Former Maryland Terrapin star Juan Dixon to be next men's basketball coach at Coppin State
Long before he stopped wearing a uniform and hung a whistle around his neck, long before he thought about someday becoming a Division I head coach, Juan Dixon often acted the part he will start playing officially when he is introduced Wednesday at Coppin State.
The roots of Dixon's nascent coaching career began in Baltimore more than two decades ago, and grew along with his stature as a college star at Maryland as well as during a seven-year career in the NBA.
During his last couple of years at Calvert Hall, where he first got noticed for his ability to score, and through much of his career in College Park, where he went from being a scrawny 140-pound redshirt freshman to the most accomplished player in school history, Dixon was the quintessential coach on the court.
Mark Amatucci witnessed it as Dixon's coach at Calvert Hall, though not right away.
"Coming in from Lake Clifton after his freshman year was a huge transition for him, and even with all the issues personally that were going on in his life, he was your typical sophomore — kind of immature, goofy," Amatucci recalled Monday. "As we went year to year, you saw it evolve on the court."
By the start of his junior year, Dixon's demeanor with his teammates had changed.
"He had made up his mind that he was going to go to Maryland, and you could see the development not only as a Division I player, but also as a leader," Amatucci said. "It was not only by example. When he told them [his teammates] to do something, they listened."
Gary Williams saw a similar evolution in College Park, especially after Dixon emerged as the team's star during his redshirt sophomore year in 1999-2000. While Steve Blake was the point guard for their three years together, Dixon was clearly the team's leader.
"Even though Juan was a scorer — he wasn't a point guard — Juan looked at the game almost from a point guard's point of view in terms what we should be running, how to get open, what we should be doing defensively and trying to do all those things," Williams said Monday.
Eddie Jordan, who coached Dixon for three of his four seasons with the Washington Wizards, recalled how he could always hear Dixon's voice during practice and games during the first season they were together. It was Dixon's second year in the NBA after leading the Terps to the national championship and being drafted 17th overall in 2002.
"He was always a chatterbox," Jordan said Tuesday. "We'd be at shootaround or at practice; he's talking to another player on the floor, or it's on the bench during a game, he's talking to the guy next to him. He was aware of everything. He was happy every day. You don't see that in the NBA."
Jordan said Dixon often talked about strategy as a coach would to a player.
"He would talk about what he would do. 'If I'm going to guard in this situation, this is what I would do, this guy is not going to bully me in the paint, he's not going to post me up,'" Jordan said. "He was always talking basketball. I would tell him, 'Juan, come over here and this way I know you're not disturbing anyone else.'"
Both Amatucci and Williams see parallels in their own coaching careers with Dixon's journey and his transition to coaching, first as a special assistant to Maryland coach Mark Turgeon for three seasons and then as head women's coach at the University of the District of Columbia last season.
"When I was 25, I became the head soccer coach at Lafayette, and even though it was soccer, I was responsible for a college team, I made all the decisions as a head coach," said Williams, who was also the assistant on the men's basketball team at the same time. "That was very valuable when I became the head coach at American.
"Coaching last year [at UDC] and being responsible for his own program really helped him. You could see the maturity level as he talked about his team, what the prospects were for the future, things like that. You have to make that adjustment sooner or later and I think Juan has really come to where he looks at himself as a coach."
Williams also saw the trouble Dixon, now 38, had in making the transition to coaching. After his seven-year career in the NBA ended in 2009, Dixon spent three years in Europe with hopes of getting back to the NBA. It never happened, and persistent knee injuries eventually ended any thought he had of a comeback.
"When you're a player — and I certainly wasn't as good as Juan — that's pretty much your life. You love the game and Juan obviously loved the game," Williams said. "He put everything he had into playing and played at the top level of the world; he played in the NBA.
"Once that stops, for many people, that's a very difficult time. It's very difficult when a player plays in college and no longer is good enough to play at the next level. Everybody's different and goes through it differently. Juan certainly had his ups and downs, but at the same time, Juan's come out of it."
Watching a practice at UDC last winter brought back memories for Williams of the five years he spent coaching Dixon at Maryland.
"The thing with Juan, practice for him was a chance to play basketball. He just loved it. Now that he's a coach, it looked to me like he really enjoys the game of basketball," Williams said. "All good coaches teach the game. They don't just do drills, set up offenses. Juan can be a great teacher of the game. I think that will be one of his strengths as a coach."
Amatucci compares his first year at Loyola Maryland, when the team went 4-24, to what Dixon endured at UDC, where a team made up mostly of freshmen and transfers went 3-25. Being far removed from the spotlight helped Dixon find his comfort zone as a coach.
"We would talk at least once or twice a month, and I was kind of worried about the way this was going and he was positive the whole time," Amatucci said. "He said, 'Tuc, I got this, I understand we're going to get better. I'm passionate about this.' For him to go through that, and the way he handled it, it was outstanding."
Amatucci said he could see that passion when Dixon brought his sons' team — Corey is 9 and Carter is 7 — to Calvert Hall for a practice over the winter.
"Seeing him working with those little guys, I was just as impressed as him working with 8- or 9-year-olds as what he was doing on the college level," Amatucci said.
Jordan, whose coaching career ended after he was fired by Rutgers in 2016, said Dixon won't just take what he learned from the coaches for whom he played in high school, college and the NBA.
"He has his own ideas," Jordan said. "Some things are going to be great because that's what he believed in and some of his ideas may not work. Some of his ideas are different from everybody's, and that's great. Now he's doing what he loves every day as a coach."
Jordan said he could relate to the frustration Dixon felt as Turgeon's special assistant, having spent 11 years as an assistant on the college level and in the NBA before getting his first head coaching job at age 42. He can understand why Dixon jumped at the chance to coach Coppin State.
"Everyone wants to be a head coach, and sometimes you have to take anything that's available," Jordan said. "Although [Coppin State] is close to home, it's a good program, it's got reputation. He's going to be challenged, but it's a great thing for him."
While Coppin State has struggled over the past decade to return to the dominant program it was in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference during the first two decades of Fang Mitchell's 28-year career in West Baltimore, Amatucci said he believes his former star will be successful.
"He's got the personality, he's got the knowledge, he's got the passion," Amatucci said. "I think this will go like everything else in his life. His whole life has been, 'Well, I don't know if you can do this.' People are skeptical about the coaching, but I think he'll do what he's done his whole life — he'll get it done."