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Track coach finds career at his alma mater

Story by Nathalia Barr, Managing Editor

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Almost all Baker University coaches were student-athletes at one time, but only a few can say they once played here and came back for their professional career at their alma mater. Head track and field coach Ryan Pitts is one of those few BU coaches, but coming back was never in his plans.

“As far as coming back and starting my career here, that never crossed my mind,” Pitts said.

Pitts, a California native, has a story of many twists and turns, but now he says everything seems to be falling into place.

After attending junior college, Pitts was set on playing football for a Division II school. When he attended a junior college combine, Pitts met Baker’s offensive coordinator and was convinced to set up a campus visit.

“I wanted to be somewhere where I would be effective and make a difference in the program,” Pitts said.

The Baker football coaching staff knew he would make a difference here, and recruited Pitts to come be a Wildcat and even introduced him to the track and field coach. Baldwin City was far different than what he was accustomed to. However, an offer to play football and run track was one that Pitts could not turn down.

As a Baker Wildcat, Pitts was an NAIA All-American wide receiver in 2005, and in 2006 he qualified for nationals in intermediate and high hurdles. This success, however, did not come quickly for Pitts.

Fall of 2003 was Pitts’ first semester as a Baker Wildcat, but he says it was all kind of going wrong. Being an out-of-state student athlete was a tough adjustment for Pitts, and after one semester, his grades were poor. He recognized that he would take the next semester to work on his academics to get his grades up. Unfortunately for Pitts, because he was a transfer student, he did not get put on academic probation to have a chance to raise his grades. He lost all of his scholarships.

Pitts could not afford school without the help of his scholarships, so he decided to leave. Dan Harris, the athletic director at the time, sat down with him and laid out all of his options.

“What ate at me the most was, was this the legacy I wanted to leave behind at Baker?” Pitts said.

Pitts knew he had been lazy, and he refused to let “that dumb football player stereotype” become his reputation. After a long talk, Pitts and Harris decided he would work for the spring semester, take classes over the summer to get his grades up and appeal to come back to Baker the next year.

When the fall of 2004 came around, Pitts had successfully appealed to come back to Baker. He was getting his second chance.

“It was a sense of self gratitude for myself to make it back in and earn my scholarship back,” Pitts said.

While he was gone, Mike Grossner was hired as the new head football coach. Grossner had seen Pitts on some film, so he was excited to have him back in a Wildcat uniform.

“He was our go-to guy,” Grossner said, “and a real threat in the pass game.”

Pitts ended his football and track careers with much success and graduated with a degree in history, minoring in physical education. After graduation, Pitts went back to California to coach track and football at his high school. It was long before even coming to college, though, when Pitts knew he wanted to coach.

“Even just playing football in the street with my friends and in middle school,” Pitts recalled, “I was always the one calling plays.”

Pitts remembered in his days of Pop Warner football, he would always analyze his coaches and think about what he would have done if he were the coach.

Pitts coached for several high schools, worked for JetBlue Airlines and maintained a relationship with Grossner after graduating. He even helped in the recruiting process when he saw a standout player that would be a great addition to Baker’s team.

In 2014, Grossner asked Pitts if he wanted to come back, get his masters and be on the coaching staff – another offer he could not turn down. Pitts worked with the wide receivers and also joined the track and field coaching staff, led by the late Zach Kindler.

Soon after Pitts joined the track and field coaching staff, Kindler tragically passed away and the assistant coaches had to keep the program going. When the athletic department started looking for a head track and field coach, Grossner encouraged Pitts to apply.

“My goal was to get him hired somewhere,” Grossner said, “but when that opened up, it fit him perfect, it fit us and it was perfect timing. He just needed a chance.”

That chance was very real for Pitts, and he took the opportunity. Last season both the men and women won the indoor and outdoor Heart of America Athletic Conference Championships. This season, the men have already won the indoor Heart Championship and are hoping to do the same in outdoor. As head coach, Pitts wants to see progression not only in his athletes, but also in himself.

“I have to be my own coach,” Pitts said, “and create my legacy while building on the foundation and success that (Kindler) was able to start with the program.”

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Track coach finds career at his alma mater