Juan Dixon has been greeted by loving crowds throughout his basketball career, but this was different.
It wasn’t a giant crowd like the ones that greeted him at Cole Field House while he was leading the Maryland men’s basketball team to its only NCAA national title. Far from it. It certainly wasn’t like the atmosphere at any of the NBA venues in which Dixon played during his professional basketball career.
And yet, it was a truly special moment for one of Baltimore’s favorite sons.
This was a homecoming, both for the Coppin State men’s basketball team and its new coach, who grew up in the city and spent his earliest years only a few minutes from the Physical Education Complex where the Eagles hosted Navy on Wednesday night.
“It’s crazy,’’ Dixon said minutes before the game. “I haven’t been nervous since we started our season. I’m actually a little nervous tonight and I haven’t been nervous in a very long time.”
The Eagles looked a little nervous, too. They struggled to find the basket and fell far behind in the first half on the way to a 70-53 loss that dropped their record to 0-9.
They clearly are a work in progress and the work has only just begun, but Dixon knew what he was getting into when he accepted the job last April.
He spent 2½ years as a special assistant on Mark Turgeon’s staff at Maryland and spent last season coaching the women’s team at the University of the District of Columbia. He also spent the last few weeks touring the country with his new team playing revenue games and getting knocked around by superior competition. Still, you could tell that he felt like this was another kind of coaching debut.
“It’s home,’’ he said. “I’m familiar. Part of what we want to do is help the Baltimore community, the west side of Baltimore, while bringing a great brand of basketball here. And hopefully, people look forward to watching us play.”
Fans will undoubtedly look forward to watching Dixon coach. He was in constant motion on the sideline, barking out assignments and shouting instructions to his players as they struggled to keep up with the Midshipmen in the first half. Only time will tell whether he was born to do this, but it was easy to see he has the passion for it.
“Growing up as a college basketball player and a professional basketball player, coaching has always been in the back of my mind,’’ Dixon said. “As my basketball career came to an end, I really wanted to transition into coaching. It’s something I thought I’d be good at. It’s something I did as a player, giving instructions and trying to put my teammates in a position to be successful. And just my life experiences. I knew that this was what I wanted to do. I have an amazing opportunity to do that here at Coppin.”
Of course, no one said it was going to be easy, and it won’t be. The Eagles entered Wednesday night’s looking for their first victory after playing their first eight games on the road — several of them against major conference opponents.
“It’s a challenge, especially when you’ve got to play guarantee games,’’ Dixon said. “Our basketball program helps fund the athletic department. That’s just part of the deal. It’s what we have to do. Our main focus is playing those games early in the year and those games are going to prepare us for our conference season. So we don’t mind playing some ‘Power Five’ schools. We become battle-tested and we look forward to playing conference play.”
If there was any doubt about the respect that Dixon engendered during his career at Maryland, a group of longtime Terps fans came to Wednesday night’s game to cheer for Dixon and help fund his program.
During a brief pregame ceremony, Barry DesRoches explained that the late John Rymer exhorted his friends and fellow fans to do something tangible to honor Dixon’s contribution to the Terps basketball program. The result was the presentation of a $10,550 check to Dixon at center court to support his new team.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog. Become a subscriber today to support sports commentary like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.