Dixon legacy is brief but brilliant at West Point

April 11, 2006|By MILTON KENT

Maggie Dixon wasn't the coach who sold Alex McGuire on Army. Truth be told, McGuire never really needed to be sold on West Point, not with a father and two uncles who walked the Long Gray Line before her.

Indeed, Maggie Dixon got to Army just two weeks before the just-concluded women's basketball season started, and was there for just seven months before her death last week after an episode of heart arrhythmia.

Seven months hardly seems like enough time to get much below skin level, yet 28-year-old Maggie Dixon, in just one basketball season, got all the way into the soul of the Army campus.

"Coach was a great person," said McGuire, the 2004 All-Metro Player of the Year from Arundel High. "She was always a very positive person. She was a great leader, somebody you aspire to be, someone you want to be when you get older. She left a piece of her with us. It's something that you wish you could do when you get older. She was just a great person. It's hard to explain."

Try explaining this, if, in fact a reasonable explanation exists. How does someone so vibrant, so thoughtful, so caring, and, yes, so young, touch so many hearts and then leave so quickly, like a comet that burns across the heavens and then moves on, but not before lighting up the sky and every heart along the way?

Army athletic officials brought in four candidates last fall to interview to replace Sherri Abbey-Nowatzki, who was released from her contract in early October. However, once Kevin Anderson, Army's athletic director, and the players, who were given a say in who their new coach would be, met with Dixon, the interview process was over.

"We all got to meet Coach, and we could tell right away that she was a positive, upbeat person," McGuire said. "She had a practice plan and told us what we would be doing. She knew a lot about us. She had done research about the academy and about us as individuals. We fell in love with her from the start."

As anyone who has coached at one of the service academies will say, it's a challenge to lead young men and women who come to school for loftier ambitions than three-pointers or touchdowns.

"It [coaching at West Point] is definitely something that you have to experience to fully understand," said McGuire, who was voted Patriot League Rookie of the Year this season. "She did a great job of helping us balance basketball with the academy life. A lot of times, she would use what we do on a daily basis, and she would tell us to draw from our experiences that nobody else uses.

"Nobody else goes through what we go through and she told us to draw from that and take it to the basketball court. We're a strong team and we do certain things that nobody else in the country does, at a regular college. She would kind of pull those in, in tough times, and tell us, `You know, you guys are special people. Use that to your advantage.' "

A coach can be an outsider in such a structured and often rigid framework, and especially one who is a woman in her first head coaching position and hasn't reached age 30.

Yet, even before she got the Black Knights, who finished the season 20-11, to the Patriot League tournament championship and the school's first NCAA tournament bid, Dixon, not far removed from juggling an $8,000 graduate assistant salary at DePaul with waiting tables in Chicago, had West Point eating out of her hand.

Lt. Gen. William J. Lennox Jr., the West Point superintendent, noted, nearly through tears at a campus memorial service on Friday, that at a place where five-star generals are produced, "Maggie was the consummate leader."

Addressing Dixon's parents, Lennox said, "I really don't think we've lost Maggie. I feel I've gained 20 Maggies. More confident, tougher, more compassionate young leaders, who will develop more Maggies in the future."

As one might expect, the Black Knights took it on the chin in games vs. Baylor, last year's national champion, and Connecticut, the five-time NCAA titlist.

And their 48-point loss to Tennessee in the first round of the tournament will now sadly be known for more than just the game in which Lady Vols forward Candace Parker got the first two dunks in NCAA women's postseason play.

But, even as her team made SportsCenter for reasons it didn't plan for, Maggie Dixon, the kid sister of Pittsburgh men's coach Jamie Dixon, held back her tears, telling the media after the Tennessee game, "I'm so honored and proud to have had the pleasure of coaching these young women."

The feeling was undoubtedly the same.

"She left an amazing legacy," McGuire said. "She came to the academy two weeks before we started and basically changed everything around for us. She brought us to the top, to the next level.

"She's touched everybody here and in this area, like people that you would never think. They say, `Your coach had an impact on me.' You never expect that, and I don't think Coach will ever be forgotten around here. Our players will certainly never, ever forget her."

milton.kent@baltsun.com

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