Archive for Thursday, March 22, 2007

Pitt, UCLA coaches still close

Buddies Howland, Dixon put strategy talk on hold

March 22, 2007

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— The almost daily phone calls haven't stopped this week, even though Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon will be on opposite sides of the court tonight.

It's hard to break a routine built through decades of friendship. The only change in the coaches' relationship is what they discuss.

Talking about strategy, and their teams' strengths and weaknesses has to take a back seat at least until after tonight's third-round game between Howland's UCLA Bruins and Dixon's Pittsburgh Panthers in the San Jose Regional.

"I think it's inevitable it was going to happen," Dixon said Wednesday. "It hasn't changed (our relationship) at all. We've talked a couple of times, not too much about the game, just about families and different things besides that."

Whether the relationship has an impact on which team advances to Saturday's regional final remains to be seen.

"I think it's pretty unique and pretty interesting," Bruins point guard Darren Collison said. "But again, to me it won't be about the coaches. It will be about the players on the court. That's what will dictate who wins the game. The coaches will just do their job and that's just to coach and tell us what plays to run."

UCLA coach Ben Howland oversees his team's practices Wednesday in San Jose, Calif. Howland is longtime friends with Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon. The two coaches will face each other in a West Regional semifinal tonight.

UCLA coach Ben Howland oversees his team's practices Wednesday in San Jose, Calif. Howland is longtime friends with Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon. The two coaches will face each other in a West Regional semifinal tonight.

That's one area that will provide at least a little bit of a wrinkle since the Panthers (29-7) still use many of the same plays they ran before Howland left for UCLA (28-5) following the 2002-03 season.

But with scouting and the use of video what they are in the modern game, Howland thinks it will be just like playing any other team.

"That's not any different," Howland said. "We know the plays that Indiana ran, that Weber State ran, everybody we played. That's why you have really good staffs. You spend a lot of time in preparation for an opponent. It's how you execute those plays."

The relationship between the coaches runs deep, dating to when Howland recruited Dixon to play at UC Santa Barbara in the early 1980s. Dixon ended up at TCU when UCSB ran out of scholarships, but joined Howland as an assistant on the Gauchos' staff in 1991-92.

Howland then brought Dixon to Northern Arizona in 1994 after he got his first head coaching job and five years later lured him away from Hawaii to come to Pitt as an assistant. The two lived together their first four months in Pittsburgh before their families joined them, and the relationship has only grown.

Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon oversees his team's practices Wednesday in San Jose, Calif. Dixon is longtime friends with UCLA coach Ben Howland. The two coaches will face each other in a West Regional semifinal tonight.

Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon oversees his team's practices Wednesday in San Jose, Calif. Dixon is longtime friends with UCLA coach Ben Howland. The two coaches will face each other in a West Regional semifinal tonight.

Howland's daughter, Meredith, missed Pittsburgh and her friends so much after moving to the West Coast in 2003 that she returned six months later, re-enrolled in Pitt's nursing program, moved in with the Dixons and became a cheerleader.

Howland stayed at Dixon's parents' house in Southern California on recruiting trips in the past to save money and is so close to the family that he served as a pallbearer last year at the funeral of Dixon's sister, Maggie, the former Army women's coach.

"It's about a friendship more than a basketball business relationship," Dixon said. "I think it's a family friendship, two guys that have been through some difficult times in recent years. We've both been there for each other. That's more the story to me than maybe the familiarity with the programs."

There are only two players left at Pitt with ties to Howland. Forward Levon Kendall redshirted as a freshman during Howland's final year with the Panthers, and standout center Aaron Gray was one of Howland's last recruits at Pitt.

"It's going to be a little bit interesting when you're running up and down the court," Gray said. "One end you see coach Dixon, then you run down the other end and see coach Howland. We do kind of the same stuff."

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