Saturday, March 28, 2009
Dixon, Wright setting new standard
By Andy Katz ESPN.com
BOSTON -- If Jamie Dixon and Jay Wright stay put, if they decide to continue their run of excellence at Pitt and Villanova for the foreseeable future, then you are about to witness the beginning of the new hierarchy of the Big East.
It's no secret that Jim Calhoun of Connecticut and Jim Boeheim of Syracuse are heading toward the end of their careers. They have been the two anchors of the conference from the '80s until now.
Jamie Dixon has Pitt in its first Elite Eight since 1974.
Dixon and Wright have a shot to keep Pitt and Villanova as the two programs of record. One of them will earn his first Final Four berth with a win in Saturday's Elite Eight match at TD Banknorth Garden in Boston. This is Dixon's first and Wright's second trip to the Elite Eight.
The Panthers have been a national program under Dixon the past six seasons, reaching the Sweet 16 three times during his tenure. Villanova just made its fourth Sweet 16 appearance in Wright's eight seasons.
Pitt might have a senior-dominated starting lineup but the Panthers continue to recruit as well as anyone in the East and show no signs of slowing down. Villanova is expected to haul in one of the top 10 recruiting classes in the country, meaning the Cats won't miss a beat, either.
"The best thing you can say about both our programs is just the consistency at a high level over the past five years," Wright said. "That's hard to do. And that's challenging."
The two teams share a common thread of taking pride in defending and rebounding. They recruit similar areas in the New York-New Jersey-Philadelphia region, too.
Both coaches have been coveted by perceived higher-profile programs. But they stayed put. They are both well compensated and don't lack for exposure. But they also are extremely grounded, devoted family men who are well-respected by their peers. No one murmurs anything unsavory about either.
Wright had to take over a Villanova team that was nearly ostracized by the City of Brotherly Love for attempting to break up the Big Five and seemed to be cast as a suburban lot. But the Wildcats, through Wright's extroverted personality, got the Cats back in the good graces in the city. Sure, there is a deep-rooted, competitive hatred from rival Saint Joseph's and there will always be some city folks who won't fully embrace the Wildcats, but none of the other five Division I schools in the city could pack the Spectrum or the Wachovia Center.
And for a school that doesn't play Division I football, Nova is flourishing in the 16-team Big East.
"Villanova has a great tradition, has a lot of great players in a very close proximity and I think we're in a pretty good spot," Wright said. "If you look at the history of Villanova they've always been successful. Every coach has been successful.
"I think probably the best thing I've done is be the coach of Villanova," Wright said. "If you get that job you're going to be successful. There are a lot of great things there. In this Big East Conference, players want to come play there. We're proud of what we've done here."
Wright had a stellar recruiting class with New York-area players Randy Foye, Allan Ray and Jason Fraser, the latter crushed by injuries early in his career. That class became a top-seeded team and reached the Elite Eight before losing to eventual national champ Florida in 2006.
Jay Wright is in his second Elite Eight.
Wright said he spoke to the trio of former Cats on Friday. He reminded them of their legacy that this group of juniors and seniors is continuing with this recent run.
"That's the next challenge, keeping it going," Wright said.
Wright seemed genuine Friday about not getting overanxious with the chance of reaching the Final Four for the first time. He's a product of Bucknell as a player and was an assistant at the University of Rochester, a Division III school in New York.
"So I know how important everything is -- from what our walk-ons do to everything -- and I never take any of this for granted.," Wright said. "I make sure our players understand how fortunate they are to be here, every day."
Dixon appreciates every second. He holds a private ache for his beloved sister, Maggie, the former Army head women's coach who tragically died at 28 three years ago next month. That's his personal pain. And it's hard not to see how much his father, James, loves to be by his side for every big game, taking the train east from L.A. and hanging in the postgame locker room.
"It's something that I'm just used to," Dixon said of his father being with him throughout his playing and coaching career. "He's having a great time and I think we really encourage family in our program and talk about how we want all our families around whenever possible. I think it's something that I'm very fortunate that he's around and I know he's enjoying it."
Like Wright, Dixon came up through a pedestrian path from playing at TCU, to coaching at L.A. Valley College, to a stint in New Zealand, to stops at Hawaii and Northern Arizona before he followed Ben Howland to Pitt.
"I started out to be a California junior college coach," Dixon said. "I thought that would be a great way to coach and be around kids. It wasn't about a level. It was about coaching, the kids and the competition."
And like Wright, Dixon is passionate about and loyal to his school. Forget about Dixon being a West Coast guy who has to be back on the Left Coast because he went to high school in Cali and his wife, Jackie, was raised in Honolulu. Dixon grew up visiting his grandparents in New York and said he was the only one who ever "summered in the Bronx." He remembers more Big East games than Pac-10 ones. His loyalty to the Pitt administration runs deep with the way the university extended itself with a private plane to shepherd his grieving family to memorial services in New York and California after Maggie's untimely death.
Dixon said he's proud to be a part of Pitt, through whatever small role he has played since he arrived.
"That has been the most gratifying thing for me," Dixon said.
So, here they are: the 47-year-old Wright and the 43-year-old Dixon on the verge of a Final Four berth. No one will be surprised if it is the first of a few for each as they potentially become the standard in the Big East.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.