Sister's death still unexplained for Pitt's Dixon

Originally Published: May 12, 2006
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

PITTSBURGH -- This has been a tough week for Pitt coach Jamie Dixon and his family. His sister Maggie would have turned 29 Tuesday.

It has been five weeks since Maggie, the first-year women's head coach at Army who led the Black Knights to their first NCAA Tournament berth, died suddenly after an arrhythmia episode, and to understand what Jamie has been going through is almost impossible.

Sunday Conversation
SportsCenterAndy Katz's exclusive interview with Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon was SportsCenter's Sunday Conversation on May 14. If you missed it, watch it on ESPN.com -- Click here ESPN Motion

The time around Maggie's death was filled with raw emotion. There was the physical drain of flying across the country for a funeral in their native California, then returning to his home in Pittsburgh before driving up to West Point, N.Y., for Maggie's burial. There also has been the pressure of running his own basketball program and dealing with the draft declaration of center Aaron Gray and the departures of assistant coaches Barry Rohrssen and Joe Lombardi for head coaching jobs.

Then there has been the endless inflow of mail and e-mail from friends, colleagues, strangers, even military personnel from around the globe and the repeated attempts to make sense of something that never will make any at all.

Somehow, throughout it all, he is staying stable. In a lengthy interview with ESPN on Thursday, Jamie was able to reflect upon his sister's life, her legacy and the horrible day when she collapsed.

"I think she'll be remembered as a person [who] loved life, loved people and being around all types of people," he said. "She enjoyed every minute of her life. She'll always be remembered as the coach at West Point, [as] someone [who] seemed to be on top of the world. She impacted a lot of people in such a short amount of time, and why something like this happens will always be asked. Why a person who did everything so right, would have something like this happen so suddenly.

"I'll remember the special times, and she'll always be an inspiration to me. [She] always has been and [will] continue to do so for us and our family. She's in our thoughts always. I'll never go a day without thinking about her. I never did before."

The family never was prouder than this past March, when Maggie led Army to the Patriot League basketball title with a win over Holy Cross and was carried off the court by the cadets. Later that night, Pitt beat Louisville in the first round of the Big East tournament. The Dixon family started the evening at West Point, and some then made it down to Madison Square Garden.

Jamie Dixon
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesDixon's been trying to keep his own program going while dealing with the loss of his sister.

"That was a great day, a great whole week for our family," Jamie said. "We were in the Big East tournament, and Maggie was hosting and won the [Patriot] championship.

"I remember being in the locker room and finding out that they won. I was so excited and wished I could have been there."

Maggie came down that night. In the morning, brother and sister -- who were 12 years apart but as close as fraternal twins -- watched a tape of the game.

"Only Maggie could have pulled that off," he said. "The whole year was great for our family."

It was a year that almost never was. Jamie was so protective of Maggie, then an assistant at DePaul, that when she told him she was going to interview at Army, Jamie called all around to find out about the U.S. Military Academy. He knew there were only an estimated 600 women on campus and wanted to make sure it was a good situation for her.

He called Texas Tech assistant coach Pat Knight to get a feel for the academy through his father, Bob, but before Jamie could offer up advice, Maggie called him back and said she had taken the job. He said there was no way he could have talked her out of it even if he had tried.

Maggie became Army's head coach just days before the season started in October.

Jamie didn't originally plan to go to the news conference. He had set up a recruiting home visit in New York, but he called the recruit and asked whether he could put it off for a few days so he could go. Jamie was there, front and center, with his parents, his sister Julie, and an aunt and uncle. It is one of those memories that now will remain forever, knowing he made the extra effort to be there.

Maggie Dixon and Jamie Dixon with Army AD
USMA/Mady SalvaniJamie made the extra effort to make it for Maggie's introduction at Army.

The two of them talked daily throughout the season. The conversations weren't just about basketball but also about everything else that was going on in life. Maggie had a zest for art, music, cinema and culture that Jamie admits he lacks. They also talked ball.

Julie grew up playing tennis, but Maggie caught the basketball bug by watching her older brother play at TCU. She was tall, had a feel for the game and always wanted to be around the sport. She loved going to the men's Final Four as much as she would enjoy attending the women's event when she was an assistant and then a head coach.

In the last six months, Jamie and Maggie were together quite a bit. She would venture down to Pitt when possible, but more often than not, they would meet in New York when he was recruiting. He would drive up to West Point and stay at her house, or she would come down to his hotel. She would get to his games in the area when she could. This March, she chose to go to Indianapolis to be with him, his wife and two small children at the men's Final Four before spending two days at the women's Final Four in Boston.

"We were all together those last couple of weeks, so many different places," Dixon said. "It was special."

Jamie had to recruit in New York on the Wednesday after the men's Final Four. He went to West Point on Tuesday night.

"We stayed up watching the women's championship game and watched that game together and talked about [how] someday we could [both] win a national championship," Dixon said. "We watched the game, and both of us went to sleep. We got up in the morning, had breakfast and worked out."

Jamie said Maggie was tired and slept in a bit, but he figured that was because she had gone to Final Fours in two cities in four days.

"I was going to head off recruiting, and she seemed fine," Dixon said.

The first stop, though, was Portsmouth, Va., where former Pitt point guard Carl Krauser was playing at the Portsmouth Invitational.

"When I got off the plane, I had a bunch of messages," Dixon said. "As a father, I thought it might be something with [his children] Jack and Shannon. I called the messages, and they said something was wrong with Maggie. I couldn't believe it. I [had] just left her a couple of hours ago."

Dixon called Krauser and told him he was getting right back on a plane to see his sister. When Dixon arrived, the magnitude of the situation was obvious.

Maggie Dixon
AP Photo/Lee FerrisMaggie Dixon "made such a profound impact on [Army]. She was clearly the right person at the right time for these kids," Dave Magarity said.

"I was the first one there, and I talked to my parents," Jamie said. "They were flying in. I saw a lot of family there, aunts and uncles that live up in there, and I could tell at that point that it was serious."

"I'm a very positive person. It was tough. There didn't seem to be a lot of hope. She had gone without oxygen for so long. ... It was right there that it hit me. I saw her there. I couldn't believe it.

"Our chancellor [Mark Nordenberg] gathered up my wife, and Jack and Shannon, and took them out on a plane so they could see their aunt ... [long pause] ... so Jack and Shannon could see their aunt for the last time."

Maggie died the next afternoon.

The next few days were grueling. There was a local memorial service Friday and the funeral in California the next Tuesday. Then the family had to decide on the academy's offer to inter Maggie at West Point. They accepted and flew back to Pittsburgh before driving to West Point for the burial that Friday.

Jamie still doesn't have any answers as to what happened to his sister, and they might never come.

"We're still waiting for the final results on the autopsy. It takes eight weeks. I don't think we'll ever get a real explanation," he said. "There was no history. We've been checked up, nothing there. She had an enlarged heart, which is very common in athletics. There is no explanation, and I don't think we'll ever get one. It's something that we'll have to struggle with."

Dixon says he often spends the quieter times at night thinking about Maggie and about his own family. He also said he'll always hold the women's team at Army and everyone associated with the academy dear to his heart. He continues to hear stories of how Maggie touched everyone at West Point, how she showed no fear, how she went into the dining hall in front of thousands of cadets and persuaded more and more of them to attend the women's games until there was a capacity crowd for the Patriot League title game.

Maggie was a rising star in the coaching profession. She was getting offers from other schools -- she even was approached at the men's Final Four in Indianapolis by other athletic directors, inquiring whether she would move -- but she wanted to stay at Army.

Jamie, who in three years as a head coach at Pitt has compiled a sterling 76-22 record and has been to the Big East tournament title game in two of his first three seasons, said he learned so much from Maggie about how to relate to players. He loves how she told a joke in the huddle during the last timeout against Holy Cross, seconds before the women were about to close out the most important game of their lives. He said he will try to emulate her with his team.

With her charm, her passion and her knowledge for the game, what kind of coach was Maggie ultimately going to be?

"Better than me," Jamie said. "She was already."

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

ALSO SEE