Under the direction of Jamie Dixon,the Pitt Panthers have risen are among the nation’s elite in NCAA basketball.
When Ben Howland left for UCLA following the 2002-2003 season, University of Pittsburgh basketball fans—who had become accustomed to winning—feared the program might go backward. As it turned out, nothing could have been farther from the truth. Under the direction of Jamie Dixon, Howland’s successor and former top assistant, the Panthers have risen to even greater heights and are truly among the nation’s elite in college basketball these days.
Dixon immediately proved that he was an excellent hire by winning his first 18 games and guiding Pitt to a school-record 31 victories during the 2003-2004 campaign. The Panthers also won the regular season title in the highly competitive Big East Conference that year and advanced to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament.
Pitt averaged 26 wins a season during the now 43-year-old Dixon’s first five years as head coach, and trips to the NCAAs remain an annual occurrence. This season, the Panthers won their first 16 games, and in early January, they were ranked No. 1 in the country for the first time in school history. Pitt’s success on the court continues to draw sellout crowds to the always-lively Petersen Events Center and also helps enable Dixon to attract top-flight talent into the program.
PM: What’s it like having a sellout crowd behind you every time your team takes the court at the Petersen Events Center?
J.D.: I don’t take it for granted, I’ll tell you that. I watch other games in other cities—and very good programs, too—and our turnout is much higher. It’s not even close. It’s definitely a tribute to the university and our support and the city and our fans. Ticket prices have gone up each year, and usually that’s not a good thing, especially in these times. But we’re still putting in more seats. This year we created high-level premium seating called the Platinum Club, and that sold out in two days. We’re creating more seats at a time when most people are trying to fill the ones they have.
PM: Naturally the success your teams have had on the court has been a big catalyst for that kind of support, hasn’t it?
J.D.: Yeah, we don’t want to understate the obvious. Success and consistency, how our guys play and how they represent the university—all of that comes into play. You’ve got to win, and I think we understand that. But it’s the style of play too—the unselfishness, the toughness. Plus, the way our kids are performing in the classroom. Our graduation rates are exceptional.
PM: Tell me about your relationship with the Oakland Zoo [the student cheering section] and what it adds to the atmosphere at the Petersen Events Center.
J.D.: Well, it’s a long history. When it was just starting, it was my second year here. It started with three guys standing up at Fitzgerald Fieldhouse when we weren’t very good. I’ve seen it grow. I’ve seen what it’s become. What it’s evolving into is not just a group at a game, but more of a student group that’s involved in campus-wide activities. That’s been fun to watch. They’re involved obviously in our games and road trips and school spirit. But they’re doing community-service projects too, and that’s something I’m very excited about.
PM: Do fans underestimate how difficult it is to get to the Final Four or to win a national championship?
J.D.: The national championship does put you in another class. There’s no question about it. And no matter how long ago you won it, it always sticks with you. That’s the other thing. It’s always part of your program. People who won national championships in the ’70s still talk about it like it was yesterday. Winning a national championship is something that we’re missing. It’s something that sticks out, and I understand that. Despite our success and consistency, the fact remains that we have to win a national championship to put ourselves with another group of schools.
PM: The NCAA Tournament’s single-elimination format does create anxious moments, doesn’t it?
J.D.: Yeah, it’s a one-game deal and the variables that really stick out are: The three-point line can change a lot of things, and foul trouble can change a lot of things. There are also match-ups, where you’re sent, where you’re seeded. There are so many variables in that one game that you have to overcome to move on.
PM: The couple of weeks the Panthers were atop the national rankings in January—in what ways was that good? And were there any ways that it wasn’t so good?
J.D.: I don’t think there were any ways it wasn’t so good. It was all positive. We’ve been ranked in that neighborhood before, but there’s a difference between being No. 1 and being No. 2 or 3 as far as national recognition, the media, the fans. We definitely experienced that, but I can’t say there were any negatives. We handled it well, and it was a great thing for our university.
PM: Folks in Pittsburgh are familiar with your coaching abilities, but tell us about Jamie Dixon the basketball player. What kind of player were you at Texas Christian University?
J.D.: (Laughing) That was a long time ago, but I guess I would be considered a late-bloomer and an overachiever at the same time. I was goal-oriented, unselfish and a team player. I’d also like to think of myself as having some mental toughness.
PM: Name one of the greatest college-basketball players you’ve ever seen.
J.D.: The first game I started in college my freshman year was against Hakeem Olajuwon. That was something I’ll always remember because he was one of the all-time greats. The personal experience of trying to front him in the post was something that I’ll always remember.