I had a thought I posted about on twitter that I wanted to elaborate a bit on but I’ll start with a few caveats. First, Jamie Dixon is a great coach and the odds are whenever he’s replaced the new coach probably won’t be on his level. Second, I do not advocate firing Dixon; he has earned the right to try and get this program back to where it was a few years ago.
But, do I think he will turn it around? Doubtful.
My thought is this: coaches, with a few exceptions, have a limit on how long they can succeed in one place. At a certain point, a coach makes a critical mistake he can’t overcome or the situation changes and he can’t adapt enough. He gets stuck in a situation where he can’t figure out what he needs to change to right the ship. For our beloved Jamie Dixon, that situation is likely a combination of recruiting and assistant coaches.
I was talking to a fellow Pitt fan about this and it hit me that Dixon’s struggles right now remind me of Andy Reid with the Philadelphia Eagles. No objective person could deny he’s a great NFL head coach. He has his flaws (notably clock management) but his resume speaks for itself. After a long time with the Eagles, he made a series of mistakes he couldn’t overcome.
I won’t dig into all of those mistakes, but failing to replace the contributions of the late Jim Johnson and Donovan McNabb are the two main culprits. The mistakes snowballed to the point where it didn’t appear as if Reid had a solution. While he’s a great coach, he couldn’t fix the situation and needed a change of scenery. Now with the Chiefs, he led them to their first playoff victory since 1993 in his second season at the helm.
The Eagles went big with their replacement, Chip Kelly, and ended up firing him after only two seasons. Kelly is not as good of a coach as Reid, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Eagles were right to move on from him. They were in a hole and Reid was not the man to dig them out.
As of right now, Dixon is in the 90th percentile of coaches in terms of tenure at one school, 34/351 on this slightly outdated list. In college football, only 3/128 would have a longer tenure (again, outdated list since it includes Beamer, Pinkel, and Richt). NFL? There are only two: Belichick and Marvin Lewis. NBA and MLB each have one. NHL has zero. Dixon is one of the longest tenured coaches in major American sports.
College basketball is the exception with coaches who can succeed over a long period of time, but that doesn’t change the fact that most coaches in any sport eventually hit a rough spot they can’t overcome. Basketball seems to be unique in that regard, but a lot of the coaches with more time at one school than Dixon also don’t have the same level of expectations. Central Connecticut, Presbyterian, Austin Peay, South Dakota State, and numerous others would have no issues with what Pitt has accomplished the past few years. Programs like Duke, ARCHRIVAL ORANGE, Louisville, Michigan State, and UNC are exceptions, not rules.
What does that mean in terms of fixing the problem? I see two solutions:
1) Give Dixon everything he needs to build the program back up until it’s blatantly obvious he’s not the man to do it. If/when it gets to that point, fire him.
2) Lower our expectations for the program.
You shouldn’t fire a great coach while doubt remains. I’d love to see my two year old son in the Oakland Zoo as college student watching a Dixon-led team (I have a hair less than seven months to teach him to chant Penn State sucks). There’s still an opportunity with different assistants and a new recruiting plan that we could be rooting for a Pitt team to make a run in the NCAA tournament instead of hoping to just make it in and maybe win the first game. If in two or three years that still hasn’t happened, we have a choice. Pitt can fire him and likely get an inferior coach to replace him or everyone can lower our expectations.
It’s not an easy decision. As I stated above, I do not advocate firing Dixon at all. There’s still a chance he can get the job done. Give him two or three more years with all of the resources he needs. At that point Scott Barnes will have to decide on whether or not an above-average team is acceptable.
Is an above-average program acceptable to you?