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Dixon's coaching, not his acting ability, has kept Pitt on top

March 02, 2004|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH — With all the stops along the way that prepared Jamie Dixon to take over as Pittsburgh's coach after Ben Howland left for UCLA last spring, who would have imagined that the three months he spent in a Dutch hospital with a ruptured pancreas could have been so important?

It's the sort of thing Dixon tends to leave off the resume, like the acting he did in commercials growing up in North Hollywood, the son of a screenwriter.

He made his name in coaching as Howland's top assistant, helping turn once-lowly Pitt into a top-10 team -- not as a player whose career was ended by a freak injury during a game while he was touring Europe in 1990.

It was an injury so severe that Dixon required several surgeries, didn't eat for 50 days, lost 50 pounds, and decided coaching looked pretty good.

It all came back to him last fall as he talked on the phone with star guard Julius Page, whose call waiting had just beeped with word that his 3-year-old son was hospitalized with severe stomach pains after a bad fall.

The diagnosis soon followed: The boy's pancreas had ruptured.

"I don't know anything about medical stuff, but this was the one thing I knew something about," Dixon said.

"I couldn't tell you how to take care of a cold. But I could tell you how to take care of a pancreas."

Page's son was in intensive care for a week and in the hospital for three, but Dixon walked Page through what the doctors told him, explaining about the tube that would drain away the pancreatic enzymes, assuring him that his son would be OK.

"When my son was in the hospital, he was one of the main guys I talked to, not only because he was my coach, but because he'd been through it before," said Page, who returned to Buffalo, N.Y., during preseason practice until his son, Dredon, was out of intensive care.

"I was worried about coming back. Even though my son was in the hospital, I thought I owed it to my team to be here," Page said. "Coach Dixon just told me to handle it, and whenever I felt ready to come back, to come back.

"He told me everything that was going to come before it even happened. I was already prepared. He let me know he'd be fine."

Howland, who first encountered Dixon in the early 1980s, when Dixon was a player at Sherman Oaks Notre Dame High and Howland was a UC Santa Barbara recruiter, said he knew the Pitt team he left behind would be fine too -- if only the school gave Dixon the job.

It was no gimme, with Pitt first offering it to Wake Forest Coach Skip Prosser, apparently uncertain about Dixon, 38, because he had no experience as a head coach.

"It was like a Catch-22, but no one would do a better job than he would at taking over," said Howland, who held a job as associate head coach open for Dixon at UCLA until Pitt made its decision.

"You know, the grass is always greener on the other side, like, 'We can't hire him, we've got to get Rick Pitino.' " Howland said.

"They would have not the success they're having if not for Jamie."

At 25-3, the Panthers are ranked sixth -- they play tonight at No. 13 Providence -- but before Syracuse upset them Sunday in overtime, they had been third, one notch below the ranking they'd achieved under Howland.

A Pittsburgh columnist who last year wrote that the school had found a way to "screw up" the program by hiring Dixon has since recanted.

And although Dixon has kept many of the philosophies he and Howland share -- emphasizing defense, rebounding and shot selection -- it's not as if he'd inherited the same team.

Point guard Brandin Knight is gone, along with starters Ontario Lett and Donatas Zavackas.

Carl Krauser took over for Knight and became the team's leading scorer. Freshman Chris Taft, the starting center, said he might not have gone to Pitt if the school hadn't hired Dixon.

So while Howland muddles along with an 11-14 Bruin team, Pitt has a very real opportunity to advance beyond the Sweet 16, where Howland's last two seasons ended.

Some are even picking Pitt to reach the Final Four.

"I knew that was a possibility," Howland said. "I know this team, that they have a chance to win the whole thing.... I really love those guys.

"But for my family, for long-term, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

There's certainly no one Howland would rather watch coach the Panthers through the NCAA tournament than Dixon.

"He's had as much to do with my success as anybody," Howland said. "I really owe a lot to him. His biggest strength, in my mind, is, No. 1, he's a tireless worker. He has absolutely the best work ethic. And he has a great eye for talent.

"He's always been my confidant. There's no one I trust more. I'm just really proud of him."

There is a lot of recent pride in the Dixon clan because Jamie and his wife, Jacqueline, welcomed their second child, a daughter, Wednesday. The Cesarean birth was scheduled in part to avoid a conflict with the Big East and NCAA tournaments. But that didn't give the couple a jump on the name, because they chose not to learn the baby's gender in advance.

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