When Aideen O’Donoghue and her Pitt women’s soccer teammates first met with their new head coach, Randy Waldrum, earlier this week they weren’t sure what to expect.
When the meeting ended, and once the long-time successful coach who’s previously led Notre Dame to two national championships, and has accounted for nearly 400 career wins left the room, the players who will be making up the returning core of Pitt’s 2018 squad collectively felt a sense of relief and excitement.
“We all looked around, and said, this is the real deal,” O’Donoghue said on Thursday, after Waldrum was introduced at a press conference at Peterson Events Center in Upper Oakland.
“We needed this. We have the players. It feels good that someone of his caliber sees a lot of potential in us. That’s a confidence booster.”
It was Pitt’s new athletic director, Heather Lyke, who introduced Waldrum on Thursday morning, stating that she was excited to be bringing in a new “five-star recruit” to help revive a women’s soccer program which has struggled to get out of its own way for much of its 21-year existence, including coming off a 3-12-3 record in 2017, when they went winless in ACC Conference play.
Make no mistake, the hiring of Waldrum dramatically shifts Pitt’s expectations for women’s soccer.
With only two winning seasons in its history — one of those under recently fired coach Greg Miller — the bar has been raised significantly.
When Lyke introduced the new coach, she read Waldrum’s win totals, it was clear that she wasn’t messing around when it came to making a splash hire at Pitt to bring women’s soccer to a new level in Pittsburgh.
“This was an opportunity to bring in a national caliber coach. You go out and recruit the best. You want to best people you can have,” Lyke said. “We conducted National search. It’s exciting. Randy brings very impressive credentials and he’s very committed to being here.”
Since leaving his post at Notre Dame in 2013, Waldrum coached professionally for the Houston Dash and guided Trinidad and Tobago in an unsuccessful bid to reach the Women’s World Cup.
In South Bend, he won eight Big East Tournament titles and appeared in eight NCAA Final Four games in that span.
A two-time national coach of the year (2009 by Soccer America; 2010 by NSCAA), Waldrum was the first coach in NCAA history to lead a team to a national title in his/her first season with a program. He wrapped up his tenure at Notre Dame with a mark of 292-58-17 (.819) and holds an overall record of 399-108-29 (.771) as a head coach on the women’s side. His record ranks fourth in all-time wins as an NCAA women’s head coach and third in win percentage.
Yesterday was our first chance to hear from the man himself — as he said he wasn’t coming to Pittsburgh for a quick fix.
“Pitt has always been so close. I knew this program really well, in all my years at Notre Dame competing against them in the Big East. It always seemed that they were looking for a little more support from administration, to have better facilities and they have that now,” Waldrum explained.
“Thing that excited me about it, was saw what they did with the men’s program in hiring Jay (Vidovich), that showed me that there’s a commitment here at this University to change things. When I got here, and I met with Heather, and listened to her vision for the University, and met all the people she brought in, there’s so much excitement, buzz here with this University right now. I knew the commitment level is in place to help take this program to where it needs to go. Those are the things you need to be able to compete for National Championships around here.”
Clearly Waldrum, just like Vidovich, who won a national championship at Wake Forest previously, came to Pitt because he wants to build an elite program.
We began to see the fruits of Vidovich’s labor during the 2017 campaign, his second season, as Pitt ran off a number of impressive wins against ranked opponents.
By the end of the season, the men’s team was playing before packed Ambrose Urbanic Field.
“I am excited that these programs can feed off each other. Success is contagious. It’s motivating as well,” Lyke said. “It was exciting – especially that last game. We were coming over (to Ambrose Urbanic Field) and I said, ‘where do I stand?’ it was all the way around the field. It’s a beautiful venue. You can see the City, it’s in a unique spot. The quality of the coaches and the quality of the product is first-class people will want to come and see it.”
And with Vidovich starting to make strides in turning around the men’s program, Lyke felt it was time to make a change to get the women’s program going in a similar direction.
“It’s a vision for all of our teams. We want to be a destination place for our coaches, recruits, our community. A place to bring the family, the kids, do something and engage with university, and see high-quality division one athletics, this a place to go see it. I think success of men’s program is indicative amount of support and energy. Coach Vidovich is very intentional with connecting with the alumni and the Pitt community. So, it’s starting to happen when you have success.”
Waldrum said on Thursday, he’s committed to building a long-term winner at Pitt that will have a lasting impact on the University — and women’s soccer in our region.
“Next year we could go out and beat North Carolina, and that’s great, but what I stressed with the players is that we want to build a program,”Waldrum added. “I don’t want to be a program that rides a roller coaster. That we’re good one year, then you’re rebuilding the next, then good again. We have to build this in a way that we’re good and competitive as quick as we can, but we also want to make sure we’re building it the right way – when we’re good day in and day out, much like I did when I was at Notre Dame. That’s what I am looking for. Do I want to win National Championships along the way – absolutely.”
With a team that’s expected to return a number of key players, Waldrum acknowledged that the first steps toward reviving the program will come in the recruiting period up through signing day in February.
“We got to recruit ACC type players. There’s a good base of players with this current team. We need to add to it. We need to add to talent level on our roster,” Waldrum said. “We’ll have to find a couple ways to do that.
Waldrum acknowledged that he has tons of contact with club and high school coaches, and has already had conversations with recruits that didn’t have Pitt on their radar, but now are reconsidering. He also believes, much like Vidovich and many college coaches, in looking internationally for the right players.
“We won’t leave any stone unturned to find the right players in here. The right players are not just the top players, but it’s getting the right kind of people to represent the university. I am confident we’re going to get them.”
Last year, Miller and his staff were able to bring on board two local players — Alexis Bengel (who sat out this season with an injury) and O’Donoghue, a Canon-McMillan and Riverhounds Academy alum who had quite a first semester of college, started 15 of 18 games at left back.
“It was difficult, after the season ended, and learning about what happened,” O’Donoghue said. “Not knowing who the coach was going to be. We’re a very close team – and one of our captain’s Taylor Price is going to be back. We always knew something good was going to happen.”
Waldrum believes there’s plenty of local talent here in Western Pennsylvania, and will be looking to get some of those players to stay closer to home. By comparison, Duquesne’s program, which has finished in the top three in the Atlantic 10 for the past four years, and won the conference championship two years agao, had 12 student-athletes that attended and played at WPIAL schools on its roster in 2017.
“We need to keep those players here. There’s a lot of talented players that are leaving this area to other places to play. I think for young female players to have players to look up to, to have role models, see the way they conduct themselves. We’re still trying to grow the women’s game. Collegiately we are too – and it’s part of our obligation. Not only are we here to win games, but also have an obligation to do all we can to grow the game.”
O’Donoghue also acknowledged that the work is just beginning, but she’s excited about the direction things are heading.
“I’ll be ready to show up for training. Our culture, atmosphere was really good this year, and (Waldrum) wants to improve on that. Last year we were in every game – competitive. We just need a little bit more belief, and confidence. Make it even better. It’s a belief thing. We’ll want to look up even higher in our leadership, and with Randy it’s going to be really easy and the communication is already there.”
And now the work really begins.
- Vidovich was also on hand for the press conference. I had a chance to catch up with him for a few minutes prior to going over to Ambrose Urbanic Field for a photo shoot. I’ll have more on that in a separate post later today or over the weekend.
- Between Vidovich and Waldrum, Pitt’s soccer coaches now have a combined three National Championships to their resumes and won over 700 games at the college level.
- Waldrum also confirmed that while there was an announcement earlier this Fall that he would be serving as a technical adviser to the Nigeria National team, that the deal was never finalized, and that he’s now ‘one hundred percent committed to Pitt.’
- Waldrum acknowledged that he received a congratulatory call from Pitt’s football coach Pat Narduzzi, and many of the other coaches and staff.
“My phone’s been absolutely blowing up. From staff and tells me a lot about the people here at the University,” said Waldrum. “First time I’ve ever had a football coach call me. I can tell you other stories. Things that happened over the years. It meant a lot to me.”
- Here’s also some of what Waldrum talked about when asked about his experiences after leaving Notre Dame to coach professionally and internationally:
All those experiences – part of educational process. We often ask our players to improve. And as coaches, we have to do the same for ourselves. Going to pro game made me a better coach – seeing it played at the next level,” Waldrum said.
“The time internationally, with Trinidad and Tobago, was great a experience as well. It was a different kind of experience. International game is quite different then what you see domestically. Put them all together, really gave me a lot of resources I could fall back on. I look at this opportunity at Pitt, coming from another level than was I was doing at Notre Dame, it’s going to make me a better coach. I can certainly tell you some good stories about some of these experiences. We’ll definitely do that some day.”
“It was an experience of a lifetime to try to get T&T to qualify for a World Cup, and play against the U.S. in Kansas City. Trying to figure out how to stop that machine. It’s all made me a better coach, and I am really anxious to bring that back and help these players here.”