The University of Pittsburgh Women’s head coach is trying to build a program that will give fans something, at long last, to get excited about.
Coming off the pitch after a long, hot training session at Ambrose Urbanic Field, Randy Waldrum is upbeat. He’s excited. And he’s clearly happy with what he’s seen.
There’s no hint at all that Waldrum is facing one of the most daunting challenges that any coach, anywhere, could have to contend with: making a historically irrelevant and mediocre soccer team something worth noting. And doing it in the best college soccer conference in the country.
In Pitt’s 22 year history with women’s soccer, they’ve never once made the NCAA tournament. They’ve only had two winning seasons: the 2009 and 2015 campaigns. And in 2013, all of Pitt’s sports teams left the Big East for the ACC, which in women’s soccer terms is like jumping out of the frying pan and into an industrial blast furnace. Pitt will have to play Florida State, Notre Dame, and North Carolina each year, who between them have 26 NCAA titles. The rest of the colleges in Division I have just 11 titles between them. With a conference that powerful, just scraping together a .500 record might be good enough to get into the NCAA Women’s College Cup.
If anyone can do it – re-build a program from the ground up, in the most talent-laden conference in the US, and find a way to win games, it’s Waldrum. The Irving, Texas native build the Notre Dame women’s team into a top NCAA team during his tenure there from 1999 to 2013, and led the Fightin’ Irish. to two National Championships; in 2005 and 2010. Afterward, he left to coach professional soccer with the Houston Dash, where he worked with soccer stars like Morgan Brian, Carli Lloyd, and Rachel Daly. He came to the Pitt Panthers as their new head coach at the beginning of the 2018 season; a season with a few non-conference victories, but an 0-9-0 record in the ACC.
Waldrum knows he faces a long road in building Pitt into a contender. But he’s got the team off and running early; the Panthers opened the season with a 5-4 home win against Loyola Marymount last week, and followed it up with 1-0 road victory at Bucknell. They hope to keep things rolling on a northeast swing this weekend. This Friday Pitt will take on Dartmouth, and Sunday they trek to New England to face UMass.
With his faded but still-present Texas twang, he took the time out to explain to me how he intends to reboot this team and get them going in the right direction for 2019.
Mark G: What brought you to Pitt? What are some of your goals for this year? What are the challenges you see?
Randy Waldrum: When I left Notre Dame, we’d kind of gotten that program to a point we were playing in final fours on a pretty consistent basis, had won a couple of championships, and I was really ready for a new challenge, I always wanted to see what coaching the pros was like, so I left there to go to the Dash, and I spent four seasons with the dash coaching, but really to be honest I knew after the first year that I just missed the college came, even though I enjoyed coaching the pros ; dealing with owners and GMs and league offices – it just wasn’t something that I really enjoyed. So I decided when the right opportunity came I’d get back into the college game. I knew of Pitt obviously because in the old days, we (Notre Dame) were all in the Big East together. To be honest, I never thought of Pitt… never thought it’d be a place I’d end up. It didn’t appeal to me. Our program was a national competitor every year and Pitt was not. But then when I saw that they’d hired Jay (Vidovich), and I knew Jay from his time at Wake (Forest). I said ‘Something must have changed at Pitt.’
I picked up the phone when I saw the job was opening up. That got me here. I met Heather (Lyke, Pitt’s Athletic Director) and she sold me on the vision here.
I think you used the word ‘challenge’ and that’s probably a good one to use. It is a big challenge. I mean 23 years and only two winning seasons. You know, we’ve got to change everything. That’s kind of what we did. We came in late last year. So didn’t really have time to bring in a recruiting class. But then at the end we knew that the players we had weren’t really at the level we needed for the ACC. So that’s why we helped find them places to go.
It’s almost like starting over brand new again. 21 new faces. We’re kind of the “Hashtag PantherCubs” right now. We’re not quite Panthers yet. We’re babies. We got a good group. It’s just a lot of work to put the pieces together with a lot of new faces. We’re so young, and competing in the conference that we’re in. There’s a lot of things that freshmen are going to do; it takes time for them to grow.
MG: You’re playing a possession-based brand of football. What made you think, coming into the ACC, that this was the way you wanted to line up your team in a conference with some juggernaut teams?
RW: That to me is just the way the game should look. That’s kind of my philosophy wherever I’ve been. That’s the way we want to play. Doing it last year, we knew we were going to step on the field and some teams were going to pound us, because we would open ourselves up too much. But the thing I didn’t want to do, because we’re trying to build the program, I didn’t want to be the team Pitt was before. I didn’t want to be that team that just bunkered in and set in deep and tried to play off the counter. Because, number one I didn’t feel like what we had was good enough to counter anyway, and I also think when you’re building a program that’s not something that entertains the fans. We still have an obligation not only to make this program successful but to develop the women’s game. And fans won’t come watch that.
Are we going to beat Carolina? Florida State? Those top teams on that level – absolutely not in the beginning, but we’ve got to imprint that style of play. So two years from now when we’re where we need to be with all the players and the experience, then we already know that system. But if I wait till you get the cupboard a little bit more full with players, then you’ve got to start brand new; trying to implement that style and we just feel like it’s better to get into it now. And we know we’re going to expose ourselves some by doing that. I think it’s part of the building process.
MG: Coach, you have 21 new players; 17 freshmen. Only a few (10) returning veterans who can guide them. How as a head coach do you mentor and lead those freshman and how do you help the upperclasswomen demonstrate leadership?
RW: With the young players, it has got to be a lot of positivity and a lot of encouragement. What we’re doing is we throwing things at them, tactically, that they’ve never seen. And they have enough on their plate just to have the newness of “Oh I’m going to college. I have to start class.” And all the anxieties of being away from home and mom and dad. And then you throw a new coaching staff and a new system of play and trying to get them to understand where they’re supposed to be and how we’re going to be, that’s just something most of the youth teams aren’t doing. It’s a lot of information. A big thing is: we’ve got to sit back at times and bite our lip at times. Because as frustrating as it can be for coaches when these little mistakes are being made, we have to come back to it and realize that they’re freshmen.
Lotta positivity to pick to keep them feeling like they can do what we’re asking them to do. and choose our times to push and get onto them, for lack of a better word. That’s kind of the approach you’ve got to take with a lot of young players. And be a teacher. We’re putting a lot of time on the field, doing our work during the week. And then it’s a ton of video. A lot of them haven’t watched much video in their young careers. That’s how they learn about the game, tactically.
With the older players, some of the ways the information is being relayed to the young kids, they have to be careful. They can get frustrated easily when it doesn’t work. If you’ve made a mistake, it’s quite different if I’m throwing f-bombs at you or I’m yelling at you for the mistakes you just made versus me just saying, “Hey, keep your head up you’ll get it next time.”