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Pitt’s Dixon pressing onward as 12th season begins

November 13, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The slicked back hair is thinning up top. There’s a touch of gray around the temples. A couple hard-earned creases around his eyes.

Jamie Dixon isn’t a kid anymore. The relatively unknown assistant who inherited the Pittsburgh basketball program from mentor Ben Howland a dozen years ago turned 49 on Monday.

Of course, he’s hardly unknown anymore. Not after 10 trips to the NCAA tournament. Not after three Big East titles. Not after helping re-establish Pitt as one of college basketball’s most consistent — if consistently unflashy — winners.

And yet he’s still here despite annual whispers that the southern California native will take the next high-profile job west of the Mississippi, one with a bigger local footprint than the Panthers. Pitt sells out the Petersen Events Center 20 times a year but still has to fight with three professional teams for attention.

Dixon, who begins his 12th season as coach Friday night when Pitt hosts Niagara, plays coy when pressed on why his name always pops up during coaching searches.

“I get it, (experts) think money or other things factor in, size of stadium, the geography,” he said. “I don’t know. It’s one way or the other. Either they’re mentioning your name or they’re not mentioning your name and it’s better to have the former I guess.”

The truth is, Dixon’s Pittsburgh roots have dug hard into the imposing hillside campus. From the day in 1999 that he joined Howland’s staff to the day he took over in 2003 to now, Dixon has become part of the university’s firmament even as players come and go and the Panthers shifted conferences.

For all his well-tailored suits and leading-man good looks, Dixon remains a grinder at heart — driven not by ego but by a work ethic that Howland says is just short of maniacal.

“He’s an animal,” Howland said. “It’s incredible. He’s always on top of things. He’s one step ahead.”

It’s the only way Dixon knows, an ethos he tries to relay to a stable of talented though not always highly coveted recruits. Not everybody can play for him.

“He’s a perfectionist, he’s a tough guy,” said former Pitt guard and current assistant coach Brandin Knight. “He wants guys to be mentally tough.”

The Panthers don’t play the same way they did a decade ago, when a game against Pitt sometimes resembled a 40-minute wrestling match. Dixon is unapologetic for the hard-nosed style, though that reputation overshadows the evolution of an adaptable man.

When the Panthers moved from the Big East to the ACC last fall, Pitt and fellow newcomer Syracuse were expected to provide more up-tempo powers a bruising reality check. The Panthers went the other way.

Pitt went 26-10 and finished a respectable fifth in their ACC debut last year thanks largely to an offense that averaged 72.5 points by sharing the ball. The Panthers tied with North Carolina for the conference lead in assists per game and was second to Duke in assist/turnover ratio.

The same coach who led the school to its first-ever No. 1 ranking in 2009 behind burly players and a defense that turned every possession into a barely legal street fight has now empowered freewheeling swingman Durand Johnson and versatile forward Michael Young to get out on the floor and go.

“People think we’re the opposite of what we are,” said junior forward Sheldon Jeter, who transferred to Pitt from Vanderbilt. “They think it’s the ‘slow, beat you down’ Pitt. It’s not. To translate our game to the ACC we had to recruit better athletes.”

Ones that look just as comfortable in the open floor as they do trying to battle for position under the basket.

“Jamie is always tinkering,” Howland said. “The basic tenet of Pitt basketball is always going to be defend, rebound and play with toughness and physicality but as the game has opened up, he’s done the same.”

It’s a testament to Dixon’s success that Pitt’s yearly trips to the NCAAs are now met with a yawn. As impressive as his 288 victories are — an average of 26 a year — the Panthers still haven’t reached a Final Four since 1941, falling just short in 2009 in a last-second loss to Villanova in the regional final.

Five years later, it remains the closest Pitt has come to a playing on college basketball’s biggest stage and the last time the Panthers made it past the first weekend of the tournament. That’s not lost on Dixon, who remains his own biggest critic.

“I never think I’m doing a good enough job,” he said. “I’ve got a higher standard than anybody.”

A standard that places a premium on loyalty. His wife and two kids are comfortable in Pittsburgh. He’s signed through the 2022-23 season and is making well over $2 million a year. There may be brighter lights elsewhere. He doesn’t care.

“I’ve worked every day like I wanted to be here for 12 years and beyond, for the rest of my career I guess,” Dixon said. “I know our business says differently ... but that’s not me.”

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