The tie that bonds

first_img“The people across the hall were foreign students so they had Indian curry going – that was one of the smells,” Howland said. “Then there was the worst fish-smelling stew. You came into the building and it stank to high heaven with no air conditioning, it was 100 degrees with horrible humidity. It was not very comfortable.” It was in that apartment that Howland and Dixon began to plot the course that would deliver each their big break. In four years together, they gathered up players the elite schools didn’t want and built Pittsburgh into the Big East champion, one of the winningest teams in the country and christened a $96million on-campus arena. Howland parlayed that into his dream job, coaching at UCLA, the school he idolized growing up in Santa Barbara. For Dixon, who had been hoping for an opportunity to become a head coach at places like Pepperdine or Wright State, it meant the chance to succeed Howland at a major university. Having established themselves on their own now, Howland and Dixon will be back under the same roof again Thursday when second-seeded UCLA will play third-seeded Pittsburgh in a West Regional semifinal at San Jose. When Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon arrived in Pittsburgh eight years ago, a couple of Southern California boys fresh off the plane from Flagstaff, Ariz., and Honolulu, they moved into a cramped, sweltering two-bedroom apartment in a student housing block near the University of Pittsburgh campus. For nearly two months, while their wives packed and prepared to join them, the new Pittsburgh basketball coach and his trusted aide, neither of whom had worked farther east than the Grand Canyon, slept on cots and went about the business of figuring out how the languishing program they’d stepped into could compete with UConn, Syracuse, Georgetown and Notre Dame. That wasn’t the only assault on their senses. “It was stinky,” recalled Dixon. This time there will be only be a happy ending for one of them. “I don’t think it will be any different for the loser,” Dixon, a North Hollywood native, said in a phone interview Tuesday after his team practiced in San Jose. Those who have known Howland and Dixon over the years describe both as competitive, driven to succeed, tough minded and disciples of aggressive, fundamentally sound basketball. They are, however, far from clones. Howland, 49, may come across as controlling, demanding, occasionally crass and blessed – or cursed, depending on your view – with a laser-like focus on the task in front of him. “Earlier in his career, Ben was a little over eager,” said Jerry Pimm, the former UCSanta Barbara coach who hired both as assistants. “When they put the rule in that only the head coach could be up (during games) would kill him. He’s got that big, identifiable voice. I can’t tell you how many times the officials would look over and say `Coach, keep it down over there.”‘ Dixon, 41, whose freckles landed him roles in commercials as a child and who earned his master’s degree in economics while a graduate assistant at UC Santa Barbara, is more apt to look at the scenery. “As players we always thought, `What’s going on in Coach Dixon’s head right now?”‘ said Ross Land, an assistant coach at UC Irvine who played for Howland and Dixon at Northern Arizona. “He’d be looking out there watching practice for 45minutes without saying anything. But when you talk to him, he’s right there. His brain is going a million miles an hour.” Said Pimm: “The mothers of recruits enjoy Jamie because he’s real and he’s a movie-star looking guy. Jamie’s got a great outlook on life. He’s a today type of guy. He doesn’t hold things in the past. That’s why he’s such a good person.” It’s also why his friendship with Howland had a chance. As a senior at Notre Dame High in Sherman Oaks, Dixon applied to UCSB and wrote letters to Pimm and Howland asking them to recruit him. Howland told Dixon he didn’t think he was good enough to play in the Big West, which in those days was dominated by UNLV but often sent two or three teams to the NCAA Tournament. So Dixon went to Texas Christian, developed into an All-Southwest Conference guard and was drafted by the Washington Bullets. Far from bitter, Dixon didn’t hesitate to contact Howland again when an injury ended his playing career overseas and he was looking for a job as an assistant after two seasons helping out at Valley College. Howland asked Pimm to interview Dixon. “I tell all the (graduate assistants) it’s full-time hours and part-time pay,” Pimm said. “He was single, had been around the world and was used to hard work. He got very little money and worked tremendously long hours. He and Ben got along well, which is good because you spend so much time together.” After that season, Dixon landed an assistant’s position at Hawaii, where he spent the next two seasons until Howland became the head coach at Northern Arizona in 1994. Dixon joined him in Flagstaff, and in their third season, the Lumberjacks won the Big Sky regular-season title and the following season earned a berth in the NCAA Tournament, nearly upsetting No. 2-seeded Cincinnati in the first round. When Howland couldn’t get the head-coaching jobs at UCSB or UC Irvine – at the latter being passed over by Dan Guerrero, the man who would hire him at UCLA – Dixon figured it was time to move on. So he moved back to Hawaii, where earlier he had met his then-fiancee Jacqueline. A year later, Howland landed the Pittsburgh job thanks to a considerable assist from shoe company impresario Sonny Vacarro. His first call was to Dixon. “We were laughing about it because it seemed so far-fetched,” Dixon said. “There hasn’t been anybody who has gone from west to the east. You don’t get a job when you get turned down by other places that aren’t the level of Pittsburgh. You’ve got to be realistic.” The life of a college basketball coach – with its million-dollar contracts and shoe company endorsements making it a suitable breeding ground for oversized egos and raging insecurities – is not conducive to long-lasting relationships. Howland’s former mentor, Rick Majerus, the former Utah coach whom he considers the shrewdest basketball mind he knows, no longer speaks to him, the falling out apparently related to Howland landing the UCLA job that Majerus badly wanted. Howland’s once-warm friendship with Gonzaga coach Mark Few, with whom he shared a love of fly fishing, turned frosty when they both were seeking the UCLA job. They had agreed to keep each other informed of what they were hearing from the school, according to friends of both, until Howland cut off communication and flew to Santa Barbara to meet with Guerrero. Maintaining their friendship is one reason Howland and Dixon have vowed never to play each other except when they had no choice. And as much as the NCAA Tournament committee loves a saucy storyline, it really had little choice since two of the other No. 3 seeds – Oregon and Washington State – were Pac-10 teams and thus precluded from being in the Bruins’ bracket. Still, Howland says he has no concerns that Thursday’s results will lead to any ill feelings. “Jamie’s been my best friend in the business, he’s been the best assistant I’ve ever worked with,” Howland said. “He is as much a part of the success we had at NAU and Pitt as I am. I don’t think it’s hard because we worked together for so long. Our friendship goes back to when he was 17. That’s a long time.” Even though distance has kept them apart much of the past four years, they speak on the phone almost every day – including this week, though there is less talk of their teams. Howland’s daughter Meredith, a nursing student at Pittsburgh, is a frequent visitor at the Dixons’ home as a baby-sitter and to take advantage of a free meal and their satellite dish to watch UCLA games. Time has also done little to change the relationship between the two long-time friends. “I don’t think anything’s changed since we were assistants at Santa Barbara,” Dixon said. “The interests are the same as they’ve always been, and we really only have two interests: basketball and family. He likes fishing. I don’t even have a third interest.” Since they went their own way, they’ve also been brought together when death hit their families. When Howland was introduced as UCLA’s coach, he proudly spoke of his parents, who attended the news conference, and said that he hoped to buy a home next to theirs in Santa Barbara that he could retire into in 15 years. But later that spring, Bob Howland fell at a wedding and hit his head, slipped into a coma and died a month later. Last spring, it was Dixon’s turn to grieve. Shortly after they attended the Final Four together, cheering on UCLA, Dixon was having breakfast in New York with his younger sister, Maggie, the buoyant young head coach at Army. Several hours later, she collapsed. A day later, she died from what an autopsy determined was an enlarged heart and malfunctioning valve. “It’s different when you lose a parent as opposed to a sibling, but they were both traumatic and both similar in that they were unexpected,” said Howland, who served as a pallbearer at Maggie’s funeral service. “There was no forewarning. There was no ability to say goodbye like when someone has a long illness and you know they’re going to pass away. That was similar so I related to how he was feeling.” They have also had to be there for their families, Howland for his mother, Mary, and Jamie for his parents, Jim and Margie, who still live in North Hollywood. “We knew them both so well, it was a loss for each of us,” Dixon said. “Ben knew Maggie since she was 10 years old and I knew his dad since I’ve known Ben. It felt like we’d lost somebody, too.” That connection won’t wane at all Thursday night. Chris Carlson, UCLA’s director of basketball operations who began working with Howland and Dixon during their days in Santa Barbara, will make just as diligent notations on his clipboard. Pittsburgh assistant Brandin Knight, an All-American under Howland, will be working just as hard to beat him. Meredith, a former Pitt cheerleader, will be sitting in the stands, rooting for the Bruins. “She’s been on scholarship for 22years,” joked her father. And when the two coaches meet at mid-court after a winner has been determined, it will be just like old times in the claptrap apartment back in Pittsburgh. Nobody’s getting anywhere without a hand from the other. Same, yet different Inauspicious start Price of success Cemented by tragedy [email protected] (818) 713-3621160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *