Among the coaches taking teams to Tuesday’s NIT men’s semifinals in New York, no one has won more games in Madison Square Garden than TCU’s Jamie Dixon.
The Horned Frogs’ first-year coach posted a 26-15 mark in the legendary venue, including a title at the 2008 Big East conference tournament, during his 13-year tenure at Pittsburgh. Dixon, 51, has led teams to seven victories over Top 25 opponents in the Garden but will be taking TCU (22-15) on the school’s first journey to the arena as part of the deepest postseason run by a Frogs team in program history.
As the Frogs’ wide-eyed players have discussed what they expect to see and experience during their New York adventure, starting with Sunday’s flight to the city and afternoon practice at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., Dixon has made it clear that this journey falls well within his comfort zone and also tugs at his heartstrings.
“We’ve done this a lot, been to New York a bunch. It’s a special place in March. There’s no other place I’d rather be,” said Dixon, whose team meets Central Florida (24-11) in Tuesday’s semifinals (8:30 p.m., ESPN).
“I used to always say that was our second home when I was at Pitt, our second-favorite place to play. I don’t know how I’d phrase that now (in relation to TCU). But it’s going to be great. It’s certainly a great opportunity for us.”
Although he grew up in California, Dixon’s family roots trace back to New York. Both of his parents, Jim and Marge, grew up in the Bronx, and Dixon visited family members there every summer as a youngster. His strongest basketball memory involves Madison Square Garden but has nothing to do with the night Pitt cut down the nets after winning the 2008 Big East tournament as a No. 7 seed.
Instead, it involves the weekend of the 2006 Big East tournament, when Pitt fell to Syracuse in the title game at the Garden. The moment resonates because Dixon’s sister, Maggie, joined his parents in seats behind the Panthers’ bench. Maggie, coach of the Army women’s team, had won a Patriot League championship the night before.
That’s the last time we were all together. That was the moment I remember most in basketball because our whole family got to celebrate together.
TCU men’s basketball coach Jamie Dixon, reflecting on the 2006 Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden
Less than one month later, on April 6, 2006, Maggie Dixon died of a heart arrhythmia episode. Her condition had not been detected by doctors and her death, at 28, impacted her older brother. It also elevated that night at MSG to a special place in his memory banks.
“That’s the last time we were all together,” Dixon said. “That was the moment I remember most in basketball because our whole family got to celebrate together.”
To honor Maggie, members of the Dixon family began the Maggie Dixon Foundation, which works to promote women’s college basketball and to bring awareness to sudden cardiac arrest among young people. Each year, the foundation hosts the Maggie Dixon Classic, which was held at MSG for nine consecutive years. Because of a scheduling conflict, this season’s event unfolded at Carnesecca Arena on the St. John’s campus but is expected to return to MSG in the future.
1 Trip to the semifinals round of a national postseason tournament in the history of the TCU men’s basketball program, which began during the 1908-09 season. That trip begins Sunday, when the team travels to New York for the NIT semifinals
Dixon, 12 years older than his sister, said Maggie’s death “changed me in a lot of ways” and looms as a significant reason why he will be nostalgic about next week’s return to the Garden. Another factor is the opportunity for Dixon, a former TCU player, to help his alma mater secure the first postseason tournament title for a program that made its debut with a 2-3 record during the 1908-09 season.
Dixon, a point guard on TCU teams that reached the NIT (1986) and the NCAA Tournament (1987) during his college career, got a taste for just how success-starved his players had become shortly after accepting the TCU job last March. As he tried to rally participants for last year’s end-of-school banquet honoring all TCU athletes, he got some unexpected resistance.
“A couple of them were a little hesitant about going because so many teams have been so successful here in so many other sports,” Dixon said. “And they were somewhat reluctant to go. I didn’t want that to be the case anymore.
“That really hit me. I wanted them to be proud of their program. I wanted our fans and our students to be proud of our program. I think we’re doing that. We’re not done … But it’s been a good year.”
TCU earned its semifinals berth with an 86-68 victory over Richmond in Schollmaier Arena. If the Frogs cut down the nets after Thursday’s title game in Madison Square Garden, TCU will finish with 24 victories: double its total from last year’s 12-21 mark under former coach Trent Johnson.
26 Victories by TCU men’s basketball coach Jamie Dixon while coaching in Madison Square Garden, the most by any of the four coaches taking programs to this year’s NIT semifinals.
To players, the chance to play in a renowned arena that their coach views as a “second home” is a comforting feeling as TCU prepares to make its program debut in Madison Square Garden. The setting for Tuesday’s game still qualifies as a pinch-me moment for guard Brandon Parrish, a senior from Arlington Seguin who will make his school-record 135th appearance Tuesday in a TCU uniform.
“I’m still taking it all in,” Parrish said. “I’m really on Cloud Nine right now. Just the fact that I’m about to go play in the basketball mecca is still a dream come true. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Point guard Alex Robinson, a sophomore from Mansfield Timberview who began his college career at Texas A&M, has been listening to stories about the venue for years from a cousin who is a regular at New York Knicks’ games.
“Every great player has played in Madison Square Garden, so that’s very exciting,” Robinson said. “I’ve always heard so much about the Garden, I want to go and find out for myself.”
Both players said Dixon has urged them to embrace the moment. But he has not shared much in regard to personal memories about New York or its fabled arena. During his tenure at Pitt, Dixon’s teams made it to the Big East conference championship game on four occasions, claiming the 2008 title with a 74-65 victory over top-seeded Georgetown.
I’m still taking it all in. I’m really on Cloud Nine right now. Just the fact that I’m about to go play in the basketball mecca is still a dream come true. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
TCU guard Brandon Parrish, on the team’s trip to New York for the NIT semifinals after posting a 12-21 record last season
“He didn’t tell us about cutting down the nets there,” Robinson said. “But he did say that it’s a great arena and it’s like a once-in-a-lifetime thing to play there. He wants us to go out there and experience that.”
In regard to Dixon’s MSG memories, Parrish said: “He doesn’t really talk about anything with Pitt. But he’s told us that, from his personal experience, it’s a feeling like no other. He’s preached that. I know that he has big dreams for us.”
Dixon also has vivid memories of his triumphs in New York, particularly his 2008 team that featured future NBA players Sam Young and DeJuan Blair, who spent the 2013-14 season with the Dallas Mavericks.
“That was DeJuan Blair’s freshman year,” Dixon said. “We’d had a bunch of injuries and then we got everybody back late in the year. So we kind of felt like we were as good as anybody, even though we were a 7-seed. We expected to be there.”
Likewise, Dixon wants this TCU team to expect to a celebration in Madison Square Garden after Thursday’s title game. But along the path to that possibility, he’ll introduce them to multiple New York-themed experiences, staring with Sunday’s practice on the West Point campus in a gym where his late sister once coached.
“Obviously, that’s a special place for me and my family,” Dixon said. “But I also think it would be a great experience for our team. We have some things planned for them up there. I’m really looking forward to it.”
While in New York, Dixon’s schedule calls for a visit to the 9/11 memorial at ground zero and a late-night sampling of food from a street vendor. Dixon said coaches will supervise the late-night acquisition of gyros, a tradition he will carry over from his days at Pitt.
If you’re playing in the Garden, you’re only playing somebody who’s really good. That’s a given. There’s no easy ones at the Garden.
TCU men’s basketball coach Jamie Dixon
At first, the concept of a sandwich in pita bread puzzled TCU forward Vladimir Brodziansky, the team’s leading scorer (13.8 points a game).
“We’re going to eat what?,” Brodziansky asked.
Food from a street vendor, he was told.
“Oh, OK. I guess,” Brodziansky said, laughing. “I’ve been to New York a couple of times but I don’t know (about gyros). It’s a great city and I’m excited to go there and see things.”
Dixon indicated he is not sure how much he’ll share about his past experiences at MSG, but the memories are there if he chooses to tap them.
“I don’t know if I’ll get into the personal stuff,” Dixon said, adding that he does want players to gain a sense of the venue’s history and aura. “If you’re playing in the Garden, you’re only playing somebody who’s really good. That’s a given. There’s no easy ones at the Garden.
“For our program, it’s great. We’ve made monumental changes in 365 days … to build up a college basketball program to where we want to have it, to where I want to have it and to what I’ve seen. We’re in a process that’s ongoing. We’re not where we want to be yet. But we continue to build.”
The next foundation piece will be laid at Madison Square Garden, a venue Dixon embraces as a second home in his coaching career.
TCU vs. Central Florida
8:30 p.m., Tuesday, ESPN