Jamie Dixon: Winning His Way

Peers, players, and regular observers know him to be one of the best coaches — and people — in college basketball.


PHOTOS BY BECKY THURNER BRADDOCK & University of Pittsburgh athletic department

 

Bourbon Street was at its spicy best in early April 2003. The rhythmic clicks of horse-drawn carriages barely were audible over the horns, the hoots and the distinctive NOLA hollers. This was Final Four weekend, the NCAA’s showcase event; that year, Syracuse, Texas, Marquette and Kansas were vying for the championship in New Orleans.

College hoops fans invaded the streets day and night, verbally jousting between swigs of Hurricanes and Abita Purple Haze.

“Everybody needs to realize what they’ve got in Jamie. He’s not just a great coach, he’s a great representative of that city, that university.”
— ESPN analyst Jay Bilas 

In the midst of this mayhem, three gentlemen from Pittsburgh ducked into a local cafe for brunch and a lengthy meeting. The future of men’s basketball at the University of Pittsburgh would never be the same.

Former Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and then-interim Athletic Director Marc Boehm sat down with assistant coach Jamie Dixon to discuss the Panthers’ vacant head coaching position. Ben Howland recently had left for UCLA, and the Pitt hierarchy was looking to build on the outgoing coach’s four-year run, which saw the Panthers make it to the Sweet Sixteen in 2002 and ’03 — their deepest journey into the tournament since 1974.

Almost at once, Nordenberg was awestruck by the generally reserved Dixon. The two-hour session was equal parts enlightening and unforgettable. A coaching superstar was emerging.

“Two things powerfully stood out,” says Nordenberg, recalling the conversation with enthusiasm, as if it happened last week. “First, Jamie said, ‘You have my promise that I will never make the university look bad.’ Second, Jamie was 37 years old at the time. And he reminded me that I was 37 when another chancellor believed in me and made me the dean of the [Pitt] Law School . . . We sometimes need to give people chances, opportunities to grow. He spoke with great passion and great ambition.

“He was extremely persuasive,” Nordenberg adds. “This was a man who convinced me that he would be great for our university, great for our city.”

Nearly 12 years after the Big Meeting in the Big Easy, Dixon is producing big results in the town he proudly calls his own. As he walks into his neatly organized office at the Petersen Events Center on a cold winter morning, he apologizes for moving back an interview. “Kids had a two-hour delay,” he says. “It’s that time of year here.”

A Pittsburgher, indeed. Directly above Dixon is a shelf filled with basketballs commemorating great wins and milestones reached as Pitt’s long-tenured head coach. To his left is a trophy case filled with national coaching awards.

Mere days after that conversation, Dixon notched his 300th career victory against Florida State, making him one of only four coaches in history to do so in 12 seasons or fewer. Even the greats — Bob Knight, Dean Smith, John Thompson — hadn’t achieved that plateau in so few games.

But don’t ask Dixon to discuss such feats.

“Sometimes, maybe I wish I could enjoy it a little more,” he says, as the sounds of bouncing basketballs echo from the court below him. “But it’s just the way it is for me in this business. You always have to look ahead, look at the next thing.

“I guess, as you say, it is hard to smell the roses.”
 

 

 

 

For Pitt basketball fans, success has been sweet during Dixon’s reign. To wit:
 

  • He won his first 18 games in 2003-04, a streak that ranks third all-time for a rookie NCAA coach. Pitt finished 31-5, won the Big East Conference regular-season title and again reached the Sweet Sixteen.
     
  • He set NCAA Division I all-time records for most victories after six seasons (163), seven seasons (188, tied with Gonzaga’s Mark Few) and eight seasons (216). He entered 2014-15 with the fourth-most wins in 11 years; for his career, he’s averaging 26 victories per season.
     
  • He has led Pitt to its only two 30-win seasons (2003-04 and 2008-09), its first No. 1 ranking (2008-09) and first No. 1 seeds entering the NCAA Tournament (2009 and 2011).
     
  • He’s reached the NCAA Tournament in 10 of his first 11 seasons, including three trips to the Sweet Sixteen and one to the Elite Eight. He came within a buzzer-beating basket from reaching the 2009 Final Four.
     
  • He has been named National Coach of the Year by four different organizations.
     

The list seemingly is endless for Dixon. Still, a faction of the fan base wants more. Those people contend the Panthers haven’t won enough in the NCAA Tournament, citing no trips past the round of 32 since the 2008-09 team lost the heartbreaker to Villanova in the Elite Eight. To his credit, Dixon confronts the criticism head-on.

“I know where the fans are coming from. I always want more, too,” Dixon says. “It’s like I was saying about reflecting on my accomplishments: I have a hard time doing it. I’m always looking to do more — improving, getting better. I understand it. We all want the same thing.”

One moment that won’t show up on Dixon’s stunning resume occurred just after his first Big East Tournament title in 2008. As the final seconds ticked away in the victory over Georgetown, guard Levance Fields tossed the ball into the crowd at Madison Square Garden. An employee of the venue quickly retrieved it and rushed past celebrating Panthers players to deliver it to Dixon. Without hesitation, Dixon took the ball directly to Nordenberg. It was a show of loyalty and respect to the man who gambled on a young and unknown assistant years earlier.

“Jamie said to me, ‘You really deserve this for the opportunity you gave me and for the support you continue to give me,’” says Nordenberg, who was named Chancellor Emeritus at Pitt at the conclusion of his tenure in August. “That meant about as much to me as anything that I can remember. On and off the court, he’s a special person.”
 


 

On the court, the accolades keep coming for Dixon. Perhaps his greatest feat, however, is posting the all-time best winning percentage in Big East Conference games.

“It’s a defining achievement,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas says.

During Dixon’s 10 years in the Big East (Pitt moved to the Atlantic Coast Conference before the 2013-14 season), he posted a .658 winning percentage with a record of 127-66 against conference competition. That total ranks ahead of such legends as John Thompson of Georgetown (.656), Jim Boeheim of Syracuse (.653), Rick Pitino of Providence and Louisville (.651), Lou Carnesecca of St. John’s (.633) and Jim Calhoun of Connecticut (.630).

Boeheim, whose program moved to the ACC along with Pitt, marveled recently at Dixon’s Big East brilliance. Dixon went a combined 18-11 versus Boeheim and Calhoun, both members of the Basketball Hall of Fame, while in the Big East.

“The thing about Jamie is not only did he have the best record, but he did it when the league was probably as difficult to play in as [it was at] any other time in history,” says Boeheim, who coached in the Big East for 34 years and ranks second all-time in NCAA victories. “He made it happen because his teams play great defense and they work hard, like him. Good doesn’t describe Jamie as a coach; he’s great. He’s taken that program to a place and to a level never before seen [at Pitt]. It’s incredible what’s happening in Pittsburgh — and it’s because of Jamie Dixon.”

Before Dixon was making Big East history and being viewed by peers as an “instant success,” there was the avalanche trip — a trial Dixon endured while an assistant coach under Howland at Northern Arizona University. It was a sojourn that defined him as a dogged, workaholic coach — and as a grinder of epic proportions.

“Maybe a little crazy, too,” Dixon says.

Dixon was in his second year as Howland’s assistant in 1995; their team had just lost another game. Frustrated, Dixon told Howland he’d seen enough. He asked if he could get in his car and drive to Denver to recruit better players. Howland gave his blessing.

“We thought it was a six- or eight-hour drive [to Denver] from where we were in Flagstaff, Ariz.,” Howland says, laughing. “It was a little longer than we thought.”

Without the luxury of a GPS, cell phone or computer, Dixon drove. And drove. Eight hours turned to 10. Then 12. And then 14.

“Ben was a little off in his estimation,” Dixon says. “I was on the road twice as long as I’d thought I’d be.”

Worse, Dixon found himself caught by an avalanche outside of Denver. Massive piles of snow engulfed him. He had no means of communication. Walking through the drifts to locate a pay phone was not an option.

With nowhere to go, he pulled his car over, went to sleep and waited until highway officials cleared the roadway.

“I had to finish that trip. Had to,” Dixon says. “I waited it out.”

He made it to Denver in time to land his man. Coveted recruit Billy Hix later committed to Northern Arizona and led the school to the NCAA Tournament in 1998. It put Howland on the coaching map and led to his hiring at Pitt in 1999.

“That trip tells you what you need to know about Jamie,” says Howland, an analyst for NBC Sports and Fox since leaving the UCLA job after 10 seasons. “It was horrendous. He could have turned around at some point. But you know something, that’s not him. You can’t outwork the guy. He’s the hardest worker I’ve ever been around, ever. The way he goes about his job is unparalleled. All the time he puts in observing, watching film, coaching, recruiting. He doesn’t stop, he really doesn’t. I’ve been around some great people, the best in our profession. Nobody grinds harder. Nobody works harder. He is tireless.”
 


 

Howland not only calls Dixon his best friend, but he also says he never could have revitalized the Pitt program without him. They met when Howland watched Dixon as a prep player at Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, Calif. They later would reunite as assistants at the University of California, Santa Barbara, after Dixon’s playing career took him to Texas Christian University and professionally in the minor league Continental Basketball Association and overseas in New Zealand.

“He loved the game and you could see that it was his entire life,” Howland says. “That’s the kind of guy I wanted to be around. So I helped get him the job with [head coach] Jerry Pimm at Cal-Santa Barbara. We were ready, and when we got the chance, we went and we built up the programs at Northern Arizona and at Pitt. We did it together. The rest is history.”

Before Howland and Dixon arrived at Pitt, the program was in flux. The Panthers had not been to the NCAA Tournament in seven years, and head coach Ralph Willard was fired after five unfulfilling seasons. Year One netted a 13-15 record, but everything changed in the second year of the Howland-Dixon era.

The turning point was at the 2001 Big East Tournament, where Pitt never had won more than one game. Surprisingly, the Panthers made it to the title game at Madison Square Garden before losing by 22 points to Boston College.

Those four days were among the most significant of the Howland-Dixon era.

They proved to Panthers players, fans and foes that Pitt was preparing to flex its muscles against the big boys of the Big East. Literally.

Howland and Dixon recruited and developed players who were willing to outwork, out-tough and out-defend the opposition. Pitt practices became legendary for their physicality, with players exiting with bruises and bloody noses.

It was a style that would ultimately become a signature of the program.

This blueprint led to the school’s first Big East Tournament title in 2003 and consecutive trips to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. Howland left for UCLA after the second tournament appearance, but the template was in place. Dixon continued to raise the bar, preaching the virtues of defense, rebounding and offensive efficiency. To this day, it enables him to win without the benefit of teams loaded with high-school All-Americans — like the Kentuckys, Dukes and North Carolinas of the college basketball world.
“He wins because he’s built a culture here,” says Pitt assistant Brandin Knight, who played for the Howland-Dixon teams. “You are challenged to be great. The kids see it, and they push each other. He likes it that way. And what makes Jamie different is that he still approaches a lot of things in this business as if he were an assistant coach, in that he grinds it out and puts in the work. He’ll still get in his car and drive long distances to see a recruit. Most coaches at big-time schools are hopping on planes. Not him. He just goes. Doesn’t say a word. And he gets the job done.”

Not that Dixon didn’t have a skeptic or two early in his tenure. Calhoun was one of them. The former Connecticut coach had great respect for Dixon but was reluctant to accept Pitt as a major force in the Big East.

“With Ben and then Jamie, Pitt was trying to become the new player on the block,” says Calhoun, who won three national titles before retiring in late 2012. “They wanted to be a rival of ours. But we said, ‘No, we have our rivals.’ There was Syracuse and Georgetown and then Louisville came into the picture. And we basically said, ‘You guys don’t fit in here.’”

Calhoun changed his tune, however, after some epic regular-season and Big East Tournament battles. In Dixon’s first season, the teams authored a back-and-forth slugfest in the Big East Tournament final that narrowly went to Connecticut, 61-58. Five years later, fourth-ranked Pitt toppled No. 1 Connecticut in arguably the most memorable game played at the Petersen Events Center. The old guard was changing.

“Fact is, Jamie took Pittsburgh to even higher levels than where Ben had it,” Calhoun says. “You now had to go through Pittsburgh if you wanted to win the Big East. The rivalry eventually got to the front-burner for us. We would circle it on the schedule every year.

“Stylistically, Jamie makes his teams very difficult to beat. First, he has kids who are there for four or five years. And they are tough, and they’re winners. Those kids come in ready for a fistfight. They tell you: We will rebound. We will defend you. We will try to make you crack. They can psychologically wear teams down. That starts with their coach. Jamie’s teams have this tough, Pittsburgh-like personality. They emulate their coach; they emulate the city.”
 


 

Dixon smiles when he is referred to as a Pittsburgh guy. He embraces the reference, but he also recognizes that he was raised in North Hollywood, had a run as a child actor (he was dunked on by a flying female in a memorable Bud Light commercial) and married a West Coast native. Nonetheless, ESPN’s Bilas, who grew up 30 minutes from Dixon in San Pedro, Calif., thinks Steel Town, not surfboards, when it comes to Dixon.

“His bio tells you he is a California guy, but most everyone I talk to thinks he’s from the East Coast, from Pittsburgh,” Bilas says. “That’s where he fits.”

Dixon’s grandfather, John, left his native County Mayo, Ireland, for Pittsburgh to escape poverty in the late 1920s. John found construction work at Duquesne University. He also found the love of his life, Bridget Coyne, another transplant from County Mayo. Bridget served as a nanny — so the story goes — to Pittsburgh Pirates great Pie Traynor.
“Don’t have pictures,” Dixon admits. “Maybe she was a babysitter, maybe it was a one-day thing, but the story was she worked for the Traynors,” he says. He became a Pirates fan as a youngster after hearing so much about the city.

John and Bridget Dixon eventually earned enough money to move from Pittsburgh to the Bronx, N.Y.; much of their family already had migrated there. They wed in New York and started their own family, which included Jamie’s father, Jim, who became an actor, screenwriter and producer. Jim later would serve as the best man at his son’s 1999 wedding to Jacqueline, whom Jamie met while working as an assistant at the University of Hawaii. Jim’s speech would evoke tears.

“He spoke eloquently about how his parents came to Pittsburgh so many years earlier and started their life together,” Jamie Dixon recalls with pride. “And now, he said, ‘It has come full circle. My son is going to start his family in Pittsburgh.’”

Until that moment, Jacqueline was unaware of the Dixon-to-Pittsburgh connection. She says it was comforting to learn of that rich history, given that she was born in San Francisco, raised in Hawaii and always had lived in the western half of the country.

“It made me feel like this was meant to be,” says Jacqueline, whose children Jack, 12, and Shannon, 10, can be called native Pittsburghers. “I will admit that, at first, I thought we were moving to an old steel town. But I was pleasantly surprised. I saw right away that it was just a beautiful city, that it was such a fun place. A great place. We like to go biking at Moraine State Park. We’ve been to Ohiopyle. Jamie would love to take the bikes and do the rails-to-trails to Washington, D.C., when we have the time. There’s so much we love about this town, and I’m so glad that this is where we ended up.”

“One of the challenges you face when you build a successful program is that you feed the monster [of ravenous fans], and the mouth gets larger and larger — they want it all.” — Retired UCONN Head Coach Jim Calhoun 

Based on a contract that runs through the 2022-23 season, Dixon, 49, has the potential to become one of the longest-tenured coaches in Pittsburgh sports history. He is three years shy of equaling Bill Cowher’s 15 seasons with the Steelers and 11 shy of Chuck Noll’s 23-year mark. To put his 12 years in perspective, consider that the Penguins have gone through four coaches during that span, the Pirates four, Robert Morris three and Duquesne three. What’s more, Dixon has been at Pitt longer than any football or basketball coach in the past 45 years.

And his success rate nearly is unequalled among past and present local coaches. With a career winning percentage of .748 in mid-January, his numbers were better than any local Division I basketball coach, Steelers coach, Penguins coach or Pirates manager since 1915. Only Pitt football coaches Jackie Sherrill, Jock Sutherland and Pop Warner boast better winning percentages — all exceeded .800 — in the past century.
 


 

Yet criticism still bubbles up — particularly from those who count a championship as the only goal. Calhoun and Boeheim can relate to Dixon when it comes to hearing negative feedback from the “Final-Four-or-Bust” faction. It took Calhoun 13 years to reach his first Final Four after becoming UConn’s coach in 1986; it took Boeheim 11. Calhoun won the national title that season and Boeheim’s team finished as runner-up.

“One of the challenges you face when you build a successful program is that you feed the monster [of ravenous fans], and the mouth gets larger and larger — they want it all,” Calhoun says. “When we won our first Big East championship, I thought they were going to build a statue for us . . . It didn’t happen. Then we get to the tournament, but that wasn’t enough. For Jamie, he’s won so much with Big East championships and trips to the NCAA Tournament, [but] everyone wants the Holy Grail. They want to be there, in the Final Four. The fans need to be patient, but that’s just not how it works.”

Bilas adds that highly ambitious fans — admittedly an inescapable factor in the coaching profession — should tread lightly with Dixon.

“For some coaches, after a period of time, they move on to other jobs,” Bilas says. “It’s a reality of the business. Jamie’s never struck me that way, but if I were a supporter of Pittsburgh basketball, I’d worry about taking him for granted. There are other jobs out there — and I know he’s happy and I know he’s made his family there — but there are realities, too. His name comes up when there are openings and to this point, fortunately for Pitt, he’s been loyal. It’s a fan’s right to complain, but everybody needs to realize what they’ve got in Jamie. He’s not just a great coach, he’s a great representative of that city, that university.”

To little fanfare, Dixon has cultivated an environment that combines winning basketball with a devotion to academics. In three of the past four years, Pitt has ranked among the top 10 percent of the 351-team NCAA on its Academic Progress Rate. The APR takes into account academic progress, graduation and retention rates over a four-year period. Among ACC schools, only Pitt, Duke and Notre Dame have rated among the top 10 in APR in three of the past four years. Four Panthers — Cameron Wright, Josh Newkirk, Jamel Artis and Michael Young — made the ACC All-Academic team last season.

“You want your [players] to be ready for life after basketball,” Dixon says. “You want them to be well-rounded and prepared for as much as possible.”

Prepared, as in knowing how to react in an encounter with two women struggling to get out of an overturned SUV, as Dixon did on Interstate 279 in 2010; the Pitt coach brought both women to safety. Or visiting children at local hospitals, as Dixon often does. Or honoring the memory of a beloved family member, as he continues to do for late sister and former Army women’s basketball coach Maggie Dixon, who died abruptly of a heart arrhythmia in 2006 at age 28.

Or — as he has done for more than two decades — forming indelible bonds with players. Wright, a fifth-year senior, recalls Dixon showing up at his home hours after his father died on Nov. 9, 2012. Kevin Wright passed away at age 48 after battling brain cancer for more than a year. Distraught, Cameron Wright needed a shoulder to cry on, a stabilizing force. He got it in Dixon.

“Coach was there for me and my mom at the worst time of my life,” says Wright, whose family moved from Cleveland to Pittsburgh after he selected Pitt over Ohio State. “I’ll never forget what he did that day. He brought my mother a gift; he gave me support. He’s not just a coach to his players. He’s a friend. He’ll be my friend — and will be for so many of us who have played for him — for life. I believed he was a great person when he recruited me, and he didn’t let me down.”

Howland said Dixon is a rarity in the cutthroat world of college basketball because he hasn’t been tainted by fame, fortune or success. To Howland, Dixon is no different today than he was as a skinny high-school kid in California: humble, hard working and honorable.

“There is not a better person in the coaching profession than Jamie Dixon,” Howland says, slowly biting off his words. “There are things he does that nobody knows about or talks about. Charitable things. The trips to hospitals. The great Christian that he is. He has so much to offer as a coach, as a man.

“He’s going to win at Pitt. He’s going to make it to the Final Four. He’s going to get that championship,” Howland adds. “And when he does, you will know that he did it the right way. You will know that he did it Jamie Dixon’s way.”
 

 

Joe Bendel is a freelance writer for several publications, including Athlon’s college football and basketball magazines. He hosted the “Joe Bendel Show” on 970-ESPN radio for seven years through 2013 while also serving as post-game host on the Steelers Radio Network. He also spent 13 years at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, where he was the beat writer covering the Pittsburgh Steelers during their Super Bowl run in 2005 and also covered Pitt football and basketball for nearly a decade.

 

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