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Jamie Dixon: New TCU direction, leadership vital in decision to leave Pitt

Jamie Dixon made one of the off-season's most interesting coaching moves—leaving a perennial NCAA tournament team for a school that hasn't made the Big Dance in nearly 20 years.

With the 2016 college basketball coaching carousel finished, is checking in with all the major hires about their new gigs. These Q&As will be posted periodically throughout the early summer. Next up is new TCU coach Jamie Dixon. He left for the Horned Frogs after 17 years at Pittsburgh, the last 13 of which he spent as the Panthers' head coach. Dixon replaces Trent Johnson, who was fired on March 13. This interview took place in May.

Sports Illustrated: So let’s start here. The TCU job has been open before, most recently before the 2013 season. So why go now?

Jamie Dixon: Well, I think it’s a new TCU—facilities, timing, athletic director, chancellor, the trajectory of the school. It’s where TCU is at now versus where it was four years ago.

SI: When you heard that the job was going to be open, was it something you were immediately interested in?

JD: Obviously, I’m always following the alma mater and what’s going on, especially with the basketball program. My initial response was just a normal following of your school. As things progressed, the opportunity arose.

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SI: I asked Bryce Drew this question too, because he hit the most famous shot in Valparaiso history. You hit perhaps the most famous shot in TCU history against Texas. People always say, “he’s never buying in lunch in that city again.” How long did the free lunches last? Did they ever even start?

JD: Well, we had rules too as far as how things worked. It just seemed like, as time went on, it became more of a mystery. But then they invented YouTube and it resurfaced and it’s become something that everybody can pick up and see. A lot more people seem to think they were at the game than were actually at the game. That’s been interesting to see over time.

SI: It’s the old joke about how there are only 10,000 seats in the arena and 50,000 people remember being there.

JD: (Laughs.) That is what’s seemed to have happened over time. That’s the line people are taking.

SI: You’re leaving a job in which you made the NCAA tournament almost every year for a school that is nearing a 20-year drought. That’s not the kind of change most folks make. Beyond going back to your alma mater, was a part of it looking for a different challenge?

JD: To some degree. I don’t know if it was a major factor, but it was certainly part of it. The most important thing was returning to my alma mater. And again, the last 20 years aren’t really a reflection of where the university is and where it’ll be going forward.

They didn’t have a conference on the facilities or the resources to fix things. Now they have a new direction and leadership, and I think those are different and improved. That’s the thing that stands out. There’s a lot different reasons. There’s never just one reason. But where it is now and where it was are as significantly different as any school in the country.

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SI: I’m sure after a decade-plus, you and your wife Jacqueline were quite comfortable with your lives in Pittsburgh. Was it a tough sell to get her to want to go?

JD: Well, no, she was excited. She’s always been supportive. She’s the same person that moved from Hawaii to Pittsburgh 17 years ago. We packed up and moved out. She’s always been supportive. I think she was excited about going to Texas, as a lot of people are. It’s a state that people are moving to and are excited about living in.

My kids were great with it and have been excited about it. I think also, in our coaching world, being at a place 17 years is unexpected. But it was certainly fulfilling and gratifying at the same time. I worked as if I was going to be there 17 years and my whole career, but you know that that isn’t likely to be the case.


SI: The buyout in your contract was $10 million, but Pitt AD Scott Barnes said he “softened it.” What did that mean to you for him to make a gesture like that?

JD: I’ve loved every minute at Pittsburgh. I loved every challenge and every opportunity I was given there. I’m thankful for it. I left a place in good shape and with a great team returning. I did a lot of good things and did things the right way—or at least I tried to. So I think that’s reflective of that. I still have a lot of friends there and I’ll continue to have a lot of friends there. I’ll look forward to going back and bringing my kids back to where they were born all the time.

I think it’s unique in this game—and more so lately—to be at a place 17 years and leave on good terms. And to leave a good situation, with no scandals and a solid team returning and coming off an NCAA tournament year. It is really unique when you really look at the different changes in coaching.

SI: You have experience competing in one of the toughest conferences in the country in the ACC. Can you now settle the old debate about which is better: the Big 12 or the ACC?

JD: Just like any coach, we can spin anything. It quickly went from the ACC being the toughest conference to the Big 12 being the toughest conference. I guess numerically by RPI, the Big 12 did show it was the toughest. So I guess I have the numbers on my side this time. I can’t deny I was saying that the ACC was the best earlier this year, though.

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SI: As you look at the roster right now, who do you see as some foundational players moving forward?

JD: I think that’s up for competition. We’ll see how that plays out. We have some talented players here, and we have to get them healthy and playing at their top level. That’s what we’re working on. It’s obviously a really important off-season for us, and we’ve got to get to work.

SI: What has recruiting been like as the TCU coach?

JD: I think there’s an excitement. I think this a place that everybody has been talking about, with the move to the Big 12, the success of football and the commitment to the facilities. I think it’s a place that people are looking at for what it will become.

There’s no doubting the commitment and the resources. And then there are the things you just can’t control—the location, the weather, the school, the trajectory of the academics. This has great momentum. And I think people recognize that.

And I think they recognize leaving a good situation for a good situation. Or leaving a good situation for a great situation. They recognize what we had going in Pittsburgh and the excitement we have going to TCU.

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SI: Does that add to the sell? People know about your history of success, and they assume I’m sure that you wouldn’t do something reckless. Is that part of the pitch when you’re recruiting?

JD: Oh sure, yeah. I think there’s a recognition of what this place can become. When we’ve talked to coaches and players and recruits, they’re excited.

SI: There is obviously a ton of basketball talent in Texas, and particularly in Dallas. How do you get those folks to TCU?

JD: I think you just got to get them here. They need to see the university and the campus. We have things that weren’t in place before. Allowing people to see that and recognize that helps. And then we’ve got to project our vision to the players, coaches and parents. They have to see the same vision that we have.

You have to be looking forward. If we’re going to be about the past, we’re not going to win those battles. I think players have a short memory, and I think fans can have a short memory. And we have the opportunity to move forward here because of that.

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SI: Are there any big surprises in Fort Worth as you’ve settled back in more permanently?

JD: The recognition and the connection between the town and the school and the school and the town—I think that’s been a big change. A lot of people think of this all as Dallas, but it’s its own community. I think throughout Fort Worth, there’s a big connection with the school. I think that’s something the administration has developed and the athletic programs have pursued and attained. People are committed to TCU has the hometown team. The whole metroplex has made TCU a home team.