ORLANDO, Fla. -- Elevator music, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin calls it. Jamie Dixon got a big kick out of that this week, Tomlin’s term for criticism from media and fans. Translation: You know the critics are out there, but you don’t pay any attention to them. In his 11 seasons as Pitt coach, Dixon certainly has had plenty of practice at that.
Just about everybody agrees Dixon has been a terrific regular-season coach, one of the best in college basketball history. His record is 288-95. That’s mind-numbing. Dixon has won three conference titles and taken Pitt to the NCAA tournament 10 times. That last number is remarkable. “We’ve probably made getting to the tournament look easier than it really is,” Dixon said. It’s brutally difficult. It’s not like college football where just about every team goes to a bowl game. Before Dixon arrived as Ben Howland’s assistant in 1999, Pitt missed the NCAAs six seasons in a row.
But Dixon hasn’t had similar tournament success. He hasn’t taken a team to the Final Four and made it to the Round of Eight just once. Six times, his Pitt teams were beaten by a lower seed, most crushingly by No. 8 Butler as a No. 1 seed in 2011, by No. 13 Bradley as a No. 5 seed in 2006 and by No. 3 Villanova as a No. 1 seed in 2009, one step short of the Final Four.
Before this NCAA tournament, it must have been mentioned a million times that Dixon’s Pitt teams hadn’t beaten a higher seed. That changed Thursday when Pitt smoked Colorado, 77-48. As impressive as the win was, it didn’t do all that much for Dixon’s tournament reputation. Pitt was a 9 seed, Colorado an 8. Pitt was nearly a touchdown favorite. Pitt was supposed to win big, although not by four touchdowns. Surely, the critics will howl again if Pitt loses today to Florida.
But what if Pitt wins?
What if it beats the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, a powerhouse team that has won 27 games in a row?
What will they say about Dixon and Pitt then?
I say the criticism will stop or at least slow significantly.
Dixon smiled and said otherwise.
“It’s never going to stop. No matter what you do, it’s never enough.”
Dixon gets it. He understands the elevator music.
“The more you win, the more you are expected to win,” he said. “If you make the Final 16, you should make the Final Eight. If you make the Final Eight, you should make the Final Four. Even if you win the national championship, it isn’t enough. Look at [Kentucky coach John] Calipari. He won it all. Do you think there saying in Kentucky, ‘OK, you won one. That’s enough.’ Of course, they’re not. They want more. They always want more.”
Former Connecticut Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun eloquently described that sort of thing a few years ago.
“People stop asking about your win total and start asking about St. Louis or San Antonio or wherever the Final Four is that year. As you build that monster, the monster has to be fed. That’s where Pittsburgh is at right now. It has created its own beast.”
You know what?
That’s a good thing.
That means your program is a great program.
“It is a good thing,” Dixon said. “I don’t blame anyone for wanting us to do more. We want to do more.”
Dixon remembers each of Pitt’s nine NCAA tournament losses more than he remembers its 12 wins. Five years later, he still remembers every detail of the hurtful loss to Villanova. Pitt was beaten, 78-76, on Scottie Reynold’s length-of-the-court drive and layup at the buzzer.
“No one likes to lose like that, but it happens to everybody,” Dixon said. “Every team has lost a close game in the tournament. The key is to get back. You’ve got to keep putting yourself in position to have a chance. We’ve done that at a pretty good pace.”
That’s the right attitude.
The only attitude, really.
Kick at the door enough, sooner or later you’ll kick the door in.
Today might be that day for Pitt. A win won’t mean a trip to the Final Four, merely a trip to the Round of 16 next week in Memphis, Tenn. But it would be Dixon’s greatest tournament win by far. To this point, that’s Pitt’s win against sixth-seeded Wisconsin in 2004, his first season. That was better than Pitt’s win against No. 4 Xavier in 2009 because the Wisconsin game was in Milwaukee in front of a tough crowd.
Pitt is playing its best basketball, as Dixon has pointed out all week. It’s not just the blowout of Colorado. There were the wins against Wake Forest and North Carolina in the ACC tournament before a tough loss to Virginia, another No. 1 seed in the NCAAs.
“We still have more in us,” Pitt’s Cameron Wright said after the Colorado game.
If Pitt wins today?
“I look at it more for what it can do for our guys,” Dixon said. “It’s not about me. I’m not the story.”
And if Pitt loses?
Dixon will be the biggest part of the story. The good news for him is he won’t hear the elevator music, no matter how loud it gets. He’ll be too busy getting ready for the next kick at the door.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.