With Beyonce music coming through a pair of small speakers set near the court, University of the District of Columbia women's basketball coach Juan Dixon is constantly moving and teaching, blowing his whistle and cracking jokes, keeping a team made up mostly of freshmen and sophomores thoroughly engaged.
Those who watched a more detached Dixon during his time on the men's basketball staff at Maryland the past three years now can understand how frustrated he might have been by a role that limited him by NCAA rules to mentor rather than coach and teach.
"I'm definitely unleashed, and it's a great thing," he said after running a spirited 2½-hour practice last week that began at 7 a.m. "I never thought I'd love waking up every morning at 5 a.m. I look forward to driving to work every day and getting in the gym with these young ladies every morning."
Said his former wife, Robyn Dixon, with whom he maintains a close relationship, "He thrives in that position. He's almost like a kid in a candy store."
It's much different from how Dixon, who led the Terps to a national championship in 2002 and was drafted by the Washington Wizards, acted while working for Maryland coach Mark Turgeon. Still, he said that while he didn't get to do much on the court he still appreciated the time the two spent together.
"I listened and watched everything he did and I saw how he conducted himself on and off the floor, how he ran his practice, how he ran his program, how he recruited," Dixon said. "That's the only coach I ever worked for in that type of environment.
"A lot of the stuff I do here, I learned from Coach Turgeon. What I try to do is implement some of the things that I learned, but put my own spin on it. We really like to focus on the detail, which I think makes a huge difference when you're playing a game, and things break down."
Dixon conceded he was frustrated by the job at times.
"I wouldn't have been so frustrated, if I didn't feel I could really help," he said. "Standing in practice, I thought, 'Damn, if I could just get this guy [to move] three feet, it could make such a difference.' I could help them understand why. I couldn't explain then, and that's what could happen. That was tough."
In the days after he learned his job at Maryland as Turgeon's special assistant was not being renewed for a fourth season, Dixon found himself alternating between feelings of relief and rejection.
Dixon, who learned of Maryland's decision on June 16, saw the summer come and nearly go.
"It didn't get tough until the middle of August," he recalled. "I was looking, my agent was looking. We were reaching out to people trying to locate any opportunities. I was willing to go anywhere, because coaching is my passion. It's my purpose."
The chance to coach again came through an interesting set of circumstances. Attending a charity event in Columbia this summer with Robyn, through her role on the reality television series "The Real Housewives of Potomac," Dixon met Tara Thomas, whose mother, Pat, is the athletic director at UDC, a Division II program.
Thomas mentioned the women's coach had just left.
Dixon was initially skeptical about moving down a level of basketball and coaching women.
"To be honest with you, initially I did [have doubts]," he said. "The more I thought about it, I'm like, 'Juan, you're living out your purpose.' Whether it was coaching my son Corey's football team or basketball team or coaching women's basketball, it's my purpose to coach, to teach, to mentor, to help develop, to prepare. That's what I'm meant to do."
Looking at his surrounding as a bandbox guy at a D-2 program, coaching a women's team, Dixon smiled.
"It's funny how things worked out," he said. "I skipped three assistant steps and I became a head coach. I'm learning every day how to run a program, how to coach, how to lead. I feel like I'm prepared and I have a great staff that was here before."
For a former player who isn't used to losing, coaching the Firebirds is going to be a challenge. Their first two games — after a long bus trip to New Hampshire — ended in one-sided defeats. The team has started the season 1-4.
"We're going to need them to grow up fast," Dixon said. "But I'm not making any excuses. That's not who I am. They may say it's a rebuilding year, we have a young team. We're teaching every day so that our young ladies as a whole can execute at a high level. We need to put these young ladies in position to succeed."