Men’s Basketball: Panthers success traces back to Jamie Dixon

By Kelly Flanigan

It’s basketball night at the Petersen Events Center. The lights go out and the sirens sound…. It’s basketball night at the Petersen Events Center. The lights go out and the sirens sound. The Oakland Zoo is bobbing and screaming, and out runs the Pitt men’s basketball team.

Soon to follow is a man whose impact on Pitt basketball cannot be underestimated. The fans stand and applaud as Jamie Dixon makes his way out of the tunnel and over to the sidelines.

Behind his suit, tie and animated facial expressions on the sidelines stands one of college basketball’s most successful coaches.

Dixon, who began his career at Pitt in 2003, has gone 163-45 in his first six seasons as head coach.

In only his seventh year, Dixon’s 71 percent Big East winning percentage (86-37) exceeds Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim’s (69.5) and Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun’s (66.5). After his most successful season as a coach, leading Pitt to the Elite Eight, Dixon has the Panthers (15-4, 5-2) sitting third in the conference even though they lost four starters from last year’s squad.

So what accounts for his success at Pitt?

“We have a standard and a level of expectations that we abide by and instill in our players. They need to expect to win and know how to win. If the players aren’t receptive to coaching or change, that’s when you don’t show improvement,” Dixon said.

Dixon looks for players with those qualities when recruiting.

“I like guys that are used to winning and who are willing to make sacrifices, who show that they care and that winning is important to them,” Dixon said. “There are certain guys who somehow win wherever they go. Why fight that pattern, or fight that history? You’re better off being with guys who are used to winning and care and who have grown up in winning programs.”

Dixon credited the University for his ability to recruit so well, and he claimed this often gets overlooked and understated. He stated that players like Pitt — the city, the program and their teammates.

Dixon’s strive for success has formulated a common team philosophy. Players believe there is always room for improvement.

“Everything is about improvement,” he said. “I try to improve as a coach every day, and in every job or anything I ever did my goal was to get better. For our players, I hope that’s their goal. We’re trying to help them improve as students as well, and as people to help them grow.”

His vision for the future of the program was evident this year, especially in his ability to defy the rebuilding talk.

“Some guys don’t play as much. At the same time, you’re developing them for years, and you need their improvement even though you may not see it in the games,” he said. “But that is a big part in the growth of our program and having these guys ready in the years to come.”

In his time coaching at Pitt, Dixon has coached five Big East Most Improved Players in Ricardo Greer, Brandin Knight, Carl Krauser, Aaron Grey and Sam Young. Ashton Gibbs is in the running for the award this year.

Dixon took great pride in the accomplishments of his former players. “As a coach there is no more important or gratifying award because we promise our players and their families when we recruit them that we’re going to help them improve as players and students once they get here, and [the award] is the best example I can give.”

He was named Big East Coach of the Year in 2004 and amassed 100 wins faster than any coach in school history. Only 14 coaches in the history of college basketball have accomplished this feat in less time than Dixon. More recently, Dixon was the 2009 Naismith National Coach of the Year.

There is no doubt that his most memorable team were the 2008-09 Panthers including players such as Levance Fields, Sam Young and DeJuan Blair. With this team, Pitt earned its first ever No. 1 ranking and No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

With no returning starters in the season’s opening game versus Wofford, the inexperience on this team was noticeable. The team struggled early against nonconference opponents, obtaining wins after several hard-fought battles.

“We don’t want to make excuses,” Dixon said. “People were telling us how young we were, and I guess on paper we are. But I’ve said this from the beginning but we are only as young as we act and we are only as mature as we behave, and so that was up to us.”

In saying this, he issued a challenge for last year’s veteran players to leave their supplementary roles and fill primary roles for the team.

Dixon credits the players for the success of this year’s team thus far. Gibbs and Gary McGhee are examples of players who have improved enormously.

“The bottom line is [Ashton’s] been a hard worker from the day he got here and was willing to pay the price. When you have that, guys improve,” Dixon said.

“[Gary] has worked hard and continues to improve. Now he’s getting a lot of notoriety and compliments and some guys can become self-satisfied. This is not the end of the road. It’s the start of a journey. He can’t be satisfied with his improvements because we know he can be even better as the season goes on.”

Visible above the locker room and administrative basketball offices and outside the team store at the Petersen Events Center is a quote that has become tied to Panther basketball and continues to motivate them every day: “Only Big Dreams.”