Dixon turns down suitors, keeps Pitt poised for more success
Jamie Dixon was in a terrible state. His younger sister Maggie, clinging to life, lay in a New York hospital after collapsing.
Dixon's immediate family -- his wife Jackie and two young children -- were back in Pittsburgh. He needed them by his side to say goodbye to Maggie before she died from a heart ailment.
Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg didn't hesitate. He called around, desperate to find a plane to get Jackie and the kids at Jamie's side.
"Here was a person, not only one of our coaches, but also a friend, who was trapped in what can only be described as a nightmare," Nordenberg said recently. "This was a small thing to be able to help him and his family deal with such a tragic set of circumstances. When you compare it against the magnitude of what Jamie was dealing with, I consider it to be a small thing."
It wasn't. Not to Dixon. Not to his family. And if there is one act, one defining moment for Dixon during his five seasons as head coach at Pitt, it was Nordenberg's decision to charter Dixon's family to New York two years ago.
The coaching carousel tried to scoop up Dixon yet again this spring. And, for the third year in a row, Dixon turned down all the suitors. Stanford, Cal, Oklahoma State, LSU, Arizona State, Indiana and Arkansas have all tried to get Dixon interested when they've had recent openings. But he won't bite.
"He is so loyal to us and if there are three to five suitors every year, that would not surprise me at all," Nordenberg said. "He doesn't dangle that in front of us and doesn't advertise it or try to take advantage of it."
"Every time his name circulates with a job, Jamie shuts things down fast," said athletic director Steve Pederson, back for his second stint as AD.
There are countless reasons why Dixon won't leave Pitt, where he's been since 1999. Nordenberg's act of kindness may top the list. Dixon's close friendships with Pitt's staff -- including Nordenberg, executive vice chancellor Jerry Cochran and Pederson -- are another reason.
"There's no question having the same president, the same AD that hired me now, the same executive vice chancellor, is the bottom line," Dixon said. "I have a sense of loyalty to them and to our players. It's hard to measure that. When another AD or chancellor comes in, you're usually out the door. It does work that way. It's amazing how things can turn."
Loyalty at this level, in any sport, is unique. Chasing the big bucks is more the norm, but what has changed over Dixon's five-year tenure is how much Pitt has become a destination job. No longer is there a reason to run with Pitt arguably one of the premier jobs in the Big East, which makes it one of the top gigs in the country.
Don't believe that statement? Just look at some startling numbers.
Jamie Dixon's success
Here's a quick look at some of the coaching successes Jamie Dixon has had in his five seasons at the helm of the Pitt program:• 5 20-win seasons
• 5 10-win Big East seasons
• 5 NCAA tournament appearances
• 2 Sweet 16 appearances
• 2 Big East tournament titles
• 4 Big East tournament title-game appearances
• 132-40 overall record (.767)
• 66-31 Big East record (.680), No. 1 in league history
• 113 straight sellouts in the Petersen Events Center
Pitt is fifth in winning percentage (189-51, .788) the past seven seasons, sitting behind Memphis, Kansas, Duke and Gonzaga. The Panthers are tied with UConn for the best Big East record during the past seven seasons (81-33). Pitt has been in the Big East conference tournament title game during seven of the past eight seasons, winning two titles. Pitt reached four Sweet 16s during the past seven seasons, joining six other programs on that list. Also, it has arguably one of the finest on-campus arenas in the country. The Petersen Events Center boasts six consecutive seasons of sellouts (113 straight sellouts) and a 96-10 all-time record since it opened six years ago.
"The clear reason why he doesn't leave is that it has morphed into a tremendous job," said associate head coach Tom Herrion, who was once in the Big East as an assistant at Providence. "The one constant through the whole evolution is Jamie."
And still Dixon is doing it at a place where elite players in the area are virtually nonexistent. So with the help of his assistants from former aide Barry Rohrssen (now the head coach at Manhattan) to current assistant Orlando Antigua, he continues to make Pitt a familiar name in New York City. The Panthers can call Madison Square Garden their home away from home, too, going 23-8 in the building since 2000, which is better than what UConn, Syracuse and St. John's can boast.
"He put Pittsburgh in a position where it's an upper division team in the Big East," said Florida associate head coach Larry Shyatt, a former assistant in the Big East at Providence under Rick Barnes and a former head coach at Wyoming and Clemson. "That's the way it's thought of outside and in the Big East. That's the best compliment I can give."
In 2008, Dixon concluded his fifth season after taking over for Ben Howland, who has had his own success after leaving Pitt in 2003, coaching UCLA to three straight Final Fours. During Dixon's tenure, Pitt is 132-40 overall, tying him for third-most wins by an NCAA Division I coach during his first five seasons. He's the first coach at Pitt to guide the Panthers to five straight NCAAs, and he currently owns the best Big East career winning percentage at .680 (66-31).
Maybe the most amazing stats are that the Panthers had just one transfer (Dante Milligan) during Dixon's first five seasons, only one early-entrant to the NBA (Chris Taft), only one current NBA player (Aaron Gray), no McDonald's All-Americans, only one player from the Pittsburgh area (rising sophomore DeJuan Blair) and Pitt has had five Big East Most Improved Player winners in the past nine seasons while Dixon was on the staff.
"Our best asset is that we are consistent," said Brandin Knight, a former Pitt player under Howland and Dixon, and now a member of the staff. "We get kids to buy into our defense, rebounding. That's what gives us an opportunity in every game."
He's not looking for stardom, to increase the size of his bank account. I'm quite pleased to say he's an exception to the rule.
"It's a great town, the place is sold-out, the fans are loyal, and Jamie has done a great job, especially this year," said Howland, who remains one of Dixon's closest friends. "He's got one of the best jobs in the country, and he's made it that way."
And he's coming off a season that may have been his best yet.
The Panthers shocked Duke on Dec. 20 in New York, but in that game, fifth-year senior Mike Cook tore his ACL. The Panthers then lost point guard Levance Fields, coincidentally Cook's best friend, one week later, to a broken foot that kept him out of the lineup for 12 games. Still, Pitt went 8-4 during that stretch, ultimately finishing 10-8 in the conference and 27-10 overall, after losing to Michigan State in the NCAA second round in Denver.
The Panthers got yet another dose of good news last month when Sam Young decided against declaring for the draft.
Dixon naturally discusses other gigs -- just like countless other coaches do -- in the offseason, but as much as he has tried to see where he would fit elsewhere, he can't come up with an easy answer."I don't have a reason to leave. I don't have a reason to leave or a reason to look to leave," Dixon said. "At most places, people win for a year or two and get out. They're not able to sustain it. There are very few schools that have made that transformation."
Howland was adamant that Dixon inherit the Pitt job when he left for UCLA in 2003 and for Cochran, Nordenberg and Pederson who all had observed Dixon, got to know him enough to decide that the gamble was worth the risk.
"He was given an outstanding opportunity," Cochran said. "Jamie looks at Pitt as his home now, even though he was raised in California. This is where he and his wife, Jackie, began their life together. He sees a senior leadership team that is very supportive of his goals and of this program. He's not looking for stardom, to increase the size of his bank account. I'm quite pleased to say he's an exception to the rule."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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