How Micky Phillippi and Nino Bonaccorsi helped transform Pitt’s wrestling culture by putting everything they had into their craft.
Pitt teammates Micky Phillippi and Nino Bonaccorsi shared one of the most compelling moments of last spring’s NCAA tournament when Phillippi was spotted crying tears of joy after Bonaccorsi won his 197-pound NCAA title. Phillippi was celebrated for the investment he made in Bonaccorsi’s success, but that moment was also a picture-perfect representation of the culture they helped create in Pitt’s room.
Bonaccorsi’s title meant more to Phillippi than the depth of his own heartache after he fell short of the NCAA podium in his final try. Those two were like-minded teammates and program leaders who arrived during a season of change in Pittsburgh along with coach Keith Gavin in 2017.
The foundation of Gavin’s thinking was to build a team of wrestlers who loved to work and get better, which was simple in concept but harder to execute.
The fact that Pitt continues to trend in that direction can be directly attributed to Bonaccorsi, who arrived just before Gavin from nearby Bethel Park High School, and to Phillippi, a three-time PA state champ from Derry Area, which sits about 40 miles from the city. They were hometown kids who had zero ego and were wrestling for a Pitt alum in Gavin which made them a near-perfect trio in light of the mess surrounding the firing of previous coach Jason Peters.
Peters was relieved of his duties in 2017 after wrestlers were found to have consumed alcohol and used a website to invite suspected prostitutes to their hotel at the Midlands Championships, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
“The year Keith started as head coach was my first year as a freshman,” Bonaccorsi said. “I felt like it was a turning point for our program. It was a real culture change. We had Keith. We had me and Micky, and we had great recruits coming in. We really tried to implement this culture of winning, trying to get better, and just being in love with the sport."
Micky Phillippi in a 2021-22 dual meet; Photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com
Phillippi said Pitt’s reputation when he was being recruited out of Derry Area didn’t sit well with him, so his decision to transfer from Virginia to Pitt came as a bit of a surprise to those close to him. Homesickness was a factor, but Phillippi was also looking for the culture that he and Bonaccorsi eventually helped to create. He wanted to be around other wrestlers who ate, slept, and breathed the sport and wanted to get better as badly as he did.
Phillippi had plenty of respect for Virginia and its wrestling program, but he just didn’t get the same feeling he sought at Pitt. At the time he made his choice, Phillippi was very much buying into Gavin, who recruited him at Virginia, and to former Pitt assistant Jordan Leen, who took the head job at Brown last summer and hired Phillippi as an assistant.
Gavin and Leen sold a vision to Phillippi and took concrete steps to fulfill it.
“I knew Keith, the kind of person he was,” Phillippi said. “And Jordan, I mean, he did the prayer at my wedding. He's one of the best people I've ever met.”
Just as Pitt ultimately proved to be the perfect place for Phillippi to develop, he was the right kid at the right time for Gavin and his staff to build as quickly as they did. As a three-time state champ with a terrific reputation locally, Phillippi’s return home added a hefty dose of credibility to what Gavin, Leen, and the Pitt staff were trying to do.
And with that, Pitt’s early nucleus started coming together.
“It was a bit of a leap of faith on his part, and I was super grateful he took it,” Gavin said. “When he did, I think it showed other people in the area that like, ‘All right, make us believe in what can happen here.’ That went a long way because he's a well-known kid from Western PA.”
The leap of faith was people-driven for Phillippi, in addition to the allure of getting back to his hometown roots with friends and family members around to support him. And not long after he made that choice, wrestling at Pitt became even more people-driven when he met Bonaccorsi, whose mindset was what he always wanted in a teammate.
Phillippi found the bizarro version of himself.
“We were at the welcome picnic, and his mom is talking to my girlfriend at the time, who's now my wife,” Phillippi said. “I don't know how it came up. It was something about not drinking, because Nino doesn't drink. And Marissa is like, ‘Oh my gosh, it looks like Micky found his friend.’”
Micky and Nino found friends in each other, but also teammates who would rather show up to empty wrestling rooms at odd hours than go take down a six-pack. They went on that journey together and were leaders of a team that started to follow their example.
NCAA All-American Cole Matthews fit right into the mode of thinking as the first recruit Gavin signed during his time at Pitt. He, too, has been on the grind for everything he’s gotten, including an All-America finish two years ago and a U23 world team trials win.
Matthews saw the same thing everyone else did, which was the closeness of Phillippi and Bonaccorsi and what they stood for as people and wrestlers. They were natural in their ability to inspire others to make a deeper commitment to the sport.
“Micky and Nino, if they didn't have their own girlfriends, you'd think they would be together, you know,” Matthews laughed. “I stepped into a good culture. So I never really had to set an example for someone or try to be someone I wasn't. I stepped in and I was just being myself. Then just being myself here was enough for me to develop.”
Pitt’s ability to recruit its own backyard and build with blue-collar Western PA kids is a big part of getting like-minded wrestlers who are ready to work. But Gavin thinks that a hardworking, winning culture has great appeal across the country. So, while the Panthers will always try to lock down their region on the recruiting trail, they’re also still thinking bigger.
“Ultimately, you want to get kids that are coming to college because they want to win nationals,” Gavin said. “I think we're proving that we have guys who can do that, in a short period of time. We’ve only been here for five NCAA tournaments. So, I think that the bigger deal is nationally. You're showing these kids from all around that you can come to Pitt and win a national title.”
The success of Bonaccorsi and Phillippi is a big step in the process of trying to build that national reputation and climb higher in the NCAA team standings. But those guys also helped set a tone about investment and what can happen when hard work meets selflessness.
That was the profound message sent by the visual of Phillippi celebrating Bonaccorsi’s NCAA title as if it were his own. The fact that Phillippi had just suffered a crushing blood-round loss for the fourth time in his career made the moment even more powerful.
“Even as freshmen, we wanted to be national champions,” Bonaccorsi said. “That was our goal. I haven't met someone quite like Micky, who is so determined and so giving, so that was a special moment between us. It was like we finally did it. Regardless if it was me or him, it was a mutual thing.”
Nino Bonaccorsi before a 2021-22 dual meet; Photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com