Master and commander
Point guard Carl Krauser described first-year coach Jamie Dixon as “cool, calm and collected.” Center Chris Taft said, “The guy never gets rattled.”
But leave it to senior guard Julius Page to sum up Dixon’s inaugural season the best.
“He was a veteran — nobody ever thought of him as a rookie,” Page said.
To be sure, Dixon made a major impact after sliding down the bench from assistant to head coach in place of his mentor Ben Howland. He led Pitt to a school-record 31 victories and was named Coach of the Year in the Big East Conference.
His blossoming resume already includes victories over legends Jim Calhoun of Connecticut and Jim Boeheim of Syracuse, to go along with a Big East regular-season championship and a trip to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
For his efforts, Dixon is the YMCA Person of the Year, joining past recipients Bill Cowher and Howland, among others. He will be honored Wednesday night at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review/YMCA Scholar-Athlete banquet at the Hilton, Downtown.
“Any award is quite an honor, but especially when it’s recognizing student-athletes performing at a high level,” said Dixon, an honor student at TCU. “I think that makes it even more memorable.”
Dixon’s memorable season included an 18-0 start and five losses by a combined 22 points, two of which occurred in overtime. Of those losses, two occurred against national champion Connecticut and one vs. 2003 champ Syracuse.
The season ultimately ended in the East Rutherford Regional of the NCAA Tournament against highly regarded and fourth-ranked Oklahoma State, 63-51.
The question for Dixon is: What can he do for an encore?
“When you have a great year, it’s hard to follow-up,” said Dixon, who loses senior starters Jaron Brown and Page, but returns Krauser, forward Chevon Troutman and talented center Chris Taft. “When you set a school record, there’s a reason it was a school record. It’s not an easy thing to do. They’ve been playing basketball here for close to 100 years, and to set a record, it says something.”
A lifetime assistant until last season, Dixon refused to change his approach when administrators took a leap of faith and hired him to replace Howland, who bolted for UCLA after building Pitt into a title contender.
Dixon combined his low-key approach with a desire for details — he has notebooks filled with gameplans and scouting reports from decades ago — and the formula proved to be a winner.
“I said all along that I didn’t feel that things were any different basketball-wise,” said Dixon, 38. “I just think it’s gratifying what we’ve been able to accomplish in five years here. We knew coming in what a challenge it was and a lot of people had doubts that it could be done. But it also serves as a reminder of where things can be. That’s why you can’t take anything for granted. It takes a lot of work to be successful.”
Krauser said the transition from Howland to Dixon was as smooth as it could get.
“That’s because he’s like a father,” Krauser said. “He takes time to listen and to work with you. I think the best thing you can say about Coach Dixon is that he makes you want to be your best. That’s why we were so successful in his first year.”