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Wednesday, March 17, 2004
Dixon picked up where Howland left off

By Kieran Darcy
Special to ESPN.com

Carl Krauser is the last one. Nine starters have already been introduced to the sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden for the Big East championship game. Four Pittsburgh teammates have already hopped, skipped and chest-bumped their way onto the court. But before Krauser joins them, he walks over and gives Jamie Dixon a firm handshake.

A small gesture, perhaps. But one that means so much.

"Coach is like a father figure to us," says Krauser. "He takes care of us."

Dixon has certainly taken good care of the program he inherited 11 months ago. All Pittsburgh has done in his first year at the helm is go 29-4 and win the Big East regular season title. He's the first rookie head coach ever to win the Big East regular season title, he was named the Big East coach of the year last week, and he's a prime candidate for national coach of the year honors.

Yet, he almost didn't get a job that now seems made for him.

When Ben Howland decided to leave Pittsburgh for UCLA after last season, the school's administration went looking outside the program for a new head coach. They pursued Pittsburgh native Skip Prosser, but he decided to remain at Wake Forest. Only after that was Dixon, the associate head coach under Howland, handed the reins.

It certainly helped that some Pittsburgh players, like Krauser, lobbied the administration to give Dixon a chance. Yes, at 38 years of age, Dixon would become the youngest head coach in the Big East. But he had come to Pittsburgh with Howland, and played an integral part in rebuilding the program. He'd recruited many of the Pittsburgh players, and obviously knew the team extremely well.

Jamie Dixon
Before hooking up with Ben Howland as a Northern Arizona assistant, Jamie Dixon drew up Xs & Os in New Zealand.

He'd also been working toward this opportunity for a long time. Dixon was an all-conference player at TCU, was drafted by the Washington Bullets in 1987, and played professionally both in the CBA and in New Zealand. His playing career ended suddenly, because of a freak play -- he collided with an opponent, ruptured his pancreas and had to spend three months in the hospital, where he lost 50 pounds, and could have lost his life.

But he recovered, and soon began a coaching career, first at a school in New Zealand. Following that, he was an assistant at Los Angeles Valley Community College for three years. He also served as an assistant at Hawaii, UC-Santa Barbara and Northern Arizona -- where he was on Ben Howland's staff. Howland then brought him along to Pittsburgh.

So, despite his age and lack of national exposure, Dixon brought 12 years of Division 1 coaching experience to the Panthers' bench. The 2003-04 season would just be his first as a head coach.

It obviously helped that Dixon inherited a very successful program at Pittsburgh. Under Howland's direction, the Panthers captured the school's first Big East tournament title last year and advanced to its second straight Sweet 16, winning 57 games over the school's most successful two-year run.

But Dixon still faced considerable challenges during his first season. The Panthers lost three key starters from last year's squad, not the least of whom was all-Big East performer Brandin Knight. Dixon had to incorporate new point guard Krauser, a sophomore, into the starting lineup while adjusting himself to sliding down one seat on the bench to the chair reserved for the man in charge.

"People have asked me all year, about how different it must feel," Dixon says. "But to be honest, it hasn't felt all that different. It's all about the guys on the floor."

Dixon has talked to Howland -- whose season is over after UCLA finished 11-17 -- practically every day throughout the season. He also consulted other coaches who made a successful transition from assistant to head coach, such as Tom Izzo at Michigan State. But in the end, Dixon decided to keep the same philosophy he and Howland had established at Pittsburgh -- with a focus on teamwork and defense.

The Panthers are currently fourth in the country in scoring defense. They've outrebounded their opponents by more than five rebounds per game. And all five starters are averaging in double figures.

Dixon also decided not to change his demeanor, despite his new role. Some thought he could no longer be Mr. Positive, as Howland once coined him. Some thought he could no longer be as close to his players, like he was when he was the assistant coach who had recruited them.

"But I didn't want to change much as a person," Dixon says. "And I didn't feel like I had to."

Watch Dixon and you'll rarely see him really chew out one of his players. He has put his trust in guys like Krauser, who have been given the freedom to run the team. And it's obvious how hard the Panthers play for him.

And, Dixon's not planning on doing anything different in the NCAA Tournament. He and his players weren't thrilled at being dropped to a No. 3 seed after their gut-wrenching loss to Connectuct in the Big East championship game. But that just provides added motivation. The Panthers have been a No. 3 seed and a No. 2 seed the past two years -- but have endured two extremely tough losses in the Round of 16. Pittsburgh lost to Kent State by five in overtime two years ago, and to Marquette by three last year.

The players have believed from Day One that Dixon can take them farther than they've ever gone before. Many bracketologists feel that way, too. And, no matter what happens this month, Dixon's coaching future couldn't be brighter. But right now all he's worried about is one thing.

"We're just focusing on our first game of the tournament, against Central Florida," Dixon says. "And we're just trying to treat it as what it is -- the next game of our season."

Krauser, however, hopes to shake his coach's hand six more times.

Kieran Darcy is a writer for ESPN The Magazine who contributes to ESPN.com on a regular basis.