Dixon, Graham react to ACC move

By Lauren Kirschman

Someone was going leave, Pitt just moved on first.

That’s what head basketball coach Jamie… Someone was going to leave, Pitt just moved on first.

That’s what head basketball coach Jamie Dixon had to say at a news conference on Monday addressing announcement that Pitt and Syracuse are leaving the Big East for the Atlantic Coast Conference. Dixon said that Athletic Director Steve Pederson kept abreast of the changing landscape of college athletics. Last week, Pitt realized it was time to make a move.

“Chancellor Nordenberg, Steve [Pederson] and I made every effort and I think [we] wish that the Big East was going to stay together and grow get better and add more teams,” Dixon said. “But we also knew that there was going to be the possibility of realignment, that we might be the team that moves on.”

He added that attempting to build a conference of both football and non-football schools is difficult and created problems when Pitt attempted to bolster the Big East. Nordenberg and Pederson spent “every waking moment” trying to strengthen the conference, he added.

“We did everything we could to make the Big East better for a number of years, but at that point a decision had to be made,” Dixon said.

Dixon, entering his ninth year as Pitt’s head basketball coach, said he always felt the ACC would be the best fit if Pitt ever moved.

When Pitt and Syracuse joined the ACC, the move signaled the end of the 16-team Big East basketball conference widely considered the best league in the country. But Dixon said that Pitt would build rivalries in the ACC the same way the Panthers built meaningful competition with teams like Connecticut and Villanova.

“We have so many rivals in [the Big East] that weren’t our rivals four, five years ago,” he said. “We’ll have a lot of Big East teams that are going to be with us in the ACC. In some ways, it’s almost going to be former Big East and ACC schools when we get to that point.”

The ACC is already home to former Big East schools Virginia Tech, Boston College and Miami (Fla.), who left the Big East during conference realignment in 2004.

Asked if he wanted Connecticut and Rutgers — two teams rumored to be ACC targets — to follow Pitt and Syracuse, Dixon said he would let the ACC commissioner make those decisions.

“I think [the ACC organizers] feel they improved their conference with the additions, and if they feel that two more will improve the conference, then they’ll do that as well,” he said. “Those guys know what they’re doing.”

The momentum and success that the Pitt basketball program built during the last 10 years will continue with the move to the ACC, Dixon said.

“We need to continue to make [the program] better,” he added. “That’s what we strive to do everyday, and we’ll continue to do so moving forward. It’s up to us, not what conference we’re in or what conference we’re going to be in.”

He said that he also doesn’t anticipate any problems transferring the Panthers’ style of play to the ACC. Many view the Panthers — and other members of the Big East Conference — as playing with a rougher style than teams in other conferences.

“No matter what, if you’re from Pittsburgh and you have success, you’re going to be a physical, tough, defensive-minded team even though we’ve been No. 1 in the country in offensive efficiency,” Dixon said. “We’ll adapt. We’ve been very good offensively, but we’re still known as the team that beats people up.”

Dixon doesn’t anticipate the move will affect his recruiting style, either. Pitt has never focused on one specific city or state to recruit, he said, noting that the Panther coaches focus on the player, not the area.

Asked if the unknown timetable for the move had an effect on recruiting, Dixon said he wanted to see how the conference situation played out in the next few weeks. Right now, Pitt and Syracuse have to wait 27 months to officially join the ACC because of Big East regulations.

“I think there is going to be some conference realignment, so I think that’s going to answer some questions and then we’ll go forward,” he said. “We’re recruiting so far down the road, anyway. We’ll be adaptable and be aware of what’s going on.”

Head football coach Todd Graham said he’s excited about the recruiting opportunities that the ACC opens to the football program.

“I think it’s very difficult to recruit a place that you don’t have,” he said. “Playing in the ACC is going to allow us to be in a pretty extensive area as far as great recruits and a great talent level, going into Georgia for an example.”

He said that the program’s focus would still remain on bringing in the “best and brightest” from Pennsylvania and Ohio — players that are a “gas tank’s drive away.”

But he added that the move to the ACC could help bring in those local athletes as well.

“Perception is reality, and perception is that this is a big-time move up for us,” Graham said. “Kids are very impressionable when it comes to conference affiliations.”

But the Big East is a lot better than the perceptions of it, Graham added, and Pitt will be able to compete in the ACC. He said the larger league — the ACC will have 14 teams while the Big East football conference had just eight — won’t make it more difficult for Pitt to reach a BCS bowl game.

“I think that type of league makes everything better,” he said. “Instead of one BCS team, you’ll wind up having two.”

But moving to the ACC also means leaving behind a historic rival in West Virginia. This year, the Panthers and the Mountaineers will play the 104th Backyard Brawl. Graham said he wants to see the game continue.

“I’m traditionalist. I love college football. I have a tremendous respect for this game and especially those rivalry games,” he said. “Personally, I would hope that would stay intact because I think it’s good for college football.”

But with the potential end of one important game comes the opportunity for another. Because conferences must have at least 12 teams to host a championship game, the larger ACC will allow the conference to hold the event. Graham coached in several conference championship games at Tulsa.

“I thought those games were incredible experiences for our players,” he said. “Unbelievable atmospheres and a tremendous positive for young people and for the program.”

He said he’s at Pitt to build a championship program and that no matter what conference the Panthers play in, the University provides the resources and commitment to do that.

“The top opponents that we are going to play [in the ACC] make for an exciting schedule week in and week out,” he said. “[The ACC] competes academically and athletically at the highest level. It’s impressive to know that our future is going to be in a league that carries that kind of prestige.”