The day after Coppin State fired Michael Grant last month, Juan Dixon called his attorney in Baltimore.
“I’m going to get that job,” Dixon told Gary Leibowitz.
At the time, Coppin State athletic director Derek Carter knew who Dixon was but didn’t have the former Maryland star in mind.
“He wasn’t on my short list,” Carter said Wednesday.
The force of Dixon’s personality, an impressive resume as a former college star and NBA player and the coaching plan he laid out once he met with Carter a couple of weeks later led to what eventually transpired late last week.
In being introduced as the team’s next coach at a campus news conference Wednesday, it was clear that the 38-year-old Dixon was grateful for what he called the “amazing opportunity” he was given to run his own Division I program for the first time.
It was also apparent by the large crowd of family members, friends, former coaches, current team members and media that showed up at the Talon Center that Dixon could be just as magnetic in attracting recruits to help turn around the Eagles.
“I will work hard every day to make you proud,” Dixon said. “I will be a leader that you and the city of Baltimore will be extremely proud of. Every day, me and my staff will grind to make a difference in our players’ lives. I promise we’re going to do it at a high level.”
Said Carter, “His tenacity, his determination, his passion, his relentless attitude and finally his strong desire to give back to his home city of Baltimore — these were all the traits we were seeking in the new leader of our program.
Dixon returned to his roots during a 35-minute speech that saw him dissolve into tears several times, taking those who came to support him on his own emotional journey. Dixon thanked dozens of people by name that had impacted him over the years.
“I feel like this has come full circle, I really do. Thirty-eight years ago, it all started when I was born five minutes from here on Liberty Heights [Avenue] at Provident Hospital, ” Dixon said after taking the podium. “For me to be here today with all of you is a dream come true.”
Among those who attended the news conference were Hall of Fame Maryland coach Gary Williams and former Calvert Hall coach Mark Amatucci, as well as Dixon’s aunt, former Baltimore mayor Sheila Dixon, his older brother, Phil, and several members of his family. Bruce Flanigan, Dixon’s biological father who he reunited with last summer, sat in the front row with Dixon’s ex-wife Robyn and their two children.
“You guys have given me so much strength over 38 years,” Dixon said, unsuccessfully fighting back tears. “I appreciate you guys. We have our ups and downs, but I love you with all of my heart. None of this was possible without you, OK?”
Said Sheila Dixon, “We’re all proud of Juan and it really reflects the growth and maturity that he’s gained over the year, so we’re excited about this new chapter. It was very clear with all the chapters he shared in his remarks that he’s looking forward to this new chapter.”
Dixon thanked Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson for “opening the door for me” when he was hired as special assistant to men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon four years ago and also Turgeon, who despite not renewing his contract last summer helped prepare him to be a head coach.
“The the way I run my program is what I learned from you,” Dixon said of Turgeon.
Dixon was particularly emotional in talking about athletic directory Pat Thomas, who gave him his first head coaching job last fall to take over the Division II women’s team at the University of the District of Columbia.
In recalling the last game of what was a 3-25 season, Dixon became emotional again talking about his former players.
“On senior day, seven young ladies went out and competed at the highest level,” Dixon said. “You walked into that locker room, just the tears of joy, you would have thought we just won an East Coast Conference championship.”
That is what Carter and Dr. Maria Thompson, the Coppin State president, are hoping Dixon and the Eagles can do for a program that once ruled the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference but had slipped toward the end of Fang Mitchell’s 28-year tenure.
In the weeks after the firing of Grant, whose three-year tenure continued a stretch of what is now six straight straight losing seasons and 12 in 13 years, Dixon said he had spoken with Mitchell a number of times.
“This job is attractive for what he was able to do in the past,” said Dixon, who hopes to bring Mitchell back to campus. “Our goal is to make sure that we represent this basketball program and the university at a high level like Coach Fang did. What he was able to do over the years definitely gave me the idea that Coppin can be a special place.”
Blake Simpson, a junior forward from Cincinnati and one of several members of the team to attend the news conference, said he and the other players sensed a different vibe surrounding the news of Dixon’s hiring.
“I was kind excited, having a new leader for our team, knowing he’s a legend here in Baltimore City,” Simpson said. “Knowing he played in the NBA should be a great environment for us. He’s going to bring a better crowd and it should be exciting for us that we get the professional development we need to be successful.”