March 23, 2013 by Jacob Freedman
The USC head coaching search is underway. Last week, a report emerged that USC offered Jamie Dixon, currently the head coach at Pittsburgh, a 10-year offer that would pay him $2.5 million. This hefty sum is $800,000 more than fired coach Kevin O’Neill made, and would make Dixon the highest-paid coach in the Pac-12 for the next three years if he accepts (Arizona’s Sean Miller has an escalating salary).
USC A.D. Pat Haden has given off the impression that the school is shooting for the stars for its next hire. This doesn’t forebode well for interim head coach Bob Cantu, especially after the Trojans looked lifeless for most of their 69-66 loss to Utah in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament. Young superstar coaches like Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens are pipe dreams at this juncture, but rumors have been swirling all season that interested between Dixon and USC is mutual.
It makes sense on the surface for Dixon, whose roots are in Southern California. He was born in Burbank, went to high school in Sherman Oaks, and his second coaching gig was as an assistant at L.A. Valley College.
It also makes sense from a basketball sense for USC, because Dixon has proven himself a winner at Pitt. He’s made it to the NCAA Tournament in nine of his 10 years there; averaging over 26 wins a season. His Pitt teams have finished the season ranked in eight of those 10 seasons. They’ve won two-thirds of their games in Big East play, in what has probably been the nation’s best conference during Dixon’s tenure.
His .753 career winning percentage is behind only Bill Self, Coach K, Thad Matta, John Calipari, Roy Williams and Mark Few among active coaches. Detractors might argue that Dixon is only 11-9 in NCAA Tournament play, but USC is just 3-4 in the tourney during the same span. Dixon hasn’t made it past the Elite 8 at Pitt, but USC needs to worry about making the tournament at all before fretting over the length of its postseason runs.
On the hardwood, Dixon brings a tough, grind-it-out coaching style. His Pittsburgh teams aren’t always fun to watch, but his players are disciplined and defense is a priority. Pittsburgh was ninth nationally this season in allowing just 56 points per game, and is always near the top of the Big East in fewest possessions allowed per game. His Panther squads are slow, but efficient on offense, and in only one of Dixon’s ten years at Pitt has his squad shot under 45 percent from the floor (Pitt had a 44.6 percent mark in 2009-10). The Trojans didn’t shoot 45 percent in any of O’Neill’s four years with the program.
He’s also an apt recruiter, as his past two recruiting classes have ranked in Rivals’ Top 20. Pittsburgh is no Duke or Kentucky, and Dixon deserves credit for convincing top-end players to come and play in a demanding system that demands team unity and efficiency in the place of stardom and flashy statistics. His three former players in the NBA (Sam Young, Aaron Gray and DeJuan Blair) all saw significant improvements from when they entered Dixon’s program until they left.
In a stark contrast from a Trojan program that has seen O.J. Mayo and DeMar DeRozan dazzle fans for one year before jettisoning off to the NBA, Dixon puts team unity above everything. Ego has no place what he is trying to do. Two seasons ago, Dixon refused to give unmerited playing time to Khem Birch, the program’s highest-ranked recruit ever. Birch ended up being a diva and a poison to the program, and transferred after 10 games.
This past season, freshman center Steven Adams was Rivals’ fifth-ranked recruit of 2012, but averaged just seven points and six rebounds in his first year at Pitt. But have we heard a whimper of dissent from the 7-foot Kiwi? Nope, because Adams has likely acknowledged that he will improve as a player under Dixon even if he’s not putting up a nightly double-double in the stat sheet.
It becomes more apparent every day that the Dixon-to-USC move has legs, and I’m endorsing the former Notre Dame H.S. star native for the coaching vacancy. With Pittsburgh eliminated from the NCAA Tourney, Dixon was brought on as a temporary analyst by CBS on Friday. Is a flight to Los Angeles for a meeting with USC brass next? Only time will tell.