Longtime basketball coach Dixon leaves Pitt for TCU
March 21, 2016 8:48 PM
Jamie Dixon is congratulated by his players after Pitt defeated Villanova and clinched the regular-season Big East championship in 2011.
Jamie Dixon led the Panthers to 328 wins in his 13 seasons as coach.
Pitt athletic director Scott Barnes discusses the departure of head basketball coach Jamie Dixon to TCU at a news conference Monday at Petersen Events Center.
By Paul Zeise / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
University of Pittsburgh men’s basketball coach Jamie Dixon accepted a job offer Monday to become the next coach at his alma mater, Texas Christian University. And, although it was mostly his decision to leave, Pitt didn’t exactly beg Dixon to stay.
In the past, when Dixon was building Pitt’s basketball program into one of the best in the country, university officials had to fend off outside interest in their coach, offering Dixon better contracts and other perks to keep him in the fold.
That changed in the past couple of weeks, as it became apparent Dixon was TCU’s top choice, even before the school officially fired its previous coach, Trent Johnson. Rather than enticing Dixon to stay, Pitt officials worked with TCU to negotiate a smaller buyout from Dixon’s contract to help ease his exit.
“We knew where his heart and his head were, and it wouldn’t have been good for our program to hold him hostage,” Pitt athletic director Scott Barnes said at a news conference Monday announcing Dixon’s departure.
Dixon, 50, led the Panthers to 328 wins, two Big East Conference championships, one Big East tournament championship and an Elite Eight appearance during his 13 years as head coach. He first came to the university as an assistant coach in 1999.
But a lot has changed for Dixon and Pitt since the team’s 2009 Elite Eight appearance.
The university moved out of the Big East into the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2013, making it more difficult for Dixon to recruit in talent-rich areas such as New York City and Philadelphia. The Panthers have missed the NCAA tournament twice in the past five years and have won only three NCAA tournament games since 2009.
Barnes has taken a more hands-on role in the program than his predecessor, Steve Pederson, who resigned under pressure in December 2014. Dixon was going to be asked to make some changes to his staff, and Barnes also was working with him to toughen the Panthers’ non-conference schedule.
Dixon was used to more autonomy, working under Pederson, former vice chancellor Jerry Cochran and former chancellor Mark Nordenberg. All three have left the university in the past two years.
Dixon, who met with Pitt’s players Monday afternoon to tell them he was leaving, said there were several factors that played into his decision. But the two most important were that he was ready for a new challenge, and the opportunity was too good to pass up.
“The timing was right,” Dixon said. “I was at Pitt for 17 years. That is a long, long time in today’s game.
“TCU was a great opportunity for me to get a fresh start. It is a place I obviously love and a place where I know the people who are there in the administration. That’s a big deal for me.”
Dixon, who played for the Horned Frogs from 1984-87, and TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte have long been friends, and in 2011 the two worked together to get TCU into the Big East.
The Big East football league fell apart, however, and TCU landed on its feet in the Big 12 while Pitt found a home in the ACC.
At TCU, Dixon will take over a massive rebuilding project. The Horned Frogs have won only eight Big 12 games in the past four years under Johnson. Pitt, by contrast, won nine conference games this year alone. But TCU has made a commitment to men’s basketball, recently pouring more than $80 million into Schollmaier Arena, leading many to call it the best facility in the Big 12.
Dixon also will have a recruiting budget that is competitive with other schools in the Big 12 and the ability to hire assistants and pay them good salaries. And, unlike at Pitt, which is far from a basketball recruiting hotbed, he now has a natural recruiting base in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, which is full of talented prospects every year.
Dixon said his decision to leave was gut-wrenching.
“What I don’t want is people to think that I don’t love Pittsburgh or I didn’t love being at Pitt, because I did,” he said. “I loved my time there and I loved every minute of it, and if it weren’t TCU, I’d still be there getting ready for next year.”
Pitt has already hired a firm to begin a national search for a new coach, Barnes said. He is looking for a candidate with head coaching experience and a track record of success.
Barnes said he believes Pitt will have little problem filling the job. He wants to find Dixon’s successor as soon as possible, and he already has names in mind.
“If you are an AD worth your salt, you better have a list in your pocket at all times in today’s day and age,” Barnes said.
He made it clear candidates will not be limited to those with ties to Pitt, the city of Pittsburgh or the ACC. Pitt, he said, is a “national job” and he won’t limit it to coaches with regional ties.
“We want a guy who can absolutely recruit his tail off,” Barnes said. That has been a shortcoming, especially recently, and a big reason the program has slipped the past few seasons.
Public criticism of Dixon peaked this year as Pitt struggled to be consistent. The Panthers were knocked out of the NCAA tournament in the first round Friday, falling to Wisconsin, 47-43.
“I am not upset with the criticism when we lose or any of that,” Dixon said. “I know that I was appreciated there. People there loved me and my family, and I will be forever grateful.
“When we lost to Wisconsin, that was devastating to me and my players. I would expect and hope fans would be devastated as well. Criticism is a part of it and it only means people care. I love Pitt, I love Pitt fans, I love their passion. I will definitely miss them.”
Dixon came to Pitt in 1999 with then-head coach Ben Howland and took over the program in 2003, reaching the NCAA tournament 11 times in his 13 seasons. Twice the Panthers were No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament, though Dixon was 12-11 in tournament games.
Dixon said he is proud of what Pitt accomplished, and he believes he left the program in excellent shape.
“There are seven of the top nine scorers coming back,” Dixon said. “We have three incoming freshmen who are all really good players. The roster is strong, I wouldn’t have left for another job if I didn’t feel good about the shape of the program.
“I obviously still care about Pitt and I always will. I’ll be a Pitt fan for life.”
Paul Zeise: email@example.com and Twitter @paulzeise.
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