Juan Dixon speaks softly but with unflappable conviction in describing the blueprint for the resurrection of the Coppin State men’s basketball program.
“We’re just going to go into every game with the mindset that we’re going to compete and we’re going to defend and whatever happens, happens,” he said. “We’re extremely confident as a staff, as a program, that we can go out and surprise a lot of teams.”
The Eagles were 5-27 last year and have had losing records in 13 of the past 14 seasons. But Dixon, in his second season as the team’s head coach, has conquered adversity at every stage of his life.
He’s not the kind of guy who has the patience for a drawn-out rebuilding process. However, the Baltimore native — who was raised in the shadow of Coppin State — recognizes his instruction goes well beyond the scoreboard.
“We’ve put together a great ballclub in our second year at Coppin,” Dixon said. “Every day we go about teaching our guys what we expect from them when it comes to academics, being a good person, and of course, what we expect of them on the court.
“We’re teaching them how this game is played at the highest level.”
The 2018-19 season will be Dixon’s third as a head coach. A year before arriving at Coppin, he coached the University of District of Columbia women to a 3-25 record.
Many fledgling head coaches with an overall record of 8-52 would be nervous about their job status. But Coppin athletic director Derek Carter knows Dixon, with his rich legacy in Maryland, is the perfect fit for the 3,000-student Baltimore school.
It wasn’t always that way. When Carter was searching for a new head coach, Dixon was not among the contenders.
“Any time you’re preparing for a change in the head coaching positions in one of your programs, you formulate a short list of potential candidates,” Carter said. “As the course of the search played out, after sitting down and talking to Juan, he quickly rose to the top of my list.”
A TERRAPIN TERROR
Dixon guided the University of Maryland to its first and only national title in men’s basketball in 2002 as a shooting guard. He later played in the NBA for seven seasons. While Carter knew Dixon’s resume would play well with potential recruits, he was more impressed with his demeanor.
“What attracted me most was his intensity and his passion for success,” he said. “That correlates with the success that he’s had in his life, particularly athletically. It was clear that the determination that he brings — the desire to succeed — was very attractive to us.”
The path of Dixon’s life played out like a Hollywood script, tragic and triumphant.
His parents, Phil and Juanita Dixon, were heroin addicts and died of AIDS-related illnesses before Juan turned 17, and he was then raised by his grandparents. By that time, Dixon was a star for Calvert Hall College, a private Catholic high school in Towson, Md., with a basketball-rich tradition.
Mark Amatucci, Dixon’s coach at Calvert Hall, said it’s “just an incredible story.”
“When you lose both of your parents within a year and a half, that’s something that a lot of teenagers never recover from,” he said. “Because of his determination and his resilience to deal with those tragedies — along with all of the support he got from his family — it’s just amazing what he was able to accomplish.”
Amatucci has a book coming out next month, “No Limits,” with an entire chapter, “probably the longest one,” he said, devoted to Dixon.
“People ask me, ‘Is he going to get the job done down there [at Coppin]?,'” said Amatucci, who left coaching in 2012 after 19 years and 389 wins at Calvert Hall. “There’s no doubt he will be successful. Juan is relentless with making this work. He’s passionate. He cares about the kids. And beyond that, he’s got a great basketball IQ.”
But his on-the-court prowess is just part of the story. Recruiting? No problem, Amatucci said.
“He’s got the famous Juan Dixon smile,” Amatucci noted with a chuckle. “He could charm anybody into buying whatever he’s selling. He gets out and he hustles. I know Juan. I’m very confident that he’s going to make his mark there. He’s going to continue to rise up the ladder in terms of college basketball coaching.”
While Dixon was a familiar face around Baltimore during his high school days, it wasn’t until he arrived at College Park, Md., in 1999 that his smile — and his jump shot — became so beloved around the state. Sporting a slight 6-foot-3, 165-pound frame, Dixon had his share of non-believers as a freshman.
WILLIAMS IS A BELIEVER
But former Maryland head coach Gary Williams knew early on he had something special.
“Not only did he have to overcome the adversity with his family situation, most people thought he was too small to play in the ACC or play for Maryland,” Williams said. “Juan always had that ability to use that type of thing to his advantage, to motivate himself to do what he could.”
By the time Dixon left the school in 2002, he was not only the Terrapins’ all-time leading scorer, he was “arguably the best player in the history of Maryland basketball,” Williams said.
“As a coach, he’s going to be very successful at Coppin,” predicted Williams, who led Maryland from 1989-2011 and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2014. “It takes time, and it’s not an easy job. At the same time, Juan has the ability to put what made him a good player into making him a good coach. That’s crucial.”
Williams said sometimes “the really good players — in all sports — don’t become good coaches.”
He referred to Hall of Famer Jerry West’s tenure as the Los Angeles Lakers’ head coach from 1976-1979.
“He was such a great player, it was hard for him to coach players with less talent than he had. Juan understands what you can achieve through motivation and through working really hard.
“That’s every step of the way for him, getting to high school, doing what he did at Maryland, to playing in the NBA. There was always that negative because he was small. Juan can communicate. It’s the key to coaching because you can really know basketball but if you can’t get it through to your players then it doesn’t matter.”
DIXON LEANS ON FATHER
If Dixon’s life story wasn’t complicated enough, in 2016 he found out Phil Dixon was not his biological father. Bruce Flanigan had dated Juanita, and she had given birth to their son — but never told Flanigan.
Dixon said he and Flanigan have forged a relationship that’s been invaluable to him. He also has a close relationship with the two children he had with Robyn Bragg Dixon, an actress on Bravo’s “Real Housewives of Potomac,” from whom he is now divorced.
Flanigan accompanies his son on recruiting trips in Baltimore and attends many of Coppin’s home games.
“It’s given me a better understanding [of] how everything came about,” Dixon said of finding his biological father. “What my dad brings to the table is a male figure that I can lean on for advice. His wisdom and his experience in life allows me to become a better man, a better father.
“I’m excited that my dad is a part of my life, but most importantly I’m thrilled that my sons get an opportunity to get to know their grandfather.”
Dixon is so popular in Baltimore he could probably run for mayor, as his aunt, Sheila Dixon did in 2007 — and won. Though basketball fans around the nation remember the 2002 NCAA Tournament when Dixon was named the Most Outstanding Player, the athletes he’s recruiting now were too young to recall the sight of him tossing the ball in the air as the clock ticked down to zero in the title game.
Coppin senior forward Chad Andrews-Fulton said despite not seeing Dixon play in college he was aware of him from his reputation.
“I knew of him, just being a fan of basketball,” he said. “When I told my dad Juan Dixon was the coach he said, ‘Really? From Maryland?’ Oh yeah, he was surprised. But he was definitely excited. He said it will be great for Coppin and great for me.”
Coppin has a punishing schedule this season that includes eight teams that played in postseason tournaments last year, including five squads that played in the NCAA Tournament. The Eagles’ first eight games are on the road, featuring matchups against traditional powers Wisconsin, Virginia and Dayton.
Their first home game will be Dec. 3 against UMBC, which burst onto the national stage last season when it became the first No. 16 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Those games will provide good experience for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference season, Williams said.
“He has a tough job, there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “But Juan never walked away from anything in his life, so I know he can get it done. He would be making great strides if he won more games than last year. Every situation is different in coaching.
“That’s the unfair part of coaching. Some jobs, basically, you can just roll in for practice, and everybody does everything else for you in terms of administrative work and getting your recruiting ready. Coppin doesn’t have that luxury. Juan has to do a lot of those things.”
Fang Mitchell, who coached the Coppin men’s team from 1986-2014, said Dixon has a challenging job ahead.
“The biggest problem is money at Coppin,” he said. “There’s not enough of it to recruit with. The other issue is for them to maintain other sports programs, they have to gather money. That means the schedule that Juan has to play will be very difficult for him to be successful, even to the point of being .500.”
Mitchell, a three-time MEAC Coach of the Year who had losing records during nine of his last 10 seasons at Coppin, said it seems like the team is “always on the road” because of the payout given to visiting teams in non-league games.
“A lot of times you’re playing against the major programs in places that are very difficult to win,” he said. “The kids enjoy playing the big schools, but winning is winning. Your chances are minimal. If you win one of those games you’re happy. That’s what they call ‘the upset.’ But how many upsets will there be?”
Mitchell did, however, praise Coppin for hiring Dixon.
“He’s known not just in the area but throughout the country,” Mitchell said. “He has an opportunity to recruit quality people. If anybody can win at Coppin, it would be him.”
After his senior year at College Park where he was a consensus first-team All American, Dixon was drafted by the Washington Wizards with the 17th pick in the NBA Draft and played three years for the Wizards. He went on to play for the Portland Trail Blazers, Toronto Raptors and Detroit Pistons before returning to the Wizards for the 2008-09 season and then heading to Europe for three years to close out his pro career.
Scoring an NBA career-best 12.3 points per game during his one year with Portland, Dixon finished with an average of 8.4 points per game.
However, Dixon, who graduated from Maryland in 2013 with a degree in family science, will best be remembered for being the catalyst during the Terrapins’ championship run in the NCAA Tournament.
Amatucci, who coached Loyola College in Baltimore for seven seasons in the 1980s before returning to the Calvert Hall bench, said Dixon on the sidelines at Coppin is a gift for the area.
“With all of the negative things that are happening in the city, he is a bright light,” he said. “Last year his picture was on billboards everywhere in West Baltimore. Once he gets it going, it’s going to be lightning in a bottle. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind.”
Amatucci said the Coppin administration is “100 percent supportive” of Dixon’s desire to get the program back to the glory days of the late 1980s and early 1990s when the Eagles had 11 straight winning seasons.
“Even though they only won five games last year, that could have easily been 10 or 11 because a lot of the losses were down in the last two minutes when it didn’t go his way,” he said. “With the team he had last year, what he accomplished was amazing.”
Carter, who became the Coppin athletic director in 2016, said Dixon’s diligence on and off the court provides valuable lessons.
“Everyone has a story,” he said. “And his is unique. He has many life lessons that come along with that story. It’s important that he’s willing to share his successes and, at times, failures. Those are the things that you can instill in the young men on our basketball team. His goal is to make them better people along with improving basketball.”
Coppin, a historically black university, has had one winning season since the 2003-04 campaign, a 16-14 record in 2010-11. Undaunted, Dixon cannot wait for the season to begin.
“It’s exciting,” Dixon said. “This is my journey, how everything has come full circle. I was born and raised three minutes from the Coppin State campus. So it’s great for me to be in a position where I can give back to the community, help young men develop and show people that the school has a new vision.”
In some ways, this season could be considered the first year of the Dixon era. Four players used up their eligibility last season and two transferred out, allowing Dixon to bring in five new players, including 7-foot center Brendan Medley-Bacon from Baltimore’s Archbishop Curley High School.
Dixon knows it’s unlikely Coppin will challenge for an NCAA title but acknowledges basketball is just one part of the college experience.
“Every day we’re striving to make Coppin great,” Dixon said. “We want to show local recruits that you can have a great college experience. You can learn high-level basketball. And most importantly, you’re going to be prepared for life after college at Coppin State.”
Photo Credit: Troy Queen/Coppin State Athletics
Issue 248: October 2018