Pitts was easy choice for Canfield mat job

CANFIELD — The biggest endorsement for Steve Pitts to become the wrestling head coach at Canfield High School came from an interesting group of people.

His own colleagues.

When longtime coach Dean Conley recently announced he was retiring, the Cardinals, who have become a state power in Division II, boasted an array of great candidates from which to choose Assistant coach Derick Fletcher is a former Ravenna head coach who was named Division II coach of the year in 2009. Fellow assistant Jim Hideg coached at Liberty for 25 years. There are multiple others with decades of experience, both as assistants and head coaches.

But when Conley called a meeting to announce his retirement, they all pointed to the 31-year-old Pitts, one of the youngest coaches on staff.

“They all kind of said, ‘It’s Steve’s job,’ and that kind of blew me away because there are certainly qualified guys,” said Pitts, a 2004 Canfield graduate who has been an assistant at Canfield for six years. “I think almost all of them have been head coaches at some realm, and they all said, ‘Steve’s gotta get the job, and what do we gotta do to make that happen?’

“These guys, they’re the best. It’s not about what’s best for them, it’s about what’s best for the entire group, and they thought that I’d be a good fit.”

So did Conley, and the administration at Canfield.

Pitts, a teacher within the school district, is a wrestling guru, and he’s a huge reason the Cardinals have been back-to-back Division II state runners-up at the OHSAA State Wrestling Tournament. He was a key figure in grooming former state champion Georgio Poullas into the most decorated wrestler in school history.

Pitts does it by spending his summers traveling across the country to coach at different tournaments. He’s part of the Samurai Wrestling Club at Mount Union University and a coach for the Ohio National Team, which just finished wrestling in the Junior and Cadet National Wrestling Tournaments in Fargo, N.D.

Pitts admits he spends just about all of his downtime watching or coaching wrestling.

“That’s kind of helped me because kids trust me. It builds trust,” said Pitts of the hours of extra time. “That’s kind of always been my approach. It worked for me with a number of guys over the years. I’ve helped a lot of guys at tournaments, camps and whatever they need. That’s kind of how I built my ability to coach these guys. They buy into what I’m doing.”

Conley said Pitts is the perfect person to take over, and he has known that for a while.

The two are close friends who live down the street from one another and teach in adjacent classrooms. While that made Conley’s somewhat abrupt announcement easier for Pitts realize, it also could have created an awkward situation among the staff.

That didn’t happen.

“I had a staff meeting, and we’re all laughing and telling stories like we always do,” Conley recalled. “I said, ‘OK guys, last thing on the agenda. I just want you to know I’m stepping down.’ And you could hear a pin drop. Pitts knew, and he knew that’s why I brought him in five years ago. Whenever I left, I wanted him to take over, but you could just hear a pin drop. So I said, ‘I want you guys to know I’m recommending Steve Pitts for the job, and I want all you guys to recommend him as well.’ And they were like, ‘Absolutely.’

“That’s the perfect scenario.”

Pitts couldn’t agree more. He said the Cardinals will only be as good as the group of coaches around them — not just the head coach. That’s another reason he was elated that each coach agreed to return under his leadership.

“To be honest, it’s probably the most important thing as I transition,” said Pitts of retaining this group. “This staff that Dean kind of set up and that I’m now inheriting is the closest group of coaches I’ve ever been around. There’s no in-fighting, there’s no finger pointing. Everybody has a role. Everybody has something they can contribute to the kids.

“They all bring a different skill-set to the group,” he added. “Every single person on my staff, their number-one priority is what ‘s best for kids first. That’s really important. It’s not what’s best for me or what’s best for the individual (coach) — it’s what’s best for the kids.”

That philosophy has served Canfield well to this point.