PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Ben Howland began the millennium by giving the Pittsburgh basketball program an identity. Jamie Dixon turned it into a full-fledged Thing.
A virtual unknown when he took over in 2003 after his mentor turned four solid years with the Panthers into a dream gig at UCLA, Dixon built the program in his own image. Overachieving. Tough. Relentless. It was a perfect meld of coach and city. Dixon’s blue collar approach embodied by a group of grinders who turned every defensive possession into a personal affront and made NCAA Tournament appearances a regularity at a place where they had been a rarity for decades.
When Villanova’s Scottie Reynolds hit a buzzer-beater that stunned the Panthers in the 2009 regional finals, the fervor began to fade into something more ordinary. Good, but no longer great, Pitt spent the last seven seasons searching for a new identity as it switched from the rugged Big East to the more elegant ACC.
On Monday, fresh off a fifth first-weekend exit in the NCAAs in the last seven seasons, Dixon sought the comfort and a new challenge at TCU, his alma mater. He’ll be introduced as the Horned Frogs head coach on Tuesday. Back in Pittsburgh, his former employer begins the search for his replacement, one that could define just exactly where the Panthers fit in the ever-shifting college basketball landscape.
“This is a national job,” athletic director Scott Barnes said. “(The ACC has) six teams going to the Sweet 16, most in the history of the NCAAs. The platform that is the ACC and the job that Pitt is, (this) is a national job. We won’t limit ourselves to any specific area when it comes to looking for a coach.”
Whoever takes over will be hard-pressed to match Dixon’s remarkable run. The Panthers went to the NCAAs 14 times between 1941 and 2003, winning a grand total of 12 games. Dixon won 12 games in the tournament during his 13-year tenure while adding two Big East regular season championships and a Big East tournament title.
Yet momentum slowed when the Panthers moved to the ACC in 2013. And for the first time since before Dixon took charge, there were pockets of empty seats at the Petersen Events Center during home games this winter. Barnes pointed out attendance has become an issue across the country but allowed that Pitt is due for a jolt.
“What ways can we move that needle?” Barnes said. “A fresh start and a fresh face and a fresh vision can do that and you’ve seen that in football and I guarantee you you’ll see that in basketball.”
Dixon hardly leaves the cupboard bare. Six of the top seven scorers from a team that went 21-12 will return next season. Michael Young and Jamel Artis are one of the better frontcourt combinations in the country, and reserves Cameron Johnson and Ryan Luther showed flashes late in the season of making significant strides. Barnes insists Pitt was ready to “turn the corner” with Dixon if he wanted to stick around but was so moved by Dixon’s urge to head back to Texas that Pitt lowered the $10 million buyout to make it happen.
“I learned where his heart and his head was _ was at TCU,” Barnes said. “And because of that it wouldn’t have been good for our program or our student athletes or him and his family to hold him hostage.”
Instead the Panthers will move forward, flush with money to spend, facilities to show off and a fan base to re-energize. There are worse places to start from, like say where the Panthers were back in 1999 when they hired Howland, who just so happened to bring along an iron-willed assistant that eventually took Pitt to once unthinkable heights.
That assistant is now heading home to Texas after the greatest stretch in Pitt basketball history. Whoever inherits the job will come to a place saddled with expectations that the guy who practically invented them at Pitt struggled to match.
No pressure or anything.
“There’s no question we have an opportunity to revitalize and get better,” Barnes said. “At the end of the day that’s what we’re always striving for.”