Life lessons larger than victories for Dickerson

November 22, 2005|By RICK MAESE

The Maryland men's basketball team is enjoying a trip to Hawaii this week. The Terps are playing some of the best teams in the country, not far from some of the nicest beaches.

They're nationally ranked and have beautiful facilities back home. Oh, and did I mention they're in Hawaii? This is what Dave Dickerson walked away from last spring, leaving College Park and stepping right into a storm.

After 15 years as an assistant coach - including the past nine at Maryland - Dickerson accepted a head coaching job at Tulane. Five months after he got the keys to his new office, Hurricane Katrina forced the evacuation of New Orleans and sent the Green Wave scrambling.

Tonight, Dickerson will make his head coaching debut as Tulane opens its season against the University of New Orleans. It's a home game for Tulane - played in College Station, Texas, where the Green Wave basketball team has been living the past 3 1/2 months.

Nothing about Dickerson's debut season as head coach has gone as he'd dreamed.

"I always thought being a head coach, you'd have a lot of responsibilities. ... I was ready for those," he says. "But going through what we've gone through, there's been no one that I could call to ask for ideas. I couldn't look into a coaching manual and see what you do when you've gone through the worst natural disaster in the history of the U.S."

In all his years of coaching, Dickerson has never been a part of a losing team. Tulane might struggle to post wins this season, but the coach already knows progress will have to be measured in small victories.

Like last week, for example. Just a few days before its season opener, the Green Wave's uniforms finally arrived. It's something that every coach this side of the youth leagues doesn't have to worry about, and yet it's just another item on Dickerson's ever-growing to-do list.

You can't experience a disaster that reshapes the landscape and not expect it to reshape your own life.

"You can't take anything for granted now," says Dickerson, 38. "When I talk to my wife, I talk to her about how she's doing; not as a mother or as a wife, but as a person."

After a couple of months living in New Orleans, Dickerson, his wife, Laurette, and their 4-year-old son finally moved into their new house. Only three weeks passed before they were forced to flee. They were just getting settled.

Right now, they're renting a two-bedroom apartment in College Station, expecting to return to New Orleans next month.

"You just look at everything differently," Dickerson says. "When I go on the road, I feel guilty for leaving my wife for one or two nights alone, without any outlets. She understands the job and everything, but that doesn't always make it easy."

He heaps praise on his players and his assistants for the way they've handled this adversity. And his voice is tinged with hints of guilt when he talks about what his family has faced. This isn't exactly what they signed up for.

"But in sports you have to take the good with the bad," he says.

Does he regret leaving Maryland? Dickerson aknowledges in the darker times, the thought crosses his mind. But it never stays long.

"I wanted to be a head basketball coach," he says. "Even though it's been difficult, that's what I'm doing."

He talks regularly with Gary Williams. Usually when you seek advice from the Terps' coach, it's like putting a nickel in a gumball machine: You're going to get something to chew on. But there hasn't been much to tell Dickerson lately. These are unprecedented circumstances.

The Green Wave scrambled for a home, for courts, for equipment, for everything. After a lifetime of afternoon practices, Dickerson has had to adjust. Sometimes the Green Wave practices at 6 a.m., other times at 7 p.m. Tulane will play a quirky schedule. On Saturday, it will host Texas A&M. It's a home game in the Texas A&M gym.

When Williams and Dickerson do speak, the Terps' coach stresses that the Green Wave can find success, even if it can't be discerned from the win column. That might not have been such an easy concept to fully grasp a year ago. After all, Dickerson has been a winner his entire career. This is a guy who knows what it's like to hoist a national championship trophy.

Things are different now. Life is different. Even the small victories seem huge. Many times the win is defined by the struggle. Something tells me that no matter the final record, this season will be the most rewarding of Dickerson's career.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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