Majerus left stamp on Pitt's program through Dixon, Howland
Ben Howland, left, and Jamie Dixon modeled their Pitt teams around Rick Majerus' coaching philosophies. Majerus died Saturday from heart failure. He was 64.
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No one had a more profound impact on Jamie Dixon's coaching career than Rick Majerus. The foundation of Pitt's program is based on what Dixon and Ben Howland learned 15 years ago when they visited Majerus at University of Utah desperate for some basketball knowledge that would help them get their Northern Arizona program off the mat.
Howland and Dixon left with great basketball ideas -- many of which remain a part of Pitt's offensive and defensive philosophies -- but they also left Utah with a great friend and many stories to tell.
Majerus died Saturday from heart failure. He was 64. But Dixon was all smiles Monday recalling the friend that meant so much to him. Many of Majerus' friends have legendary stories about dining with the colorful coach. Dixon has body-surfing stories.
Dixon and Majerus shared a love of the beach.
In 1998-99, a year before he came to Pitt, Dixon was an assistant coach at Hawaii. When Utah played at Hawaii that season, Majerus stayed in Hawaii for a couple of days as was his custom on road trips. He did not like to travel with his team.
The day after the Utes handed the Warriors a lopsided loss, Dixon took Majerus to Sandy's Beach and Makapu'u Beach in Oahu.
"He loved the beach," Dixon said. "He was very spiritual about it. He thought it was cleansing."
The next year Dixon and Majerus were together at an ABCD camp in New Jersey. During some down time, they went to Spring Lake on the Jersey Shore, where Dixon used to spend his summers when he was young. They body-surfed again.
"He was pretty good at it, too," Dixon said.
Dixon and Howland were lucky enough to tag along for some monumental college basketball games, too. On Utah's run to the NCAA title game in 1998, they spent the week with Majerus and his coaching staff in Anaheim, Calif., when the third-seeded Utes beat West Virginia and then top-seeded Arizona to advance to the Final Four.
"We were there watching film with him, staying at the hotel, doing the scouting report," Dixon said. "We saw how they did things."
Utah defeated Arizona going away, 76-51. Majerus surprised Arizona coach Lute Olson with a junk defense that stymied the high-powered Wildcats.
"We were right by the bench," Dixon said. "They shocked Arizona with a triangle-and-two. He had never done it before, so it was pretty amazing."
Over the years, Dixon added new concepts from other coaches and Majerus changed, too. But the one thing that always remained constant for Dixon was Majerus' man-to-man defensive principles.
"We've evolved," Dixon said. "We've done different things over the years as did he. I was amazed at how much he had changed. But the core, the basis, especially on the defensive end, is what he did. Talk to anyone in the Atlantic 10 last season [when Majerus was coaching Saint Louis] ... their defense was unbelievable, how hard they were to score against it."
That has been said many times over the years about Howland's and Dixon's teams at Pitt.
Majerus had Andre Miller and Keith Van Horn, but he did not coach many other NBA players in his career. Dixon has placed his share of players into the NBA, but like Majerus, his players are known as underdogs who surpass expectations.
"If you look at his winning percentage, if you look at model programs, overachieving programs, they were the No. 1 team to fit that description as far as doing things the right way, winning with good kids and probably overachieving," Dixon said. "Utah is a basketball school, but he took it to another level."
Dixon played his friend once in 2007 when Majerus brought his St. Louis team to Petersen Events Center for a non-conference game. The student got the best of the mentor. Pitt won, 67-58.
In recent years, when Majerus was ill, he did not let a lot of his friends know what was going on with him. Dixon surmised that Majerus knew his situation was not going to turn out well.
But the distance between the two in recent years did not diminish Dixon's feelings toward Majerus.
"I respected him so much as a coach," he said.
First Published December 4, 2012 12:00 am