Ron Cook: Jamie Dixon has seat among the best

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Movie aficionados remember “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Frank Capra’s critically acclaimed 1939 production starring Jean Arthur and Jimmy Stewart. Today, I give you “Mr. Dixon Goes to Washington.” It won’t win an Academy Award, but it’s a really nice, fun story.

It’s a tale about Pitt coach Jamie Dixon visiting the White House earlier this month to talk a little ball with President Barack Obama. While in Washington, Dixon also was a part of a panel of college basketball coaches who spoke about leadership to American troops at the Pentagon. Men’s coaches Jim Boeheim, Tom Izzo, Tubby Smith, Kevin Ollie and Jay Wright were among the speakers as was women’s coach Geno Auriemma. All but Dixon have been to a Final Four. All but Dixon and Wright have won a national championship. Auriemma has won nine titles with Connecticut.

The Sports Leadership Forum panel was created by USA Basketball and NBA International at the request of U.S. Army general Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and Obama’s top military advisor. During his opening remarks at the discussion, Dempsey called the seven coaches “a Hall of Fame group … these are the best coaches in the land.”

Clearly, Dixon is held in higher regard nationally than he is in Pittsburgh. He has been widely criticized here for not winning more in the NCAA tournament.

“I think that’s pretty common for all coaches,” Dixon said. “There’s nothing wrong when fans and observers of your team get mad at you when you don’t win. You should be criticized if you don’t win. If you don’t have that, that’s when you should be worried …

“We’re all striving to win championships. Guys who have won one are striving to win the next one. I won’t say that when you win one that it’s ever forgotten, but it’s pretty inconsequential when the next season starts. We’re not the only team that’s disappointed when we lose in the tournament.”

Dempsey’s vision is for the college players to interact and work with the soldiers for the benefit of all. Dixon mentioned clean-up days or home-building projects as possibilities.

“General Dempsey kept saying, ‘Our military can do anything.’ He also said our guys are held in the same regard,” Dixon said. “He kept referring to the ‘best of the best,’ and, ‘commitment to serve.’ He sees a lot of similarities between the two groups. Age. Commitment. Work ethic. He also wants to focus on the transition back to the real world and a different life after a student-athlete or a soldier is finished with his playing days or service to our country. He’s excited about the opportunity to bring everyone together …

“I’m sure our guys will get a lot more out of it than his troops will. Those soldiers are the heroes.”

Dempsey played host to a reception the night before the Pentagon discussion. Dixon called him “a remarkable man.”

“I was humbly walking over to introduce myself when he and his wife came running up to me,” Dixon said. “They said, ‘We know who you are. We loved your sister.’”

Maggie Dixon was the women’s coach at Army for the 2005-06 season, leading the team to the Patriot League tournament championship and Army’s first NCAA tournament appearance. She died unexpectedly at 29 a few days after her team’s first-round loss in the NCAAs. An autopsy revealed she had an enlarged heart and a problem with a valve.

“The Dempseys’ daughter, Megan, played at West Point before Maggie got there,” Dixon said. “They’re big basketball fans. It turns out they were all at the championship game.”

The day after the reception, Dixon and the other coaches were given a tour of the West Wing of the White House by chief of staff Denis McDonough. Dixon said they bumped into vice president Joseph Biden in a hallway before being taken into the Oval Office to meet Obama. This time, Dixon initiated the conversation.

“It was pretty cool,” Dixon said. “My wife went to the same high school in Hawaii as the president. The Punahou School. It’s an unbelievable school. She told me to make sure I told the president, ‘Go Buff and Blue!’ He started laughing. He thought that was pretty good.”

Dixon called the two-day experience “an incredible honor” and said, “It was humbling and exciting at the same time. I thought it was great for our university. I’m just grateful to our university for giving me the chance to be a part of something like this.”

Dixon admitted the other coaches motivated him.

“I looked to my left and I looked to my right and thought, ‘I had better get one [of those national championships] pretty quick.’ I’m sure they were thinking the same thing. ‘I’ve got to get another one.’ Or, in Auriemma’s case, ‘I’ve got to get my 10th.’”

The best of the best, indeed.

Ron Cook: 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.

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