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Mark's Madness: Glorious mediocrity reigns supreme

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

This probably won't be announced officially for a couple of days because that egomaniac, Mark Nordenberg, wants to take all the credit for, uh, straightening out the basketball coaching situation, but I am the new athletic director at the University of Pittsburgh.

I didn't apply for the job per se. I just walked into the office Friday, sat down and took over. That will teach them to leave the door unlocked.

Nordenberg, the university's chancellor, came into the office Monday and inquired about my presence. I said, "You need an AD, and you need one now. Only a dope or someone desperate would take the basketball job without knowing who his boss is."

Replied Nordenberg: "Funny you should use that choice of words. We're going to announce Jamie Dixon as the new basketball coach. Which is he, a dope or desperate?"

Dixon, Ben Howland's top assistant at Pitt the past four years, is definitely desperate, having failed to get the head coaching position at Texas-El Paso, Wright State or Illinois State. It's not exactly like being turned down by Syracuse, Kentucky and Duke.

As for the dope part, only time will tell.

Dixon's supporters delight in pointing out that Tom Izzo kept Michigan State on top after being elevated from his assistant coaching position. But they never seem to bring up the dozens of times when a similar promotion failed. Does the name Craig Esherick ring a bell, Georgetown fans?

Nordenberg then asked if I wanted to take responsibility for Dixon's hiring if it didn't work out. He was so smooth he almost slipped that one by me.

At any rate, I plan to set new standards for revenue-producing sports at the University of Pittsburgh. They will be lower standards.

You make the Sweet 16, Pitt basketball fans are going to expect it every year. You make a major bowl game -- which I understand Pitt used to do; I don't remember, I'm only 42 -- Pitt football fans are going to expect it every year.

In basketball, we want to make the Terrific 32 every year. Or at least the Scintillating 64. The NIT, anyway. If we can get our fans to accept those goals, we might even be able to get away with having Dixon as coach.

In football, we want to win 25 percent of our games against good opponents and play in a marginal bowl every year. Walt Harris already seems to have these standards clocked.

Harris will be the template for all future coaching hires. We want a coach who is good, but not good enough to be legitimately pursued by any true big-time schools. A coach good enough to be mentioned as a potential hire at a top-notch program, but far enough down the list that he never leaves.

Please don't tell me you thought Harris might actually get the job at Alabama or Ohio State. But all that sure sounded good, didn't it?

This is loosely based on the "glorious mediocrity" PR scheme of the Pirates. I understand there were nearly 7,000 people in the stands for the Pirates' third home game this season. If only we could attract those kinds of numbers to Heinz Field for a football game against a MAC school.

Speaking of PR, we're still trying to devise a way to sell Dixon's hiring to the fans. Even those Oakland Zoo hooligans seem to have figured out that something is amiss.

Dixon has the backing of Ontario Lett, who is getting ready to grad ... er, who has run out of eligibility. Imagine, getting the stamp of approval from a player so undisciplined that he used to get in foul trouble during the warm-up. What's next, the ringing endorsement of Donatas Zavackas?

Julius Page, meanwhile, says Dixon and Howland are "exactly alike." Great. That means I'm going to have to get a replacement for Dixon when he takes his dream job at Wright State in four years.

Incoming freshmen Chris Taft and Aaron Gray said they would reconsider their commitments to Pitt if Dixon didn't get the job. So Dixon got the job. Taft and Gray might feel they played a role in Dixon's hiring. Which means they might expect Dixon to feel indebted to them. The returning players who pushed for Dixon might feel the same. All that can't help Dixon's status as an authority figure.

To be an effective head coach, Dixon will have to distance himself from the players. No more Mr. Nice Guy. The players might not like that.

I have a favor to ask of the local high school basketball coaches: Please send me your resumes so we can say we picked Dixon from a long list of candidates. I realize that some of you might turn out to be more qualified than Dixon. In fact, I'd bet on it. Let's keep that between us.

I know I've only been Pitt AD for several days, but I'm exhausted. Being a peripheral part of a second consecutive one-man search will do that to an AD. I just had to tell Sonny Vaccaro to stop calling us about Bobby Gonzalez and start calling Dixon with an offer from adidas. I will be so happy when Sonny's new office is finished and he can officially accept the job as Pitt's basketball AD.

Pitt obviously assumed too much during the pursuit of Wake Forest Coach Skip Prosser. They were sure Prosser would want to go home, just like Howland. They forgot that going home to the snow of Pittsburgh isn't quite like going home to the sun of California.

For future reference, here's how a job search should be conducted: You interview several qualified candidates without publicly identifying any as the primary choice. After the interview process, you privately list the candidates in order of preference. You offer the job to the top candidate. If he says no, go to the next one. Repeat as necessary until someone says yes.

If you execute this process quickly enough, you can present whoever does say yes as the top pick all along. The worst thing that can happen in a coaching search is if your eventual hire looks like a clear-cut second choice. It damages the credibility of your coach and the credibility of your program. Hello, Coach Dixon.

Fiascoes like that don't happen, however, if you have a permanent AD. University executives and interim athletic directors simply aren't cut out for this sort of thing. That's been decisively proven.

Anyway, both of Pitt's significant athletic vacancies have been filled with me as AD and Jamie Dixon as men's basketball coach. I think our qualifications speak for themselves.

Regarding the search for a women's basketball coach, I am currently looking at the resume of Oakland Catholic High School/Minnesota Lynx Coach Suzie McConnell Serio. Yo, can somebody please tell me why Suzie doesn't hyphenate her last name and her sister, Tulsa Coach Kathy McConnell-Miller, does? That's been driving me nuts.

Thank you, and go Panthers!

Mark Madden is the host of a sports talk show from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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