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The dramatic accomplishments of the men’s basketball team during the past few years would make a great story line for a motion picture. Jamie Dixon, the team’s head coach, could play a starring role, even though headlining is not his style.


Hollywood To Hardwood


Bill Modoono


Jamie Dixon
This may sound funny coming from a kid from Hollywood, the son of an actor, and a would-be actor himself, but Jamie Dixon is adamant on the point. “I’m not real dramatic,” he says.

No, not at all, as anyone who has watched the (what else?) dramatic rise of the University of Pittsburgh’s men’s basketball program during the past half-dozen years would surely attest. No, not Jamie Dixon, the man in the background who became the front man for a basketball program that moved rapidly into the upper echelon of college programs in America. Not Jamie Dixon, the understudy who replaced the star and continued to carry on as if it were no big deal. Not the stuff of drama, really.

Oddly enough, opening night for Dixon as head coach of the Panthers took place in Manhattan, a few subway stops from the Great White Way. Months earlier, in the spring of 2003, Dixon had been tapped to replace Ben Howland, the man who had led Pitt basketball out of the wilderness and into uncharted territory, otherwise known as the Big East championships and the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16. Howland’s teams had started out playing in front of half-empty bleachers in Fitzgerald Field House, but ended by selling out the (comparatively) palatial Petersen Events Center. Nothing short of dramatic, certainly.

Enter Dixon, the loyal assistant, who had been Howland’s first hire at Pitt. Dixon had scouted, coddled, and nurtured most of Howland’s best players. Even so, there was pressure on Pitt to hire a big-name coach with an alluring record of success. Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg considered this option but, instead, took a riskier path. During the previous year’s Final Four games, he had been impressed by several coaches who were not “big names” when their universities hired them.

“It looked to me as if reaching into the assistants’ ranks had been a very good move for some other fine universities,” Nordenberg later told The New York Times.

In the end, Dixon was best for Pitt. For a career assistant coach, just 37 years old, it was quite an opportunity—the kind that has been known to unnerve even those who, like Dixon, had worked their whole lives for it.

And so it was that in November of 2003, four days after his 38th birthday, Dixon found himself in Madison Square Garden about to make his coaching debut in one of the world’s most famous arenas. Surely, this was a big moment. Surely, this was drama.

And yet, in the middle of it all, Dixon was calm—almost abnormally calm. “I know I’m supposed to feel nervous and excited,” he told Greg Hotchkiss, Pitt’s associate athletics media relations director, minutes before the game. “But I don’t.”

No need for stage fright. Dixon, in the great tradition of Broadway understudies, was ready when his moment arrived. Pitt won that first game against Alabama, 71-62, and before you knew it, he had settled in to running a team that would go 31-5, win the Big East regular season championship, and advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament for a third consecutive season. High drama? Nah, that wouldn’t have been Jamie Dixon.

It’s easy to say now that all the years of toiling in the anonymous vineyards of college basketball assistant coaching had prepared Dixon for his chance of a lifetime. Easy, except there are lots of anonymous, hardworking assistants out there, and plenty of them can’t make that final step, can’t cross over to the big stage. The job changes them, or they change to fit the job, but in either case, things don’t work the same.

Dixon understands the theory behind the need to change. When you’re an assistant coach, you are someone the players see more as a confidant than an authority figure. Someone who protects them from the wrath of the head coach. Someone who knew them when they were boys in high school, someone who knows their parents, someone who demonstrated trust by offering them a scholarship. Not quite their buddy, but certainly a friend. Someone to count on.

In contrast, the head coach is supposed to stand above the players as some sort of father figure. The man who metes out discipline. The man who has to make the hard decisions about who will play and how much, and, therefore, a man who has to distance himself from the players whose fates he controls. This is the way it works at most places; this is the way it should work, many will say. Except Dixon—who had spent 14 years as an assistant observing how things worked before he got the chance to be in charge—didn’t understand why it necessarily had to be that way. “I didn’t let the job change me,” says Dixon. “I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to let the job determine my personality.”

Dixon says now he would have felt more uncomfortable if he had stepped into an assistant coaching role at some other school rather than becoming head coach at Pitt. He had been here six years, an eternity in the peripatetic life of a college basketball assistant coach. He knew the city, the University, the players, the system, and most importantly, he knew who he was.

“I was asked by a reporter before the start of the 2003-04 season to tell who I was most impressed with in preseason,” says Barry Rohrssen, associate head coach, who stayed on after Howland departed for UCLA. “He thought I was going to say Carl Krauser or Mark McCarroll, but I shocked him. I told him Jamie Dixon.

“He does a great job. He’s organized, calm, and a great teacher. That’s him: He makes all the players better.”

It’s likely that Dixon always will be known as a “player’s coach,” a title that doesn’t automatically carry respect with the average fan. But the story of how Dixon got the job sealed his fate. It seems that while Chancellor Nordenberg was mulling over his choices, he received an unsolicited Dixon endorsement from Krauser. A junior from the Bronx, Krauser was hardly neutral in the matter. For one, he was about to become the Panthers’ starting point guard. For another, Dixon is one of his favorite people in the world. “Family” is a word he is not afraid to use in describing his relationship with his head coach.

It seems Krauser spotted Chancellor Nordenberg on campus one day in the spring of 2003 and ran after him to tell the Chancellor why Jamie Dixon would make a great head coach. Months after the fact, his opinion of Dixon hasn’t changed.

“I believe in him as a coach,” says Krauser, who under Dixon’s guidance stepped in for the departed Brandin Knight as offensive leader and helped direct Pitt to another outstanding season. “He always keeps learning and listening. He fills you with positive information. He understands the players’ and the coaches’ viewpoints. He gives players options.”

Being that open and understanding can be a recipe for disaster, of course, but in Dixon’s case, it is a reflection of his wanting to treat his players the way he was treated as a player. Not his team’s best player, he was the undisputed on-court leader when he played at Texas Christian University in the mid-1980s.

Even today, almost two decades after his playing days, his passion is visible at TCU. Of course, to see it, you may have to watch some old game tapes on Betamax, but it’s there.

“I put the Beta on just the other day,” says Bill Montigel, a former TCU assistant basketball coach who recruited Dixon from California and now serves as TCU’s golf head coach. “When I did, I saw this guy wearing those short shorts, diving all over the floor, playing real gritty. I knew in an instant, it was Jamie.

“He was not the fastest player we had, not the most physically gifted, but he was the most determined, and he worked the hardest.”

“He was one of those rare players who gave you everything they had to give every day,” says Jim Killingsworth, Dixon’s head coach at TCU. “He was one of those guys when you put him in the game, the team changed for the better.”

A player like that you can count on every game, and so it was that Killingsworth came to trust and count on Dixon. And that’s how it works now with Dixon and his players. He’ll trust them, if they prove they can handle it. He gives his players freedom, but, in return, he says he expects great things. “I have high expectations, both on and off the court. But I also have confidence in them.”

Dixon demonstrated that confidence in many ways during his first season as coach. The Panthers were notoriously slow starters offensively, and invariably they would fall behind early in games. Most notable in the series may have been a home game against Villanova in which the Panthers “jumped out” to a 17-3 deficit on a circuitous trip to a somehow convincing 59-45 victory. Dixon may have been the only Pitt person in the Petersen Center who wasn’t concerned about the sluggish start.

“Teams feed off their coach,” says Dixon, by way of explanation. “To show panic would not be of benefit to the team.”

Nor did Dixon show much concern that as a rookie coach he had to go head-to-head against some of the legends of his game, such as Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun, and Eddie Sutton. Or that he was approaching national records for wins by a first-year coach.

He was always the same Jamie—positive, upbeat, and unflappable, not changed either by success or the prospect of failure.

“His players really respond to him, because he believes in them,” says his sister Maggie, now an assistant women’s basketball coach at DePaul University in Chicago. If Maggie’s career choice implies that basketball runs in the Dixon family, it’s probably just because Jamie put it there.

His father was an actor, and young Jamie seemed headed for a similar career. He scored a number of TV commercials as a child, something he attributes solely to the fact that he had prominent dimples, not to any innate talent or love of acting. “When he was 4, he was adorable,” Maggie insists.

“Our parents both taught us to go after what we love,” says Maggie, who is 12 years younger than Jamie. In a sense, being close to the acting world and understanding its ups and downs may have prepared both Jamie and Maggie for the hard knocks that come with basketball coaching.

“Jamie went into the right profession,” says Killingsworth, his former coach. “Some of us don’t need to be there, but Jamie did.”

Still, it wasn’t a straight progression. When Dixon finished at TCU, he tried his hand at playing professionally. He was drafted in 1987 by the Washington Bullets, played professionally for the La Crosse (Wis.) Catbirds of what is now the Continental Basketball Association, and he also played professionally in New Zealand.

His playing career was a semi-springboard into coaching in that he ruptured his pancreas playing in a game in Holland, was hospitalized for three months, and ate no food for 50 days.

Of this life-altering experience, the always nondramatic Dixon says: “It was interesting.”

Well, whatever. It certainly drove him back to America and into coach-ing. He became a graduate assistant at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where Howland was the top assistant.

Actually, the two had met previously, because Howland scouted Dixon as a high school player for UCSB and decided to pass on him. “It was a huge mistake,” says Howland. “I was not very smart then.”

Ah, but Dixon was. As a graduate assistant at Santa Barbara, Dixon received no salary, but he did get free tuition, which he used toward earning a master’s degree in economics. “It’s quite amazing when he did that,” says his sister Maggie. “To have a full course load and work as a coach—that tells you how hardworking he is.”

Moreover, he has applied his academic background to his current endeavor. He has always been a great believer in the truth of statistics, and he much prefers gathering that kind of evidence to listening to fans, the media, or the game’s many pundits. For instance, he gets a kick out of the fact that while his 2003-04 team was cited for its defensive excellence and derided for its offensive inadequacies, he can point to statistics that show his team had the best shooting percentage in the Big East. Good defense can lead to good offense, and Dixon has the numerical proof.

Dixon’s combination of a likable personality with an analytical mind helped him become a successful, humble assistant coach. At his first job as a paid assistant coach at the University of Hawaii, he made a lasting impression on Head Coach Riley Wallace. “Riley called me up to tell me what a great guy Jamie was,” says Killingsworth. “He was a rookie coach, but after seeing what he could do, Riley simply turned the defense over to him to take care of.”

After his stint at Hawaii, he went back with Howland, sticking with him for five seasons at Northern Arizona and six seasons at Pitt before getting his big break. Only, it wasn’t really a break.

“He was more than prepared for the head coaching job,” says Howland, who was ready to grab Dixon as his top assistant coach if Pitt passed on him. Pitt didn’t, and Howland isn’t surprised by the results:

“The program is lucky to have him.”

Bill Modoono is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer and a former columnist for The Pittsburgh Press and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

 

 

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