Vidovich had already demonstrated his ability to build a program within the difficult ranks of ACC soccer at Wake Forest, assembling a National Championship team, winning National Soccer Coaches Association of America National Coach of the Year twice and being crowned the conference’s coach of the year five times throughout his 21 years in Winston-Salem.

“We were recruiting Jay, not really interviewing him,” Barnes said. “We were fortunate because Jay had made a decision to experiment with a career-long goal of coaching in the MLS [with Portland] but quickly realized it wasn’t for him. He missed college soccer dearly.”

New Athletic Director Heather Lyke was faced with a similar opportunity for a program-wide revitalization just two years later, after parting ways with former women’s soccer coach Greg Miller. Lyke seemingly followed the blueprint Barnes laid out, hiring former Notre Dame head coach and two-time national champion Randy Waldrum, combining two championship-pedigree coaches for a total revitalization of both teams.

“Coach Waldrum’s … championship pedigree and passion fits perfectly with the soccer culture we are creating at Pitt, and we are eager to watch our program emerge under his leadership,” Lyke said after the 2017 hiring. “This is an exciting time for our women’s soccer program and for the Pittsburgh soccer community.”

What has followed is a remarkable turnaround for both programs, once mired in competitive disadvantages since the competitive leap from the Big East to the ACC. In his fourth season at the helm of the men’s program, Vidovich steered the Panthers to their first NCAA tournament appearance and tournament win since 1965 with a 2-0 victory over Lehigh in fall 2019.

“The guys are starting to feel like they belong. We didn’t try and get our wins out of easy teams,” Vidovich said. “Instead of adding low RPI teams, it was, ‘Let’s get Penn State back on the schedule for the first time in 20 years. Let’s get West Virginia on the schedule. Let’s get Akron on the schedule. Let’s play Indiana. Let’s play these top teams and just start preparing for a national championship.’”

Meanwhile, on the women’s side of Ambrose Urbanic Field, the home pitch for both programs, Waldrum orchestrated a roster turnover that saw 21 new arrivals on campus this past season, including 17 first-years. Inexperience be damned, Waldrum and his Panthers broke the program’s three-year conference-win drought, while showing marked competitive improvement down the stretch of conference play.

“All we really did with the recruiting classes, we improved our team … from what we had, but we’re still not getting all the top players in the country,” Waldrum said. “There’s still a gap, even though we’re much improved over what we had. There’s still a gap to where we need to be that top-25 team week in and week out and competing for national championships.”

After both having reached that ultimate triumph in their collegiate coaching careers, each separately made the leap into the professional ranks. Waldrum left South Bend to coach the National Women’s Soccer League’s expansion Houston Dash in 2014 and Vidovich departed Wake in 2015 to take the job as head coach of Portland Timbers 2, competing in the second-tier United Soccer League, as well as serving as an assistant coach for Portland’s MLS outfit.

Both coaches reflected on their short-lived professional experiences in a somewhat negative note, but Waldrum voiced his admiration for his counterpart’s decision to return to college quickly and on his own terms.

Waldrum said he found out quickly the different levels of control in a professional program compared to the collegiate level.

“You’ve got an owner telling you who to play and you’ve got a GM that’s making player and roster moves for you, instead of you going out like a college coach and scouting and recruiting your own kids that you want to fit your style of play,” Waldrum said. “When you’re at a place that those things don’t fall in line and you’re not well connected, then it makes it a really difficult coaching environment to be in.”

Vidovich described his professional career much more succinctly.

“It was [either] the best worst year of my life or the worst best year of my life,” Vidovich said.

When exploring a potential return to the college game after the Pitt job opened, Waldrum relied on his prior impressions of Pitt — and the image of having a counterpart such as Vidovich already in place showcased the aspirations of Pitt’s program in a way its facilities couldn’t.

Unlike Vidovich, who had experienced the Petersen Sports Complex and expressed an appreciation for the overall atmosphere around the University, Waldrum had not seen the facility, having coached against Pitt at Founders Field, an alternative site about 30 minutes northeast of campus. A commitment to improved facilities was part of Barnes’ recruiting pitch to Vidovich in 2015.

“We made it clear to Jay that we were serious about winning and he was the right leader to transform our program into a national contender,” Barnes said. “We were committed to investing in and supporting his plans to rebuild.”

When Barnes moved to Corvallis, Oregon, in December 2016, his replacement reaffirmed that commitment to improvement through concrete facility upgrades, as well as Waldrum’s hiring — which allowed Vidovich to recognize the shared ambitions between himself and Lyke for both soccer programs.
Both teams have seen significant upgrades in their working facilities after last fall’s cosmetic overhaul to Urbanic Field, which included a new astroturf pitch and upgraded video boards. The addition to the Petersen Sports Complex, also home to the baseball and softball programs, will allow the soccer coaches to move from their office spaces in the older Fitzgerald Field House across Robinson Street to the same facility where their players train on a daily basis.

“It’s a huge advantage because you always want your door open for your kids coming in and out throughout the day and to be able to be around them a little bit more,” Waldrum said. “I kind of feel a little bit at times removed, because the kids don’t always make their way over to the Field House to see us there.”

Vidovich agreed and said the Panthers program has never been the “haves” in the collegiate soccer landscape. He added that this was an important step in both coaches’ ultimate vision in building their respective teams into championship contenders.

“The access to our student athletes and to have our offices looking out on our pitch, to have a player lounge and video rooms like that,” Vidovich said, “it just makes everything that we do have top class.”

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