Column | Pitt targets proven commodities in women’s basketball head coach search


AP Photo | Sean Rayford

Marquette head coach Megan Duffy reacts to a play in the first half of a first-round college basketball game against South Florida in the NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 17, 2023, in Columbia, S.C.

By Alex Porter, Staff Writer

Pitt women’s basketball’s 2023 campaign (10-20, 3-16 ACC) came to a close after a 71-53 ACC Tournament loss to Clemson — their 13th double-digit defeat of the season. 

 Only two days later on March 3, University of Pittsburgh Athletic Director Heather Lyke announced that she relieved head coach Lance White of his duties. Despite the coaching change, Lyke shared kind words for White. 

“Coach White has been wholeheartedly dedicated to the betterment of his student-athletes and women’s basketball at Pitt,” Lyke said.”I’m extremely grateful for his efforts and wish him only the very best moving forward, both personally and professionally.” 

Lyke also reaffirmed her commitment to building a winning program at Pitt. 

“In looking to the future of Pitt women’s basketball, our goal is to be a perennial contender in the Atlantic Coast Conference and NCAA Tournament,” Lyke said. “I am confident that Pitt’s strong combination of people, facilities and institutional excellence will attract some outstanding candidates to be the next leader of our women’s basketball program.”

Unfortunately for White, in a results-driven business, this move surprised none, as he went 44-99 with no NCAA tournament appearances in five seasons. In fairness, he also encountered a multitude of unexpected obstacles, ranging from recruiting during a pandemic to navigating NIL and the transfer portal. 

The next coach will combat these same challenges and more. Forming a culture of success remains key, as the Panthers only finished one season above .500 since 2010. Identifying talent early will also prove crucial, as eight players entered the transfer portal, including three of the top five scorers from this season. 

But reason for optimism prevails due to Heather Lyke’s remarkable track record in salvaging programs, as previously neglected teams like the men’s soccer, women’s soccer and women’s volleyball became national contenders under Lyke. In fact, White became the first of Lyke’s hires relieved of their duties. 

Lyke and company crafted a different approach this time around in the hiring process. Opposed to candidates like White, a former long-tenured assistant of Florida State, Pitt appeared to narrow its search to candidates with a proven track record of head coaching. According to Pittsburgh Sports Now, Pitt interviewed Marquette head coach Megan Duffy, UMass head coach Tory Verdi, Toledo head coach Tricia Cullop and George Washington head coach Caroline McCombs for the coaching vacancy. In my opinion, all of these coaches seem deserving and capable of helming the next iteration of Pitt women’s basketball. The decision comes down to who fits the vision of the Panthers administration. 

At just 38 years old, Marquette’s Megan Duffy finds herself as one of the fastest-rising stars in the business, linked to multiple high-profile openings. Duffy’s proven she can find postseason success wherever she goes. From taking Miami (OH) to consecutive WNIT berths as head coach to recently leading the Golden Eagles to three straight tournament appearances, she’s become a staple of March. 

If hired, I see Duffy becoming one of Pitt’s best, as her proven coaching prowess combined with her collegiate experience playing at Notre Dame makes her the perfect coach to compete in the ACC.

Her hiring would mark a major commitment to the Panther’s success, as they would need to buy her out of a recent extension that runs through the 2026-27 season. Additionally, Duffy makes $636,000 annually, already earning more than the $612,00 paid to White this season. However, the fact that she interviewed suggests Pitt Athletics remains serious about making significant financial investments in the program. 

Tory Verdi, the long-tenured head coach of UMass, racked up an impressive 127 wins in seven seasons so far. After struggling his first three years with the Minutemen, Verdi eventually discovered success, claiming the only tournament and regular season conference championships in program history. Previously, he served as head coach of Eastern Michigan, where Lyke worked as his Athletic Director. Together they rallied the Eagles to two WNIT berths. Already familiar with Verdi, Lyke could look to revitalize a second team with the 25-year coaching veteran. 

Toledo head coach Tricia Cullop owns the most extensive resumé among known candidates. Coaching for 33 years, she possesses an unrivaled wealth of knowledge. Prior to Toledo, Cullop worked as an assistant for Xavier and as head coach at Evansville. She’s had nothing but success with the Rockets, earning 448 wins and once winning the WNIT. Considering her decades of coaching success, Cullop has more than served her time and is undoubtedly deserving of an opportunity to prove her abilities in a Power 5 conference. 

George Washington’s Caroline McCombs would transition easily to Pittsburgh, as she previously contributed in coaching five winning seasons here. During her tenure as an assistant coach from 2005-2010, she helped guide the Panthers to three NCAA tournament appearances, twice advancing to the Sweet Sixteen. Since leaving Pitt, McCombs coached at Stony Brook for seven seasons, becoming the winningest coach in school history while taking the Seawolves to their first NCAA tournament appearance. In her two seasons at George Washington, the Colonials formed a foundation, as both campaigns ended in top 5 conference finishes. So perhaps the answer to creating sustained success at Pitt lies in someone who’s done it before. 

The coaching search just began, and many rising stars remain available for the Panthers to investigate. I understand the desire for a long-tenured coach with a proven track record. However, I’m confident younger options such as Lindy La Rocque of UNLV, Carla Berube of Princenton and Alex Simmons of Gardner Webb will excel wherever they go, as they rapidly take over the coaching scene.

The first such head coach, Lindy La Rocque of UNLV, has already led the Rebels to two NCAA tournament berths in just three seasons and win the 2021 Mountain West conference coach of the year. This past season, her Rebels earned the 17th-best scoring margin in the NCAA. With an already impressive resume at just 33 years old, the sky holds her limits. 

Another such name, Princeton’s Carla Berube, has quickly made her mark. In just three seasons, her Tigers attained a remarkable 75-12 record, making the second round of the NCAA tournament twice. Berube’s resumé speaks for itself and, in my opinion, should put her on the shortlist for all coaching openings this off-season.

Lastly, Alex Simmons deserves more recognition for the job she’s done as Gardner Webb’s head coach. As a player, she won two national championships at Tennessee — experiences that seemingly translated to her coaching. In four seasons as head coach, she’s created a basketball culture, going 89-57. Her hard work culminated this season when the Bulldogs went undefeated in conference play, earning their second NCAA tournament berth in team history. 

In all, Pitt has no rush to make their decision, and these potential candidates likely represent a very small fraction of the names the Panthers intend to interview. Although this is frustrating for fans of the team, it suggests Heather Lyke and company intend to exercise patience, ensuring they get this momentous hire correct.