Dixon needs to act swiftly, decisively

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It is every college coach's worst nightmare.

The early morning telephone call that shatters a peaceful sleep. The troubling news that one of his players is in trouble with the police. The sobering realization that the player's career suddenly is in jeopardy. The even more frightening realization that the immediate future of the program also is in some peril.

No, it wasn't a good telephone call that Pitt basketball coach Jamie Dixon took early Sunday morning.

Star point guard Levance Fields had been arrested after an incident outside a Strip District club. This wasn't the typical story of a young guy drinking too much and acting like a knucklehead, the kind of story that, sadly, we hear much too often involving athletes at just about every major college. Fields allegedly struck an off-duty police officer in the chest and reached for the officer's weapon. He had to be subdued with a Taser before being charged with one count each of aggravated assault, disarming a police officer, disorderly conduct and public drunkenness.

Alarming stuff.

Not at all what you would expect from a guy who should be smarter than that, who is supposed to be a team leader, who never should have put himself in position to let down his coach, his teammates and his school.

If Fields is guilty of these crimes, he should never play another second of basketball for Pitt. That would be a huge blow to Dixon and the program that he has worked so long and hard to make a Big East Conference power. Fields is the team's best player.

But the Pitt program will suffer even more damage if Dixon doesn't handle this incident properly. All eyes will turn to him after reading the news about Fields to see what he does about it.

Player discipline is the toughest part of college coaching. Seldom are the details of any incident black and white. They are gray. Almost always, there are two sides to a story. If a coach rushes too quickly to discipline a player and that player is innocent, the coach does a disservice to the player and to his team. But if the coach is lax with his punishment, he risks losing control of the squad.

It says here it's better to err on the side of the integrity of the program rather than on the rights of one player.

No player can be above the team under any circumstances, not even the star point guard.

Dixon declined comment through a Pitt spokesman yesterday, but his initial response to the Fields arrest was impressive. "We have built a successful program at Pitt, on and off the court, by prioritizing personal accountability and responsibility," he said in a statement released by the university. "We will not compromise when it comes to those values."

Bravo to that.

Dixon has proven to be a tough coach when the situation demands it. In January 2005, he suspended starting guard Yuri Demetris after he was charged with two counts of burglary and one count of simple assault after an altercation with an ex-girlfriend. Demetris never rejoined the team.

Until the Fields arrest, that had been the only bad incident involving a Pitt basketball player during the Dixon era. Dixon, like his predecessor, Ben Howland, worked hard to resurrect the image of a program that was tarnished by several off-the-court problems when Ralph Willard was coach. That was a dark time for the Pitt team. Fred Primus was involved in a burglary, Attila Cosby had an altercation with an assistant coach, and Kellii Taylor left the team because of an alcohol problem, prompting former Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson to call the program "an embarrassment to the university." Howland and Dixon changed that in a hurry.

But Dixon's tough-talk statement about the Fields arrest only will mean something if he backs it up, sooner rather than later. Fields is facing serious charges. He should be suspended from the team indefinitely while the legal process starts to take its course, and Dixon has a chance to conduct his own investigation.

Some will argue that isn't fair to Fields, that he hasn't been found guilty of anything yet. That's true. But no one is saying he should be locked up in prison without due process or that his rights as an American citizen be disregarded. He just shouldn't be allowed to be a part of the Pitt team with all of this hanging over him.

Know this, if nothing else:

Playing a sport in college isn't a right. It's a privilege.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com


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