Losing four starters from last year's squad hasn't hurt the Pittsburgh Panthers and Head Coach, Jamie Dixon. Pitt is currently ranked No. 17 in The Associated Press poll, and the Panthers are the only team to have beaten three top-five ranked opponents (Villanova, West Virginia, and Syracuse) this season. Dixon spoke with Brian Price about exceeding expectations, the importance of family and how the two go hand in hand.
SNY.tv: Has the Big East been underrated, or overlooked, this year?
Jamie Dixon: I think it was just a case of guys' wanting to write a story. The fact remains the Big East has the teams. That's the bottom line: We're here every year. The Big East ain't going nowhere. It's going to be the best conference year in and year out.
SNY.tv: Coming into the season, Pitt was picked ninth overall in the conference. Your teams tend to make it a habit of overachieving.
JD:: I understand we always seem to finish a little higher than we are picked. It is about developing guys and having them ready. After our Villanova win, people acted like that was the capstone win of the year. I just said that we're going to practice tomorrow same as every other day and we're going to coach Brad Wanamaker just as hard as we're going to coach our two redshirt players in Lamar Patterson and Dwight Miller. I do understand when people looked at the roster, they wondered where the scoring was going to come from. I don't fault anybody for underestimating us but, as coaches, we have the advantage of seeing the players develop and work.
I thought we could be pretty good. However, losing Jermaine Dixon [and Gilbert Brown] to injuries for the start changed what we were going to do and how we were going to do it. We then had the challenge of integrating two new players [underclassmen Miller and Patterson] into the system and rotation. It was a challenge that I didn't anticipate, but something that we were able to get through. Because of their injuries, Jermaine didn't practice with us for six months and Gilbert didn't practice for nine. Injuries happen.
SNY.tv: Jermaine has grown into a star player.
JD:: Well, one of the things that always stood out to me about Jermaine was his maturity. He showed great maturity in the decision to come to Pitt and made that decision based on the right thing: finding a role on a team in order to help that team win. Since Jermaine arrived at Pitt, he's been a leader through his toughness, maturity and unselfishness.
SNY.tv: What sold Jermaine, and so many other young athletes, on Pittsburgh?
JD:: When we talk to a player and player's family, we make them a promise: you're going to improve as a player, as a student, and as an individual. That's what a coach's job is. That's what we put our efforts and our energy into. It's about helping young people improve. When their time as a student is finished, I want them to be a better player, but ultimately, I want them to have their degree and to have become a better human being.
SNY.tv: What advice have you given DeJuan Blair since leaving Pitt?
JD:: I speak with him on occasion. Once guys go to the NBA, they've got their things to do and they're focused. It's not like there's a lot of free time. I told him before the draft, as well as after the draft: "You will get overlooked." It's what happened to DeJuan coming out of high school and it's what happened to him in the draft. [I tried to] help prepare him for that possibility. It's not a matter of where you get drafted but who you get drafted by. San Antonio is a franchise that I'm very familiar with and very close with. He's in a great situation now.
Blair, a second round pick, has played in every Spurs game this season and has started in 20 of them.
SNY.tv: How do you build a great fan base?
JD:: We can't sell out the arena without winning, but it has to be done the right way. I always want to put a team on the floor that fans and students can relate to. There's a mutual appreciation between the players and the fans. I think that's why there's a waiting list of 9,000 people [to come to Pitt]. Our student body is so involved. The Oakland Zoo is not just a fan thing. It's a club and a student organization that's about much more than just going to games. The Zoo is involved with everything from student run activities to charity. The Zoo is another great selling point of this school.
SNY.tv: What motivates you?
JD:: My goal, in anything I've ever done, is to never embarrass my family and to never embarrass the university. It's not just about winning games. That applies to everything.
SNY.tv: Are there any aspects of your family life that you bring to coaching?
JD:: I try to make them one in the same. I want our team to be a family. I want our program to be a family. All of our guys are from other areas and other cities and they're making a decision to leave home and come to Pitt. We want them to know that Pittsburgh is always a place they can come back to once they're playing career is over. No matter where past players go, they come back during the summer. This school is a second home.
SNY.tv: Let's talk about your family. How did you meet your wife, Jacqueline?
JD:: We met in Hawaii when I was an assistant coach at the University of Hawaii. She grew up there. We have two children: Jack Conner is 7 and Shannon just turned 6.
SNY.tv: Was it a tough decision to get on the road on her birthday?
JD:: It was. I had spoken with her in the morning and told her I'd be back for her party [that same day]. It was tough when I realized we had to leave early to beat the snow. I had to talk to her on the phone and tell her that the team had to leave early for New York [to play St. John's] but she understood.
SNY.tv: Is it true that your sister was hesitant to get in to coaching at first?
JD:: No, I wouldn't say that. I didn't know she was going to get into coaching until she had already made the decision to do so. Once she did, she went in full board. Maggie was already a certified teacher. That's what she had been in school for so she knew she wanted to be an educator all along. Teaching and coaching are one in the same. Right after she was done playing she went into coaching. It happened so quickly. She just jumped right in.
SNY.tv: How did her passing change you?
JD:: Maggie's passing and sudden cardiac arrest served as a learning experience for my family and me. Cardiac health was initially something that I was very unfamiliar with. Since her passing, it's been a process of making other people aware. Cardiac arrest is the No. 1 cause of death in this country. I wasn't always aware of that. She was such a vibrant young lady in the prime of her life, and I think that story resonates with a lot of people. Maggie's passing showed how quickly and how tragically it can happen.
She was always positive and she had tremendous self-assurance. Maggie could really interact with anybody. I think she was able to show that at West Point. She allowed her personality to show in a place where one might not expect an outsider to be so outgoing right off the bat. But she thrived.
SNY.tv: How has she been remembered?
JD:: Her final [place of rest] is normally reserved for military personnel. She's the only non-military personnel to be buried there. It was an emotional decision for our parents. But we felt people would always remember her as the coach of West Point. Putting her to rest there was the right decision.
Her tournament, The Maggie Dixon Classic, which is held at Madison Square Garden, has given young women a chance to play at the most prominent basketball arena in the country. Maggie would be so grateful and proud to see what an outstanding event it has become. She always loved coming to Madison Square Garden to watch Pitt play.
SNY.tv: What about your visits to New York and the Garden?
JD:: When we come to New York we stay at the Hilton and they always take good care of us. That's also where we eat as a team. I believe in doing things the same way and giving our players stability. We function as a group and maintaining a consistent schedule is important. I'm always excited to come to New York and play at Madison Square Garden. Whenever we bring a player for the first time, it's always a good thing.
I hope we get to spend a lot of time at the Garden in not-so-distant future. [laughs]