Pitt basketball coach Jamie Dixon is not one for interior decorating. His administrative assistant, Beth Schoedel, is responsible for most of the decor in Dixon's office at the Petersen Events Center.
Dixon had but one request. He insisted upon having pictures of every one of his players receiving their degrees during commencement ceremonies displayed on the wall opposite his desk.
There are 27 pictures on the wall, and Dixon is always working to have the four players who have not received degrees under his watch complete their educations.
Looking at the pictures, Dixon noted recently that the vast majority of them were back on campus this summer. Beyond the wins and losses and graduating players, developing his program as a second home for former players is one of Dixon's proudest achievements.
"Something that has been exciting to me is watching former players come back, especially guys that I've coached the last 12 years," Dixon said. "It seems like each summer it's getting more and more. You could name almost any guy who played here and they were back this summer working out or playing with the guys. That's been one of the most gratifying things for me."
Among those who were back on campus this summer were NBA players DeJuan Blair, Sam Young and Aaron Gray as well as others who are pursuing professional careers overseas. They included Carl Krauser, Levance Fields, Chevon Troutman, Ronald Ramon, Tyrell Biggs and Keith Benjamin.
It was not uncommon for one to wander into the Petersen Events Center and witness some intense pickup games involving several professional players.
"It was definitely like an all-star game sometimes," senior center Gary McGhee said. "They all start talking trash. It's the old guys against the current players. Those games are serious. It's good competition. It's fun."
Dixon keeps practices competitive by keeping score during every drill. That competitiveness apparently remains with his players after they leave school.
"It was rough out there," senior forward Gilbert Brown said. "Everyone thinks they're right on certain fouls calls. You're not giving up anything.
"From a competition standpoint it was huge. Having guys like Aaron, Levance, Tyrell and Keith come back, it's big. We always say we're better than the older guys. To go out there and play pickup was great. We had competitive games. No one wanted to lose."
Most of the returning players are working out at Pitt's facilities to keep in shape during their professional offseasons. But others, such as Chris Taft, are on campus working toward their degrees.
Taft, who left Pitt after two years to pursue a career in the NBA, is one of four players Dixon has coached who have not earned their degrees. Fields, Blair and Sam Young are the others. Fields and Young are close to earning their degrees.
Suffice it to say, players were not returning to campus in droves when Dixon accompanied Ben Howland to Pitt in 1999. Player pride in the program had waned during the years Ralph Willard was the coach.
Dixon wanted to build a program where the former players were an integral part of the team's success from year to year. He finally feels like he has that at Pitt.
"I think it's tremendous," Dixon said. "The former players, we talk about them to recruits. We always talk to recruits about this being their second home. Players coming back really touches the players who are here.
"Our place is unique. We have so few guys from this area or even close by. We have guys who are four, five six hours away from their homes. We really want this to be their second home. For some, it becomes their home after they're done playing.
"It's something we've talked about for a while, and now we're seeing it happen. When we recruit, we tell them you always have a home in Pittsburgh, and we're seeing that the past couple of years."
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1230.