The transformation Pitt basketball has made this decade from afterthought to national power is utterly remarkable (Pitt is good, that's hard hitting analysis you wont find anywhere else).
However, there has been another interesting transformation in the Pitt hoops program over the past few years. The program now has a face.
While Pitt's run of success dates back to the 2001 Big East Tournament, the program's trademarks until recently were its defense and its student section.
Now, Jamie Dixon is the face of that program.
Last week, Chas Rich wrote a blog post for Pitt Blather about Jamie Dixon's success at the helm of the U-19 USA Basketball team.
The post was met with a bevy comments such as, "So cool to have him as our coach," and, "Pitt is very fortunate to have such a fantastic coach who is clearly building an elite, top-tier program"
I'm not disputing that Jamie Dixon doesn't deserve all the praise in the world. I wrote my own glowing review of his work for the U-19 team (shameless self-promotion!). I'm just a little surprised how suddenly it happened.
I had to wonder when Dixon went from just a coach to a beloved figure in Oakland. I came up with the following timeline.
2003, WTF: Dixon is hired after what might have been the worst executed coaching search in the history of major college athletics. After Ben Howland left for UCLA and Skip Prosser decided to stay at Wake Forest the athletic department basically said "screw it, we're out of ideas, lets go with Dixon."
Dixon who has been turned down by lowly Wright State a year earlier was now the head coach of a pre-season top 25 team.
2004, The Honeymoon: Dixon takes a team that was barely in the pre-season top 25 into the top 10. At one point in the season they were ranked as high as No. 3. Freshman Center Chris Taft and Sophomore Point Guard Carl Krauser come out of nowhere to propel the Panthers to the league regular season title. They eventually run into a white hot Oklahoma State team in the Sweet 16 where they are eliminated.
A younger Dixon with a fuller head of hair captures the hearts of any co-ed who might be into older men but doesn't yet capture the imagination of the fan base. Pitt fans are certainly thrilled with what he did with the team but acknowledge that he's succeeding with someone elses recruits.
2005, The Turmoil: The least likeable team of the decade starts the Dixon balding process. Chris Taft makes his mind up before the season that he's going pro, Chevy Troutman realizes he's best chance to get paid is the NFL so he goes as far as working out for NFL teams before games. Yuri Demitris is arrested for breaking into his girlfriend's house and gets thrown off the team.
Everybody is out for themselves and the blame gets lumped on Carl Krauser, the flashiest and cockiest player on the team.In addition to the chemistry issues, any team with an athletic wing is able to destroy the vaunted Pitt defense off the dribble. Pitt's lack of athleticism is exposed as they limped into a NCAA tournament as a nine seed and lose to mid-major Pacific in the first round.
After the season, a miserable Dixon's mind turned to his next job. Some Pitt fans question whether or not Dixon is the man for the job as Jamie spent the season clashing with his players.
2006, The Turning Point: With Taft and Troutman gone, Krauser and Dixon lead a relatively young Pitt squad to a 25 win season that ended with a disappointing upset in the second round of the NCAAs. Pitt fans now realize that Krauser was not the problem and actually is a team player.
More importantly, we are all introduced to Sam Young. A 6'6" forward who can run like a puma and jump out of the gym. The exact player Pitt had been missing. Dixon's approval is almost as high has his fading hairline ad the future is once again bright.
I don't want to make light of a tragedy but when Maggie Dixon, his sister, passed at age 28, he became ours. We never knew Dixon the person, his press conferences and interviews were usually monotone and full of coach speak. Jamie was now suddenly very human and he needed the Panther community to pick him up.
Sadly, tragedy has a way of bringing people closer together and that's exactly what Maggie's death did. The Maggie Dixon Foundation is generously funded by Pitt students and alumni.
After the season Jamie Dixon listened to ovitures from Arizona State before agreeing to a contract with Pitt. Both sides grew much closer in 2006.
2007, Validation: Dixon now trusts the Panther community and emerges as a charismatic figure for the first time in his career. When 4,000 fans came out for College Gameday before the Pitt-Georgetown game, the look on Dixon's face was priceless. We had embraced him, now he was embracing us. He was genuinely touched that so many people showed up to blow the roof off the building. This is also when Pitt officially switched from a two-sport school to a basketball school.
The team had high pre-season expectations that they more or less matched. They got a three seed and made the Sweet 16 as they did in 2004. A few people doubt Coach Dixon's ability to win the big one but nobody wants him to leave anymore.
2008, The Momentum Builder: Athletic Director Jeff Long is fired before the basketball season and is replaced by former Pitt AD Steve Peterson, a long-time friend of Dixon's. Now Jamie has harmony in the athletic department with Peterson and Chancellor Nordenberg. Pitt is now a place that Dixon wants to stay for a long time. If only his hair wanted to stay as well.
But how would he fair with a team that lost three starters? How would he adjust to a team that saw its other two returning starters miss significant time with injuries? This is now a team with his players as Levon Kendall, the last holdover from the Ben Howland era graduated, how would Dixon's system work with his players?
The answer, beautifully.
Pitt came out of nowhere to win the Big East tournament and get a four seed in the NCAAs. While it wasn't a smooth ride, Dixon got the job done again. This time proving that he can make adjustments to his personnel. Pitt fans now trust Dixon as a program builder and a basketball mind.
2009 New Heights: Pitt's preseason expectations are unprecedented and so are the results. Pitt reaches No. 1 in the polls for the first time in school history and gets its first ever No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament (I'm still not ready to talk about the tournament).
More impressive, is that Dixon lets this team run far more than any of his past teams. Dixon is now willing to coach outside of his comfort zone for the good of the team. His versatility as a coach can not be underestimated.
A few rumors of Dixon leaving for Arizona or USC surface. We know Coach isn't leaving but we still sweat them out because Jamie Dixon is now that important to us. He might not be a household name like Pitino, Boeheim or Calhoun but he's in that next echelon with Rick Barnes, Bill Self, Mark Few, and other coaches that most programs would give anything to have.
We now realize just how good Dixon is and are confident he can lead Pitt to a National Title. Dixon realizes he has our trust and is happy to stay as long as it takes to win that title. The Dixon love fest is in full swing, may the good times never end.
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