On pitch, Pitt opts to go all in with new coach
The call from Jay Vidovich came as a surprise for Pitt athletic director Scott Barnes.
Vidovich is one of the most successful college soccer coaches of his generation.
A two-time national coach of the year, he won a national title in 2007 and advanced to four consecutive College Cups (college soccer's version of the Final Four) from 2006-09. He owned a 272-121-50 record in 21 seasons at Wake Forest, won five ACC championships and played in the NCAA Tournament in 13 of his final 14 seasons.
Yet Vidovich, who just completed his first year with a United Soccer League team in Portland, Ore., was the one initiating a discussion about a coaching vacancy with the Panthers. The same Panthers program that hasn't won an ACC game since joining the conference three years ago.
“It's one of those opportunities that you dream for as a coach,” Vidovich, 55, said.
The ACC has been a nightmare for the Panthers, who have gone 0-22-5 in conference play and were outscored 22-1 in conference games last season.
It's no wonder Pitt jumped at the thought of hiring Vidovich, the equivalent of hiring Mike Krzyzewski to coach its men's basketball team. It marked a significant investment and desire to win beyond just the revenue sports.
Vidovich last month accepted a multiyear contract that ranks among the most lucrative in college soccer.
To sweeten the pot, Barnes gifted Vidovich with two full-time assistant coaches (former coach Joe Luxbacher had one). Vidovich filled those vacancies Jan. 8 when he hired former Penn State assistant Michael Behonick and former North Carolina assistant Jeff Negalha, who just finished a one-year stint with the Orlando City U.S. Soccer Development Academy teams.
Beginning in 2016-17, the Panthers will receive a full allotment of 9.9 scholarships needed to compete in what is considered the best soccer conference in America.
“That's part of the investment we needed to make to attract a coach of Jay's caliber,” Barnes said.
And then there's the salary. Barnes described Vidovich's salary as “night and day” compared to what Pitt paid Luxbacher, who retired in November after 32 years at the school.
“Not even close,” Barnes said.
Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski is considered one of Vidovich's contemporaries. He has won two national championships, appeared in seven College Cups and is one of the highest-paid coaches. In 2013, he made $398,636, according to the Baltimore Sun.
“Salaries were the biggest discrepancy. We had to step up,” said Barnes, who did not disclose details of Vidovich's contract. “We knew that if we got one of our top three candidates, we'd hit a home run. But we hit a grand slam with Jay.
“Jay is widely respected by everybody in the profession,” Cirovski said. “The whole college soccer world has taken notice.”
Back to school
Vidovich left Wake Forest after two decades to coach the Portland Timbers 2 of USL Pro, which finished 11-15-2 under Vidovich but saw young players flourish. In addition to those duties, Vidovich trained players for the Major League Soccer team coached by former Akron coach Caleb Porter, who won a national championship in 2009 and guided the United States U-23 men's national team during the 2012 CONCACAF Olympic qualifying.
That's why Barnes said he was surprised to hear from Vidovich during a month-long coaching search.
“We were incredibly thankful because we're thinking, ‘He's not interested. He left college,' ” Barnes said.
Even Vidovich said his decision “came out of the blue.”
“I thought I would still be in the professional game,” Vidovich said. “Portland is a wonderful city. The Timbers are second to none.”
Pitt executive associate athletic director Dan Bartholomae, who headed the search committee, said Vidovich wanted to return to his college roots.
“It doesn't surprise me that somebody who's been as successful as Jay would want to try a different level, and it doesn't surprise that he might realize that the right place for him is college athletics,” Bartholomae said. “It was pretty clear this is where he wanted to be.”
Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman promoted Vidovich as a young assistant when coach Walt Chyzowych, a former coach and player for the United States national team and two-time All-American at Temple, died of a heart attack before the start of the 1994 season.
“Jay was appointed our interim coach, and you can imagine how difficult that was,” Wellman said. “Walt Chyzowych was regarded as the father of college soccer, and the person who brought college soccer to the United States and was an icon. Here was Jay, a very young assistant coach, taking over for Walt, who was his mentor, and Jay idolized him. About two-thirds of the way through the season, we appointed Jay our head coach.”
When Barnes began researching Vidovich's background, he found a strong ally in Wellman.
Barnes and Wellman served together on the Division I men's basketball committee. Barnes, in fact, replaced Wellman as chairman for the 2014-15 season.
“Ron Wellman hired Jay,” Barnes said. “He told me, ‘If you can get Jay, stop your search right now.' ”
Vidovich was 76-52-22 in the ACC. He was named the league's top coach five times.
“We took Wake Forest from a team that was not in the NCAA Tournament when I took over,” Vidovich said. “The biggest thing was not the Final Fours or the national championship but being able to compete with anybody and everybody. There's a big difference between competing in the ACC and being competitive in the ACC.”
Vidovich's track record overwhelmed Pitt's selection committee.
“The success that he's already had in the ACC and the fact that success is not in the distant past is what set him apart,” Bartholomae said. “He's an ACC coach who's had a lot of success in the ACC.”
Said Barnes, “If you win a championship in the ACC, you probably have a shot to win a national championship.”
Seven ACC teams have won national championships since 2001.
“They know that they don't know exactly what it's going to take in soccer to get it done here, but they're willing to learn,” Vidovich said.
Season of change
Vidovich doesn't know how his first team at Pitt will perform. The Panthers finished 5-9-3 and 0-7-1 in the ACC last season.
“Are they better than the record showed?” Vidovich said. “I hope so.
“The biggest part of what we do is put a culture of excellence into the program, a competitiveness, a belief into them, a way of thinking that will give us a better chance to have success as we go into competition in the fall.
“You have to be realistic,” he added. “There is not enough time to bring players in that I see fitting in. It's going to be taking a group and let's do the most we can with our group. I guess I'll have to be patient and realize it's not going to happen overnight.”
Vidovich's teams excel at ball possession and attacking on offense and defense.
“Jay's teams play beautiful soccer,” Maryland's Cirovski said.
Cirovski said if the Pitt community listens to Vidovich, the program will succeed.
“There will be a process,” Cirovski said. “He'll certainly break the streak of not getting any wins in the ACC his first year. He's going to build his team with his kind of people. I would expect that by Jay's third year, certainly they'll be in the top four in the ACC.”
Widely regarded as one of the game's top evaluators and developers of talent, Vidovich produced 21 All-Americans and five ACC Players of the Year at Wake Forest. Thirty-five of his players have gone on to the pros.
“A lot of it comes from talent identification, finding players who are ambitious and at a stage of their career where they can improve,” said Vidovich, who's in the process of assembling the 2016 recruiting class. “I'm not bringing a specific formula: ‘This is how we played at Wake Forest, and this is the way we're going to do it.' We're probably going to do some things they don't really want to do, are not used to doing and maybe think they can't do. But if they trust us and work at it, they'll see the dividends.”
Based on past accomplishments, expect Vidovich to apply a similar recruiting strategy at Pitt but with a caveat: sign more local players.
Pitt's roster featured three Western Pennsylvanians last season.
“We failed to build a fence around Western Pennsylvania in soccer,” Barnes said. “I know we can build that fence. That's why we hired Jay.”
For instance, the successful Beadling Soccer Club in the South Hills has three players playing key roles at Northwestern: Mike Roberge (Franklin Regional), Jake Roberge (Franklin Regional) and Nathan Dearth (Montour). Another Beadling product, Jamie Luchini (North Allegheny), who starred at Lehigh, was among 59 Division I players invited to the recent Major League Soccer player combine.
Behonick, who is familiar with Western Pennsylvania talent from his time at Penn State, will help those recruiting efforts.
“Our program has done a great job producing a lot of D-I schools with quality players over the years,” Beadling president Denny Kohlmyer said. “We want our kids to be able to go to Pitt.”