It’s been more than a decade since Jamie Dixon inherited the University of Pittsburgh basketball program from Ben Howland at a time of rising success for the team. In those dozen seasons a few banners have come along the way. A Big East tournament championship in 2008. Two regular season crowns in ‘04 and ‘11. And a Big East coach of the year award (2004) as well.
But landing the big fish of a national championship…or at least a Final Four appearance… has eluded him to this point. And at the end of every post season run, calls from some Panther hoop fans have grown familiar:
Has Dixon taken the team as far as he is capable? Can he recruit enough talent to get Pitt over the top? Could someone do more with the resources at hand?
If Scottie Reynolds’ shot doesn’t fall with a second left on the clock in the 2009 Elite Eight, maybe no one is questioning Dixon’s qualifications after posting 20+ victories in 11 of his 12 seasons as head coach. He may have then achieved that hat-hanging Final Four no Panther coach has had since 1941.
“It (the Final Four) is defining to some. But not to most. Those that look at long term success and doing things the right way and putting out good teams year after year,” Dixon said Monday afternoon.
For those that do define Dixon by that failure to advance beyond the national quarterfinals, he’s not alone in taking a while to get there. Other coaches know what it is like to have been promoted from assistant coach to head coach at a time of success within a program, only to wait excruciating lengths of time to take the program to the next level. A few of them were together at the recently concluded Battle for Atlantis basketball tournament in the Bahamas.
Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse Orange won the three day event. It’s been 39 years since he was promoted from an assistant (under Roy Danforth) to head coach at that school a year after it went to the Final Four. And after the 2018 season ends, the plan is for him to bequeath the job to his current assistant Mike Hopkins. He says the continuity within the program has been one of the reasons for its success.
“Continuity is so important. Everything stays the same,” said Boeheim last week. “You don’t have to change things. It’s the same. And when you have a quality coach in place that’s the way to do it. It’s great to have somebody in place that knows his program. It’s a smart move.”
Granted, unlike Dixon, Boeheim has won a national title. And he has been to four Final Fours. But it took him eleven years to get to his first Final Four as a head coach. And it took him 27 years to get his first championship.
Mark Few’s Gonzaga Bulldogs finished third in Nassau. Perhaps no coach in the country can empathize with Dixon’s plight more than Few.
As Dixon had taken over for Howland after the ‘02 season during a time when Howland had just gotten the team to rare heights, Few did the same thing when Dan Monson gave him the keys to the car in Spokane. Sixteen years later, Few has kept the Zags nationally prominent, but has stalled out in the tournament every year before getting to the final weekend, also making the Elite Eight just once. After his team’s first round Battle for Atlantis victory, Few condemned school administrators who get impatient and break up successful programs.
“For us, continuity has been everything,” Few said. “I’m surprised more athletic directors and school presidents don’t figure that out. When you’ve got a good thing and (sometimes) these AD’s think they are smarter than they really are. And then they go and hire from ‘without’ (outside the program) and the next thing you know you’ve got a screwed up program. And sometimes you can’t get it back on the tracks.”
By his own admission, Few’s continuity has been entrenched by the fact that he has had the same AD (Mike Roth) during his entire tenure. Dixon is working with his third (full time) in Scott Barnes. But he seemed less than concerned when asked about his frequently changing bosses.
“You’ve just got to look at the individuals involved and every situation is different. Every situation is unique and every relationship is unique. The different person who has been there each time has been key. And we have been fortunate.”
A third coach in the Bahamas familiar with taking over a noted program from a successful predecessor was Kevin Ollie. His circumstances upon assuming control from three time NCAA champion coach Jim Calhoun were very different as the school was in the midst of the ineligible post-season campaign of 2013. Yet by the end of 2014, the Huskies were crowned a fourth time. And on this occasion Ollie was leading them. He also insisted program stability was crucial.
“I always wanted to be myself. And Coach (Calhoun) always made it easy for me because we know each other so well…Our relationship goes so far back. He knows me inside out. I know him inside out. I think we have a great symmetry.”
It’s true that sometimes teams get stale. Sometimes changes do need to be made. And perhaps the Pitt Panther basketball team is approaching the place. But Barnes and his superiors need look no further than at their own football program to see how a lack of continuity can also be a detriment.