Jamie Dixon and Tony Benford have been competitors most of their lives.
“Tony was a hard-nosed, tough, kind of a ‘big guard’ even before the ‘big guard’ really came about,” Dixon said. “He was big and physical.”
Said Benford: “I always kid with Jamie that I had to guard that ‘flex’ offense back in the day. We used to have some pretty good games between us.”
The competition carried into their coaching careers, particularly from 2008-12 in the Big East. Dixon was the head coach at Pitt, and Benford was on Buzz Williams’ staff at Marquette.
“They used to beat us quite a bit back then,” Benford said, smiling.
But Benford and Dixon maintained a friendship off the court, and always envisioned being on the same bench. That finally became a reality last April when Benford joined Dixon’s staff as assistant head coach.
Benford has felt right at home in Fort Worth. This is the area Benford has called home even since being fired as North Texas’ head coach following the 2016-17 season, going 62-95 in his five seasons with the Mean Green. His three youngest children live in the Denton area, and his oldest son is a high school coach in Arizona.
“I was looking for an opportunity to move my family back here,” Benford said. “Jamie called and it was something I couldn’t turn down. My home is still here. I’ve got a lot of great relationships in the Metroplex and throughout the state with high school coaches and AAU coaches. It all worked out.
“And, man, these facilities are some of the best around. My first day, I was like, ‘Wow.’ I hadn’t been on campus in a while. I remember the old Daniel-Meyer, playing in that, and they’ve done a great job with this facility.”
Dixon couldn’t be happier. He raved about Benford’s character, and now has one of the top staffs in the Big 12 with Benford, Ryan Miller and Duane Broussard.
It’s another sign of how committed TCU is to fielding a competitive basketball program, and the resources it is willing to invest in it.
“Our administration really stepped up,” Dixon said. “They knew how badly I wanted to get Tony here and strengthen our staff.”
Added athletic director Jeremiah Donati: “I think coach Dixon has assembled the finest staff in the conference. It shows our continued commitment and support to men’s basketball. With that comes high expectations, but I believe we have the guys who can recruit and coach to take us to an even higher level.”
It’s hard to find a better basketball upbringing than what Benford had.
Growing up in Hobbs, New Mexico, Benford played for legendary high school coach Ralph Tasker. Tasker was known for using full-court pressure the entire game, and his teams lit up the scoreboard night after night.
“Growing up in Hobbs, you wanted to play for Ralph Tasker,” Benford said. “He was a legend. More than that, he was a great role model for all of us. I played for him, my cousins played for him, it was a great experience.”
Benford averaged 27.5 points his senior season in leading Hobbs to a state title.
From Hobbs, Benford went to Texas Tech and another well-respected coach in Gerald Myers. On Myers’ staff at the time was Rob Evans, who went on to become head coach at Ole Miss (1992-98) and Arizona State (1998-2006).
During his college career, Benford was part of two Southwest Conference championship teams in 1985 and 1986. Tech had first-round exits in the NCAA Tournament, though, falling to Boston College in ‘85 and Georgetown in ‘86.
“It was a great experience for me at Tech,” Benford said. “We had a great deal of success. I was fortunate enough to play with some really good players, a guy like [Peaster High School head coach] Bubba Jennings. He was a really good teammate, a really good player. He’s still a great friend in the area.
“It was a great experience playing for coach Myers. I learned a great deal from him playing on the court and off the court. We stay in touch to this day.”
The Boston Celtics drafted Benford in the 1986 NBA Draft, and he went on to play professionally in Holland during the 1986-87 season before pursuing a coaching career.
Benford had stints as an assistant coach at New Mexico (1992-98), at Arizona State (1998-2006), Nebraska (2006-08) and Marquette (2008-12) before landing the North Texas job.
He took over for Johnny Jones in Denton. Jones led the Mean Green to the NCAA Tournament twice in 11 seasons, but Benford wasn’t able to replicate that success.
The Mean Green never finished above .500 under Benford, who was fired after five seasons.
“We didn’t have the success that we wanted to have or that we envisioned, but it was a great opportunity to be a head coach,” Benford said. “I learned a lot. What to do. What not to do. There’s a lot of things you’d do different now.
“That’s part of coaching. You learn a lot, so hopefully you have another opportunity down the road.”
The “next” opportunity came for Benford last March, albeit in an interim fashion. With LSU coach Will Wade suspended in the midst of the FBI college basketball corruption case, Benford stepped into the head role.
Many thought the Tigers would fold with all the negative publicity surrounding the team, but Benford guided them on a Sweet 16 run in the NCAA Tournament.
“I didn’t try to change a whole lot. I just tried to make sure they knew what they were playing for,” Benford said. “They were playing for one another. They were playing for something bigger than themselves. I really kept everything the same.
“We had a great staff there. Assistant coaches Greg Heiar and Bill Armstrong did a great job helping me coach the players and get through the difficult times that we had. Everyone really bought into the team concept. It made my job easier.”
It’s no secret that Benford wants to be a head coach again. That’s why TCU ranked among the most desirable destinations following his LSU stint.
Dixon has an impressive coaching tree. Heck, he’s already seen two assistants become head coaches in his three-year tenure at TCU with David Patrick going to UC Riverside and Scott Cross going to Troy.
“Jamie’s one of the most respected coaches in the country,” Benford said. “I want that opportunity to be a head coach again. Hopefully we’ll have success here and in the next few years maybe we’ll parlay that into another head coaching opportunity. We’ve got a great staff. Ryan Miller and Duane Broussard are two guys ready to be head coaches too.”
As Benford said, though, success has to come at TCU for the assistants to get on the short lists at other programs. And Benford is confident that TCU is positioned to do that, spending much of his time developing the big men.
Benford views sophomore center Kevin Samuel as one of the top post players in the country, and has seen promising signs out of sophomore Russell Barlow.
As far as Samuel, Benford said: “Kevin is one of the best shot blockers in the conference. He does a great job of rebounding the basketball and protecting the rim. He does a great job running the floor, getting in position early. He can continue to improve his post moves, reading the defense when they bring double teams and passing out of double teams to cut down on turnovers.
“Then he’s also got to become a better free throw shooter. He’s going to get fouled a lot. But Kevin’s one of the better post players in the country.”
Barlow, meanwhile, didn’t see much game action last season. He battled injuries, and TCU wavered on whether to preserve a redshirt season for him.
But Benford remembers Barlow coming out of high school and feels good things are ahead for the former four-star recruit.
“I think Russell is going to have a breakthrough year,” Benford said. “When you go against a great player like Kevin Samuel everyday, you’re going to get better. And Russell has.”
In the end, all of it has Benford excited about his first season with the Frogs.
“We had one of the best summers that I’ve had as a coach with a group,” Benford said. “We’ve really been laying a foundation of how we’re going to play offensively and defensively. We have everything in place that we need to be successful.”