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Wednesday, March 21, 2007
Updated: March 22, 11:08 AM ET
Pimm's former UCSB staffers to meet in Sweet 16

By Andy Katz
ESPN.com

Jerry Pimm won't be in San Jose on Thursday. He can't be. He doesn't want to be. He says it's too hard to choose.

The former UC Santa Barbara coach, who had both Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon on his staff in 1991-92, will wait until Saturday, when he can cheer for just one.

Picking UCLA or Pitt is too painful for Pimm. He's invested in both head coaches.

Pimm is the man who made the perm look cool amid the buzz of the Thunderdome, the home of the Gauchos for those classic Big West late-night Big Monday games in the early 1990s. Now he's turning 70 in September and he plays lots of golf. Given the folklore that still exists about his time spent living on a houseboat while coaching, it's reasonable to think there could be romanticizing going on about his former staffers, but Pimm believes he saw something in both Howland and Dixon. He's not surprised these two coaches are going against each other Thursday night in the Sweet 16 and arguably are two of the most successful coaches in the game.

Howland was an established assistant under Pimm, coaching there from 1982 through '94. Dixon spent one season under Pimm as a grad assistant, fresh off finishing his career in Europe, which had been suddenly interrupted after he suffered an internal injury while taking a charge that forced him to be hospitalized.

"I had to slow him down," Pimm said of Howland. "He had tremendous energy and passion for the game of basketball. He was so anxious on things, and once he discovered patience was part of the whole deal, he became a very good coach."

Pimm's plan was to coach until he was 60 and have Howland take over for him. The problem was that there was no set plan and no one associated with the program from that time period thought Pimm wanted to retire. Howland elected to go instead to Northern Arizona, where he resurrected one of the worst Division I programs and took the Lumberjacks to their first-ever NCAA Tournament berth in 1998, with Dixon on his staff. Dixon had left UCSB after one season and went to Hawaii as an assistant before going to NAU to join Howland in 1994. Right after the NCAA berth, the pair went to Pitt in one of the more daring moves by a Big East school -- hiring a coach and his staff from a Big Sky school.

Howland's work ethic, though, was clear to Pimm.

"He was one of the hardest workers I ever saw," Pimm said. "He was a full-timer, going 24 hours a day. I think he enjoyed fishing and he did enjoy his family. But he thinks about basketball full-time."

Pimm didn't have as good a read on Dixon, because he was there for such a short period, but he had an inkling he was something special.

"I could see the qualities in him, the work ethic, and like Ben, who I knew as a player at Weber State when I was at Utah, he was competitive," Pimm said. "They both were tireless workers."

Chris Carlson, who was a manager at the time for Pimm and is now the director of basketball operations for UCLA, said Dixon didn't pass the eye test for the Gauchos guards when he arrived. That was until Dixon started nailing 30-foot jumpers in their face and talking trash. That immediately got the players' attention and Dixon helped the guards immensely in that one season.

Howland said he got Dixon the job on the UCSB staff, saying that he had seen Dixon as a senior at nearby Notre Dame High. He said Dixon wrote a letter to UCSB, hoping to get a scholarship. One didn't come, and he chose TCU instead, but Howland said he followed Dixon's career.

"He's such a solid coach, such a good person," Pimm said of Dixon.

As everyone knows, Howland left Pitt for UCLA and Dixon took over, keeping the Panthers at a high level; you could argue he's taken them to an even higher precipice as the marquee program in the Big East. Now the two meet in the West Regional, with a spot in the Elite Eight on the line.

This has been the mentor matchup tourney, with Sean Miller (Xavier) going against former boss Thad Matta (Ohio State) in the second round, Tom Crean (Marquette) doing the same against Tom Izzo (Michigan State) in the first round. Both of those games went to the teacher. Pimm doesn't want to predict which way this one will go on Thursday.

"They both made good decisions [on their careers] and I knew they would both be good coaches and successful," Pimm said. "They both want to win so badly. I'll be pulling for both. But I can't see getting twisted and turned [in San Jose], so I'll just yell at the TV and hope they both play well and have a good taste in their mouth when it's over."

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.