Friendly coaches ready to battle

Posted: March 22, 2007

SAN JOSE - When he starts to recall, and inevitably get into great detail about, some of the many stories concerning Ben Howland, a huge smile covers the good-looking face of Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon.

If you ever saw his late sister Maggie, the smiles are identical.

When the questions started yesterday about how Dixon's coaching career got started because of Howland, Dixon got that "here-we-go-again" look on his face, before talking about the man he will be coaching against tonight when his third-seeded Panthers (29-7) face No. 2 UCLA (28-5) in a West Regional semifinal at HP Pavilion.

Not that Dixon gets tired of talking about Howland. It's just that these two mean so much more to each other and have so much more in common than only basketball. It's almost as if tying the two together just because of the game would belittle their relationship.

"We talk almost every day, and we've talked a few times this week," said Dixon, who has posted a 105-29 record in 4 years since taking over for his friend at Pitt. "But we didn't talk so much about the game, just about family and different things like that. We talked about basketball, but different things in the basketball world, not so much our game."

They have so much more to talk about. So much more that interests them that fixating on tonight's game, which is their first meeting against each other, just doesn't seem right.

Jamie and Maggie Dixon were in Indianapolis last year, not only to cheer on Howland's Bruins in their march to the national championship game (a loss to Florida), but also to celebrate Maggie's improbable run - as head coach of Army - to the Patriot League Tournament championship and automatic NCAA bid.

Less than 2 weeks later, Howland was there for his friend, for his former longtime assistant. Only unlike Indianapolis, this wasn't a celebration. Howland was there to carry the casket of Maggie - a pallbearer after she died at the age of 28 because of an unknown heart problem.

Just like Dixon was there for support when Howland lost his father, Bob, not long after taking over the UCLA post.

Theirs is a relationship started by basketball, but not bound by it. Their wives, Kim Howland and Jacqueline Dixon, are friends. Their families are very close. Howland's daughter, Meredith, a nursing student at Pittsburgh, is the baby sitter for the Dixons.

It all started a little more than 20 years ago, when Howland was an assistant at Cal-Santa Barbara and went to see Dixon play for Notre Dame High in Sherman Oaks, Calif. Dixon had been writing letters to the C-SB staff, wanting to play basketball for them.

"It was more a case of me recruiting them than them recruiting me," Dixon said yesterday. "I was accepted there as a student, but I wanted to play basketball there. I was a late-bloomer, and wasn't heavily recruited my junior year. I had a good senior season and started to get recruited. I wound up going to Texas Christian.

"My mom had the letter, from Ben, saying that Cal-Santa Barbara had used all its scholarships and couldn't offer me one. We've since lost the letter, though."

And so it began.

After Dixon put some time in as an assistant in various places, Howland suggested him for a position at Cal-Santa Barbara. Dixon arrived in 1991 and stayed for a season with Howland and head coach Jerry Pimm before moving to Hawaii, also as an assistant. When Howland got the head coaching job at Northern Arizona in 1994, he sent for Dixon, who gladly joined. The two stayed there together for five successful seasons, before Howland got the head job at Pittsburgh. This time, Dixon didn't follow. Not right away. He went back to the University of Hawaii to assist there.

It was then Howland pulled off his greatest recruiting coup.

At the time, Dixon was engaged to Jacqueline, who had been with him in Hawaii for 10 months. Howland wanted his former assistant and good friend back.

"He and Jackie were engaged, and she's from Hawaii," Howland recalled with a smile. "But I told our athletic director that in order to get the job done, I needed to have Jamie with me. I knew how hard a worker and how dedicated he was to this profession. Jackie fell in love with Pittsburgh, and we were lucky to get Jamie back."

After two seasons, Pitt had won 29 and 28 games and made consecutive appearances in the Sweet 16.

That's when the call from the most storied program in basketball history, UCLA, came calling, looking for Howland to get the program back into the upper echelon of college hoops.

Both Dixon and Howland knew it was time for Dixon to take over the program. But some of the Pitt higher-ups were looking for a bigger name.

Howland took the UCLA job, with the stipulation that if Pitt didn't hire Dixon as its head coach, he would come to UCLA as an associate head coach.

Pitt did the right thing and hired Dixon, who has taken each of his four teams to the NCAA Tournament.

And tonight he'll look down the court and see a familiar face pacing the other sideline. He'll even see some similar things on the court. But both of these guys have no trouble separating this game as any other.

"Sure, we both run a lot of the same things, have similar sets," said Howland. "But a lot's changed since I was there 5 years ago. Jamie runs a lot of quick-hitting stuff and he plays some zone. We never play zone.

"Also, you have to remember, we know all of our opponents' offenses, because of all the film work we do. This is no different, just because of mine and Jamie's past."

Both teams get after it on defense. Pitt will look to pound the ball inside, where UCLA will try to get out and run as much as possible.

Howland and Dixon both said that the team that makes the fewest mistakes will come out on top. And both downplayed their first meeting.

"Our relationship is more about a friendship than basketball," Dixon said. "Our wives talk all the time, our families are friendly, and Ben and I have both been there for each other through some rough times.

"That's what's important." *

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