Gorman: Dixon proves Pitt made right choice
Pitt and Wake Forest never had met on the basketball court prior to their ACC game Saturday at Petersen Events Center.
The schools do, however, have a history. One that has sent their programs in surprisingly divergent directions.
When Ben Howland left Pitt for UCLA in 2003, the university's search for his successor centered on a congenial Carnegie native who was the reigning ACC Coach of the Year.
When Skip Prosser turned down Pitt's offer and signed a 10-year contract to remain at Wake Forest, the Panthers promoted Jamie Dixon to head coach.
Dixon, of all people, still endorses Pitt's pursuit of Prosser, which reinforced his opinion that administrators knew what they were doing. Dixon doesn't mind being measured against Prosser, even if he comes up short.
“I said when it occurred, Skip Prosser was one of the best coaches in the country and an even better person,” Dixon said, “so if they'd gotten Skip Prosser, they'd probably had a great coach and an even better person.”
Prosser, of all people, had introduced himself to Dixon after he joined Pitt's staff in 1999. Prosser wanted to talk about the Steelers, Pirates and even Irish literature.
“Not that I'm an aficionado on that,” Dixon said, with a smile, “but I am Irish.”
Dino Gaudio, Prosser's top assistant and best friend since their days at Wheeling Central Catholic, said his boss was torn about whether to come home to Pitt or stay at Wake.
“I know this: It really tugged at him,” Gaudio said. “The thing that made it difficult for Skip was we had just won the ACC regular-season championship. We had a great player, Josh Howard, who had just graduated, but we had a very young team. ... Then we had this little point guard coming that we thought was going to be really good: Chris Paul. I think Skip thought we were ready to take this program to the Final Four.”
Where Wake Forest was hailed for keeping its coach, Pitt was panned for hiring an unproven assistant who had been passed over by Illinois State and Wright State.
Who, of all people, did Dixon bump into at his first recruiting event as Pitt's new coach? Prosser, of course.
“So I go over there, give him a hug,” Dixon said, “and laugh about it.”
When Prosser died of an apparent heart attack in 2007, Gaudio was the choice to succeed him at Wake Forest.
Despite going 61-31 in three seasons — reaching the No. 1 ranking in 2009 — with two NCAA Tournament appearances, Gaudio was fired because of “late-season and postseason performances.”
Wake Forest hired Jeff Bzdelik, who went 8-24 followed by a pair of 13-18 seasons. The Demon Deacons are 11-4 (1-1 ACC) entering Saturday's game at Pitt (14-1, 2-0).
So there's this irony: The school that went for stability has struggled while the one that took a chance got a guy who delivered the best winning percentage in Big East history in his 10 seasons.
“Jamie Dixon wasn't just a good hire but a great hire,” said Gaudio, now an ESPN analyst. “They absolutely did the right thing in hiring him.”
Despite repeatedly turning down other schools' lucrative offers, Dixon still is second-guessed after every early exit from the NCAA Tournament. Never mind the last two tourney losses were to teams that reached the Final Four (Wichita State) and national title game (Butler).
Sometimes coaches can become victims of their own success. ESPN analyst Dick Vitale never ceases to be amazed when he hears Pitt fans gripe about Dixon.
“Certainly, Jamie has done a phenomenal job there as you look at the numbers,” Vitale said of Dixon, who is 276-87 in his 11th season. “People want to be critical. All of these people looking for the unbelievable crème de la crème: the national title and Final Fours.
“That's not there, but if you look at consistency from Day 1 until the end of a season and see the number of wins, the competitiveness in the Big East over the years and what they've done in the development of players, he's been a major, major success.”
No matter how — or against whom — you measure it.