When new Head Coach Ben Howland arrived on the University of Pittsburgh’s campus in 1999 he inherited a program in shambles. The Panthers were a hapless bunch who hadn’t made an NCAA tournament in six years and were nine years removed from their last 20-win season. Little did Howland know, he and an under the radar assistant named Jamie Dixon would usher in a basketball renaissance to the Steel City.
The turnaround began with Howland, years one and two were necessary to establish stability and a winning mentality. By year three the Panthers were equipped to not only to compete, but contend. The Pitt program ascended to new heights, setting a school record with 29 wins in the 2001-2002 Season and ended an eight year NCAA Tournament drought with a run to the Sweet 16. They followed up with a 28-win campaign and another Sweet 16 run the next season. No fluke, Pitt basketball was for real.
After four seasons with the Panthers Ben Howland parlayed his masterful work into landing the head coaching job at UCLA. Recent success made the Panthers head coaching vacancy attractive enough to garner attention from established head coaches and hot shot assistants alike. Athletic Director Jeff Long was at a crossroads. Valuing continuity and backed by a strong recommendation from the departing Howland Long ultimately tabbed assistant Jamie Dixon as his next head coach.
It was soon evident Dixon was a hidden gem in his own right. The Panthers didn’t miss a beat, ripping off a 31-win season and another Sweet 16 trip under the rookie head coach. Dixon took the baton and ran with it, piling up 328 wins, two regular season Big East Titles and one Big East Tournament Championship, 11 NCAA tournament berths including two Sweet Sixteens and an Elite Eight appearance in his 13 years at Pitt.
For 13 years now, Jamie Dixon has manned the Pitt sideline, 17 if you include his time as an assistant. Sadly that run came to an end yesterday when Dixon announced he was leaving to become the head coach at TCU. On the surface leaving Pitt for TCU, a team that just finished rock bottom in the Big 12 standings, doesn’t make much sense. Though the deeper you look the picture becomes clearer.
Unlike his predecessor Howland, Jamie Dixon stepped into the role with lofty expectations. The Pitt fan base has become numb to regular season triumph and gotten increasingly disheartened by the consistent trend of underachievement in the NCAA Tournament. Only once in Dixon’s tenure have the Panthers defeated a higher seeded team in March Madness, and that win came in the 8 vs 9 game which is essentially a toss-up.
On the flip side, Pitt has regularly suffered embracing upset defeats. They’ve bowed out to noted basketball power houses Bradley and Kent State. Though against a more respected opponent, maybe their most damning loss came in 2011 falling as a 1 seed to 8 seeded Butler in the round of 32.
Following the 2009 crescendo run to the Elite Eight, Pitt’s program has stagnated. They’ve failed to return even to the Sweet 16 and the results have been increasingly discouraging. Since that Elite Eight high water mark Pitt’s tournament win total matches the number of years they’ve missed the field altogether, 2. Worse yet, when the Panthers actually do make the tournament they’ve posed little to no threat of making noise there. That is simply not good enough.
The rumbling and grumbling among disgruntled Pitt fans, boosters, and university officials have only gotten louder following Pitt’s apparent drop in competitiveness since joining the ACC. Especially after Pitt’s absolute eye sore of a 47-43 NCAA Tournament loss to Wisconsin this past weekend. What would have been blasphemy a few short years ago was now being openly discussed. Was it time to consider cutting ties with Jamie Dixon?
Taking the TCU position affords Dixon the chance to leave on his own terms. He does so returning to his alma mater where he played from 1984 to 1987. TCU offers a pressure free environment, removing the tournament or bust noose from around Dixon’s neck. In returning home, Dixon will have the task of rebuilding a program and afforded several burden free years to do as much before facing any real expectation.
A lack of continuity with Pitt’s fairly new administration certainly put strain on the situation as well. Chancellor Patrick Gallagher and Athletic Director Scott Barnes were not the men whom Dixon entrusted and had worked beside for years. Similarly the brevity of the working relationship makes Pitt’s administration less committed to the stalwart Dixon.
From Gallaher and Barnes perspective they’ve watched a burgeoning program grow increasingly stale and struggle to compete in a new conference. That certainly isn’t the impact two newcomers desire to have attached to them. A young, hungry, energetic coach could do a world of good to reinvigorate the program.
As it shakes out both parties will get their wish. Jamie Dixon exits a pressure cooker environment for a more appreciative and nurturing fan base. TCU lies on a fertile Texas recruiting bed and the school recently invested over $70 million in renovations to Ed Rae Schollmaier Arena. Pitt gets relief from a seven-year financial commitment to a coach they were unsure was the right fit for the job any longer. All indicators point to this being the proper time for an amicable split.
Throughout his time as Pitt’s head coach Jamie Dixon performed admirably and proved an overwhelmingly positive staple for the University both on and off the court. For his sake and Pitt’s, I think that parting ways now was the proper decision. Here’s hoping better days lie ahead for both Dixon and the Panthers.