This is the first of a seven-part series previewing local Division I men’s basketball teams. Check back this week and in The Baltimore Sun for a look ahead at Morgan State, Loyola Maryland, UMBC, Towson, Maryland and Navy.
From Anthony Lewis and Mark Amatucci, two stewards of Baltimore basketball, he learned the fundamentals of the sport. From Maryland’s Gary Williams, a Hall of Famer and a father figure, he grasped toughness and teamwork. From the NBA’s Doug Collins and Eddie Jordan and Nate McMillan, he realized what it meant to be a professional in a no-excuses league.
Juan Dixon studied them all during his long playing career, even the coaches he didn’t suit up for, legends like Gregg Popovich and Mike Krzyzewski. It would have been so easy, once he got his first head coaching job last season, to coach as they had, trying their styles and mannerisms on for fit as if they were a new suit.
But at the University of District Columbia, where he coached the Division II women’s team for one year before being tapped in April to lead the Coppin State men, Dixon reckoned with his basketball genetics. For all the strains of coaching DNA he had absorbed, he could coach like only one would. He would have to coach like only Juan could.
“I knew I wanted to be myself,” Dixon said after an Eagles practice last week. “I knew I never could be Gary Williams or [former Calvert Hall coach] Mark Amatucci. The way they were on the sidelines, the sweating, the stomping of the floor, the screaming, the yelling, that's not my persona. That's not who I am as a person. That's never me.”
Dixon said he is a players’ coach. He said he is a coach with a pro-style system, a coach who will get Coppin State to shoot a lot of 3-pointers and run a lot of fast breaks. He said he is a coach who expects the Eagles to surprise in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference this year.
Whether he is a coach who can find evidence of progress amid the wreckage of defeat is perhaps the most important question. The Eagles were picked to finish second-to-last in the conference this season. They don’t have enough returning players on their 13-man roster to field a starting five. The coaching staff lacks a third assistant.
“A ton of work,” Dixon called his new job. But he said it with a smile.
“There's things you've got to learn at all different levels,” said Williams, who checked in on his star pupil at UDC last season. “But if you can coach, you can coach. I think Juan just has that ability to relate to players. In other words, if I know more basketball than anybody else, great, but if I can't teach it, then it doesn't matter how much basketball I know. And I think Juan has that ability to get it through to the players. I think he can be successful.”
It might take some time. Former coach Michael Grant was fired last season after the Eagles’ second eight-win season in three years. The team finished No. 343 in analytics website kenpom.com’s rankings of all 351 Division I teams. The early-season schedule is unforgiving, with the opener Friday at Oregon and the first home game nearly a month later.
Senior guard Tre’ Thomas is unconcerned. Having just started elementary school when Dixon and the Terps won the 2002 national title, he knows his coach less as a Maryland All-American than as an NBA journeyman. His older friends and relatives are excited to root for a team coached by a local icon. Thomas is excited to play for a coach who trusts him to make the right play.
“He gives us the opportunity to showcase our game, showcase everything we've been doing our whole lives,” he said.
If this year is a trying one — and it certainly won’t be easy — Dixon’s basketball career offers both him and Coppin State a lesson in the rewards of patience. Dixon didn’t make varsity at Calvert Hall until his sophomore year. He redshirted his first season at Maryland. His 2002 Final Four far surpassed his 2001 Final Four. And only his last NBA season was less productive than his rookie campaign, a testament to his growth as a first-round draft pick.
Now, back in Baltimore, he will have to be himself. He will have to hope that’s enough for a program whose last NCAA tournament appearance came in 2008. At least one former coach has warned him of the ravages of the profession.
“I told Juan I'm going to watch his hair go gray,” Williams joked.
At a glance: Coppin State
Projected finish: 12th of 13 in Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference
Game to watch: Dec. 22 vs. Mount St. Mary’s. Eagles coach Juan Dixon has promised pace and 3-pointers. The Mountaineers’ style of play is branded as “Mount Mayhem” — lots of pressure defense and outside shooting. If you can’t stand the wait until Christmas, pass the time with this nonconference matchup. It certainly won’t be boring.
Best-case scenario: MEAC All-Rookie Team selection Dejuan Clayton reunites with senior Tre’ Thomas in the backcourt to lead a new-look Coppin State team that’s low on experience (four returning players) into the conference’s upper half.
Worst-case scenario: Losing starting big men Chas Brown (Poly) and Terry Harris Jr. (Kenwood) this offseason exposes the depth of a roster that, with Dixon’s first-year growing pains, needs every extra rebound and easy bucket it can get.