TCU’s Dixon brings dogged work ethic, fresh approach to job

As heavy snow fell that night on a closed highway in rural Colorado, the young basketball coach never questioned why he put himself in such a predicament.

But there he was: sleeping in his car, or at least attempting to, after an avalanche covered the roadway between his location and the recruit he planned to meet in suburban Denver.

Jamie Dixon chose to wait out the storm that night in 1995 rather than return to Northern Arizona, where he served as an assistant to then-coach Ben Howland.

“I was more than halfway there, so I figured I’d just keep going,” said Dixon, who grossly underestimated the driving distance from his school’s campus in Flagstaff, Ariz., to the fertile recruiting territory of Denver. “We were struggling. I knew we needed better players. The game wasn’t until the next night. So I slept in the car, got out the next day and got there in time.”

Dixon acknowledged he slept very little while bundled beneath blankets in his car until the road reopened. But the defining part of that journey is what happened next: Dixon finished two-for-two in landing players he visited in Denver, including guard Billy Hix, who became a four-year starter.

“It was well worth the trip,” Dixon said, smiling at the memory.

The next order of business for Dixon is making his recent relocation to TCU, where he was a standout player on two Southwest Conference championship teams in the 1980s, a journey that proves “worth the trip” for all involved parties. The first step occurs Friday at 6 p.m., when Dixon makes his coaching debut at his alma mater against the University of St. Thomas in Schollmaier Arena.

Dixon, 51, posted a 328-123 record in 13 seasons at Pittsburgh before accepting the TCU job in March. While at Pitt, Dixon’s teams earned 11 NCAA Tournament appearances and Dixon was honored as the national coach of the year by four organizations for his work during seasons that ended in 2011, 2010 and 2009. Based on tax documents obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Dixon received a compensation package of $3.2 million in 2014, including a $1.4 million base salary.

But he left that behind to rebuild the program at TCU, which finished 12-21 last season and has a combined mark of 8-64 in conference play as a Big 12 member. TCU has not released a salary figure on its latest hire, but it is clear school officials view Dixon as the final piece in upgrading their men’s basketball program to a Big 12 level after spending $72 million to revamp Schollmaier Arena.

“He’s going to do a lot of good at TCU,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, whose team will be seeking a 13th consecutive league title this season. “It’s just a matter of time. He’s already upgraded the talent level.”

Elevated expectations

What Dixon plans to upgrade next is the level of expectations at a program that posted its last NCAA Tournament win in 1987, when Dixon was a player. He envisions building a program that makes the NCAA field in most seasons and will borrow a blueprint from yesteryear in making that a reality.

Dixon played high school basketball in North Hollywood, Calif. He remembers former UCLA coach Gene Bartow, the successor to legendary Bruins coach John Wooden, departing after his second season to create a program from scratch at Alabama-Birmingham.

Under Bartow, who arrived at UAB for the 1978-79 season, the Blazers made it to nine NCAA tournaments in 18 seasons and earned 14 total postseason berths. The highlights included a Sweet 16 berth in 1981 and an Elite Eight appearance in 1982 for a program that did not exist in 1977.

Dixon sees a parallel between what Bartow did at UAB and what he seeks to accomplish at TCU, which heads into its second season in its updated arena and its fifth season as a member of the Big 12, the nation’s top-rated RPI conference the past two years.

“I look at it as completely a new program,” Dixon said. “I can’t do anything about the last 30 years. I can’t do anything about the last four in the Big 12. We’re starting over. We’re a new program for so many reasons, and I think it’s just the best way for us to look at it.”

For Dixon, the rebuilding effort completes a full-circle journey in his association with the school. As a high school senior in the 1982-83 season, Dixon caught the attention of former Frogs coach Jim Killingsworth despite his scrawny physique because he played with a chip on his shoulder. More than three decades later, it remains his defining quality as a coach and one he seeks in players.

“It’s all I’ve known. I’ve changed in some areas, but I do think I still have that chip on my shoulder,” said Dixon, who remembered arriving at TCU as a 17-year-old freshman that “looked like I was about 12 physically.”

But the effort and intangibles always showed. As a member of teams that won or shared SWC titles in the 1985-86 and 1986-87 seasons, Dixon played his way into a 2007 induction in the TCU Athletic Hall of Fame.

After taking over the Pitt program from his close friend Howland, who described Dixon as a “tireless” worker, Dixon’s teams earned a reputation for tough, blue-collar defensive play and maximizing their physical abilities. Players say he’s emphasized the same approach at TCU.

“I appreciate guys that think that way and play that way,” Dixon said. “I think I have an eye for it. I think I also have an inclination, or a passion, for those guys.”

Life-changing moment

Beyond basketball, other passions include family, charitable work and acting. Dixon, who appeared in multiple television commercials as a child actor, made his most memorable commercial shortly after his professional career ended because of a ruptured pancreas while playing for a team in Holland. Two surgeries later, Dixon landed a job as a graduate assistant at UC Santa Barbara in 1991 and cut an iconic Bud Light commercial in which he was dunked on by a woman while playing basketball at the beach.

Dixon, still a card-carrying member of the Screen Actors Guild, endured ribbing for a couple of seasons from his college players because the spot became “one of those commercials on ESPN that you get sick of because they run it every minute.”

He laughed at the memory but embraced the chance to discuss some of the “life-changing moments” in his life. At the top of that list is the sudden death in 2006 of his sister, Maggie Dixon, who was the women’s basketball coach at Army and a rising star in the coaching industry.

The night before Maggie died of a heart arrhythmia episode, Jamie stayed at her house. Maggie’s condition had not been detected by doctors but her death, at 28, left a void in her older brother’s life that led him and fellow family members to start 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, a women’s basketball tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Dixon, 12 years older than his sister, said Maggie’s death deeply impacted him and his parents, Jim and Marge.

“It changed me in a lot of ways,” Dixon said. “You can’t imagine until it happens the shock of it. I didn’t realize how much it would mean for people to reach out to me and to our family, whether they were friends or people I didn’t now. That was life-changing to me.

“So when it happens to someone else, I’m more comfortable in reaching out to other people because I know the value of it. When you lose someone like that, you want to talk about them. People love to talk about someone they loved and people respected.”

Despite his many accomplishments in basketball, Dixon cites the weekend of the 2006 Big East conference tournament in New York, when Pitt lost to Syracuse in the championship game, as the capper to his most memorable basketball experience. That’s because Maggie, fresh off her team’s victory in the Patriot League tournament title game the previous night, sat behind the Panthers’ bench in Madison Square Garden during the contest with his parents.

“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. She passed away a couple of weeks after that.”

A decade later, Dixon seeks to make fresh memories at TCU, where he first made his mark in the college game as a player. Howland, now the coach at Mississippi State, expects his longtime friend to succeed because of the effort he’ll put in. In a 2015 interview with Pittsburgh magazine, Howland said the secret to Dixon’s success can be found in that snowy recruiting trip he made for Northern Arizona in 1995.

“You can’t outwork the guy,” Howland said. “He’s the hardest worker I’ve ever been round … Nobody grinds harder. Nobody works harder. He is tireless.”

Now, he’s putting in that kind of effort for TCU. Big 12 peers understand what comes next.

“I like the way Jamie’s teams play. They defend at a high level. They take great shots,” Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said. “The thing I’ve always thought about Jamie, and it’s still true today, is he is a sincere, substance person. There’s not a lot of flash but there’s a lot of substance. He’s just a real relationship guy.

“I’m not looking forward to coaching against him. But I am looking forward to having a friendship renewed with him.”

TCU fans begin renewing their relationship Friday.

Jimmy Burch: 817-390-7760, @Jimmy_Burch

TCU men vs. St. Thomas

6 p.m. Friday, FSSW Plus

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