Another year, another case of the Pitt Panthers laying an egg in the NCAA Tournament. This time it was at the hands of ninth-seeded Wichita State, which steamrolled the eighth-seeded Panthers in a 73-55 upset.
This loss was particularly deflating because Pitt was a sexy underdog pick with the potential to knock out top-seeded Gonzaga (which Wichita State did on Saturday). You win some you lose some, right?
That is not good enough when your program is a Big East power with high expectations based on a winning tradition. Pitt has a nasty habit of making the Big Dance and then, no matter where it finishes, disappointing everyone. So the question is: Who is to blame for this perennial underachieving? One possible answer is Coach Jamie Dixon.
Dixon has been the head coach of the Panthers for 10 seasons and has built a consistent winner. But with progress comes expectations, and it is beginning to look like Dixon has hit a wall at Pitt. Panther message boards have been calling for Dixon’s head after every tournament loss for years now, anyway.
On Saturday, Dixon signed a 10-year contract extension that will keep him at Pitt until 2023. That might not have been the best thing for either the school or Dixon. This latest tournament embarrassment should have been enough for the higher-ups to reevaluate their commitment to keeping Dixon as Pitt’s head coach.
As of the end of the 2011-2012 season, Dixon is the winningest coach in Big East history with a 115-59 record (.661) in league games. Think about that for a second: that is better than the records of legendary coaches like John Thompson, Jim Calhoun and Jim Boeheim. It is not going out on too much of a limb to call Dixon one of the best regular-season coaches in Big East—if not college basketball—history.
The problem is being a good regular season coach can only get you so far. If Thompson, Calhoun and Boeheim ever feel bad about their league records, they can always dust off their national title trophies to make themselves feel better. That has always been the biggest knock on Dixon. He can get you through conference play, but then wither come the big stage.
To be fair, the man has had plenty of postseason success. He led Pitt to three Sweet 16’s and one Elite Eight appearance. The Panthers won three Big East championships and earned two No. 1 seeds in the tournament under Dixon. For most teams, that much success would be enough. But after 10 years of high expectations, fans begin to voice their impatience.
It is beginning to look like Dixon will never lead Pitt to anything more than a tournament appearance and an early exit. If he could not win a national title with the likes of Levance Fields, DeJuan Blair and Sam Young, it probably is not going to happen.
Before the contract extension, Twitter was abuzz with speculation that USC had been trying to recruit Dixon even before that loss to Wichita State. Does Pitt’s poor performance in that game have anything to do with a possibly distracted head coach? Who knows, but it is a legitimate question. At the time, Dixon may have thought he had a foot out of the door already.
The move would have made sense. Dixon is from North Hollywood, so he would have been much closer to home. Plus, after 14 years in Pittsburgh (he was an assistant coach for four years), he has to be sick of the city’s schizophrenic weather.
When asked after Thursday’s loss what his future with Pitt looked like, Dixon said, “I mean ... I just had my point guard break down here and it’s the farthest thing from my mind.”
He was referring to Tray Woodall, who let the tears flow after his last game as a Panther. That was a very diplomatic answer that might have meant he was seriously considering a change of scenery. Who knows?
Pitt only had one player on its roster (a walk-on) this year who was actually from the Pittsburgh area. The last great hometown hero he recruited was DeJuan Blair, a physical freak of nature who only lasted two seasons with the Panthers before going pro.
The point here is that Pittsburgh is not a fertile city for college basketball recruiting. That could explain the lack of top-tier talent Dixon has been able to attract to Pitt in recent years.
It was only two years ago that Pitt earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They missed the tournament last year and could only muster that No. 8 seed and pathetic game this year. Those are not exactly the hallmarks of a team brimming with talent and hope for the future.
Maybe Dixon would have had better luck out in Los Angeles, where college basketball prospects are as common as oversized sunglasses and egos. But as it stands, he is not the recruiter Pitt needs to maintain its level of success.
Dixon is known for being a stubborn guy with a specific style that he does not like to tweak much. His emphasis on physical defense and slow, methodical offense has worked well in the Big East.
That might not cut it in the ACC. Dixon is used to facing other hard-nosed, tough teams like Syracuse, UConn and Georgetown. He has rarely had to coach against run-and-gun teams like North Carolina or pure shooting teams like Duke. If Pitt let Wichita State’s Malcolm Armstead and Cleanthony Early score a combined 43 points on them, can the Panthers handle the style of games played by ACC stars like Seth Curry, P.J. Hairston or Shane Larkin?
There is very little chance of Dixon changing his style, and even worse odds of his players learning a new, ACC-centric game plan in such a short amount of time. There is no reason Dixon cannot be a successful coach in the ACC. But there is still a chance that he will not be able to shake the Big East mindset, which could be a problem going forward for the Panthers.
Is there much more Dixon can accomplish at Pitt? From 2006-11, he was the only coach to get his team to the Big Dance and win at least one tournament game each year. Pitt boasted its best record (31-5) under him.
His Panthers had a home record of 148-20 in his first nine seasons. Combine all that with the Big East and tournament success, and the only thing Dixon needs to do to have a more impressive coaching career at Pitt is to win a national title.
But can he do that at Pitt? He missed his window during the Fields, Blair and Young years, which was by far his best chance of bringing home the hardware. His current crop of players do not look they will ever reach that level. With that in mind, it is quite possible Dixon has achieved everything he can at Pitt.
It might be hard for Pitt to comprehend, but it should have at least considered the idea that there is no potential for growth under the Dixon regime. Saying goodbye is always emotional, but sometimes it just has to be done. The school would have gone in a fresh direction heading into the ACC. If there is one thing Pitt basketball is in desperate need of, it is a change of pace.
Not only would letting Dixon go have potentially rejuvenated a stagnant program, but it would have also liberated a coach stuck in a situation without much in the way of hope for immediate improvement. There are a lot of schools that would have jumped at the chance to land a coach like him.
For Dixon, it would have given him the chance to play the field for the first time in a while.
This was a chance for Dixon to gain some much-needed exposure. Pittsburgh is and will always be a town devoted to its professional sports. He could have finally stepped out of the oppressive shadow of the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins. If he went to a school in a college town, he could have become a demigod there.
Of course, he could have also chosen to go to USC or another school with a large wallet and taken a boatload of money. He makes solid money at Pitt, but not as much as other Big East coaches like Boeheim or Rick Pitino. This was Dixon’s chance to be grossly overpaid by a program in need of a revamp. He may not be coming off his best performance, but he could have easily cashed in on 10 years of goodwill.
Pitt letting Dixon go would have been the best thing for both the program and the coach. The Panthers would have been able to start over and rebuild, while Dixon would have been free to explore his options. And make no mistake: there would have been plenty of options for him. As potential splits go, this one seemed like a win-win.