I want you to know about Maggie Dixon.
I think it’s important that you do, as TCU prepares to play at Madison Square Garden for the first time in their history. I think you need to know the woman that inspired Coach Dixon to have his team practice at West Point Sunday afternoon in preparation for what very well may be the biggest game in program history. And frankly, I want to tell you, because she was someone that inspired me in the small way that someone you never met but have always admired does.
Maggie Dixon is the younger sister of Jamie Dixon, and she was a brilliant basketball mind in her own right. She was one of the brightest stars in women’s basketball, turning around a bottom-rung Army program in just a matter of months in her first year on the job - sound familiar? She took over the program at West Point after a four year playing career at the University of San Diego and a five year stint as an assistant coach at DePaul. 11 days before the start of the 2005 basketball season, she was hired by Army, a program that had never sniffed an NCAA Tournament appearance and brought a myriad of recruiting obstacles with it.
Before we move forward, I want to take a moment to look back. In 2005, I got my first ever head coach position, leading the freshman girls’ basketball program at a high school in Northern California. I was young, I was inexperienced, and I didn’t know anything. But I knew that I didn’t know anything, so I read, studied, and watched as much basketball as I could get my hands on. The internet wasn’t what it is today 12 years ago, nor was cable TV. Women’s basketball wasn’t something that you could find much information on, but one program seemed to capture the nation’s attention in a way that few others did. In the glory days of Pat Summit at Tennessee and Geno Auriemma at UCONN (okay some things remain the same), Army was the darling of the dance, as Dixon led the Black Knights to 20 wins and their first ever NCAA appearance. After starting 5-7, they brought home the Patriot League regular season title, then held off Holy Cross for a one point win in the conference tournament to secure the league’s auto-bid - after which, she was carried off the court by members of the football team and given a standing ovation by the cadets in the dining hall.
I loved the story - the West Coast kid coaching at one of the more moribund East Coast programs and going toe-to-toe with the big dogs. When the Knights were eliminated by Summit’s Vols in a lopsided first round matchup, no one seemed worried. This was just the beginning, the timeline was years not months, the best was yet to come - familiarity again, is it not? I was hooked. Maggie Dixon went on my Coaching Mount Rushmore, and the first year head coach - who was just a couple years older than me - became my coaching role model. In the years that followed, I adopted many of her practices - cooking dinners for my teams, telling terrible jokes during tersely called timeouts in the tensest of moments, trying to turn teams into families - focusing on the people, not just the scoreboards.
The thing about promise and upside is that they are never guaranteed. And the best laid plans all too often fail. Sometimes, it’s our mistakes that prevent us from reaching our dreams, sometimes the twists and turns of life get in the way, and sometimes the world is just plain cruel. The Maggie Dixon story, sadly, follows the last path.
Maggie Dixon celebrated her team’s tournament berth, their history-making season, and the joy she had brought to a community that all too often has to mourn. But, just a day after watching the women’s final with her brother, she collapsed at a friend’s house and died a day later. An autopsy revealed an undiagnosed enlarged heart, an ‘arrhythmic episode to her heart’ blamed as her killer.
The West Coast kid was buried at 28 at West Point Cemetery, an honor generally reserved for high-ranking officials, but bestowed upon the civilian who had spent just over half a year associated with the Academy. The military isn’t known for making exceptions, but Maggie Dixon was just that impactful, just that beloved, and just that important. She earned that honor.
It’s been nearly 11 years since Maggie Dixon’s death, but she’s never far from her brother’s heart. Jamie Dixon has gone on to have an incredible career in his own right, with 11 NCAA Tournament appearances, two Sweet 16s, and an Elite Eight on his resume. But as TCU has prepared for their first trip to NYC and first appearance at MSG, Dixon has spoken fondly of his connection to the hallowed arena, which has become even more deeply connected to his family through the Maggie Dixon Classic. The first Classic was held at West Point, but the tournament moved to MSG in 2007, and has remained there since - with a few exceptions, including this year’s detour to St. John’s. DePaul and Army have been regular participants, as have some of the best programs in the country. Four times, the National Champion has started their run with a Maggie Dixon Classic win.
Jamie Dixon does his best to attend, and when he can be there he presents the Maggie Dixon Courage Award with his parents and sister. The award is presented to “an individual who exhibits courage in the face of adversity and continues to exemplify Dixon's mantra of never allowing adversity get in the way of achieving a dream”.
Now, he’s back in New York City, preparing his team for one, and hopefully two, games at the famed Madison Square Garden. Big East Tournaments and Maggie Dixon Classics have made the hallowed halls of that building eternally significant to him, and now he will share it with his team. A team, who just a few months ago, was as moribund as any in the country, who hadn’t won anything significant in decades, who hadn’t sniffed the Tourney since 1998 and hadn’t won a game in it since its’ coach’s playing days. A team, that feels a lot like Maggie Dixon’s Army team of 2005, experiencing the same high heights of the 2006 run of the Black Knights. Jamie Dixon is honoring his sister through his time at TCU, paying tribute to her work in his own way.
Coach Dixon took his team to West Point to practice Sunday afternoon, sharing with them a little of his personal story, his family, and his heart. They saw the banner honoring her that hangs in the rafters, saw what the school and community means to their coach and his family, and hopefully soaked in a little of that energy that Maggie brought in her oh-too-short time on this earth.
In 2011, ESPN wrote a perspective piece on the impact of Maggie Dixon’s life, five years after her death. In it, Coach Dixon is quoted as saying:
"Yeah, there's times of sadness," Jamie says. "But mainly, it's moments of joy and good memories. I decided long ago that I was not going to let moments of sadness stop me from telling people about my sister or allowing her legacy to grow."
I highly recommend you read it, Frog fans. That you take a few minutes and get to know the other Coach Dixon, because she was an amazing person and remains and incredible inspiration.
It doesn't really matter, but that next season, my freshman girls went undefeated, running a version of Maggie Dixon’s flex offense. I referenced her occasionally in practices, using her quotes about adversity and character as inspiration. It was one of the most fun seasons I’ve had in my decade plus of coaching; the winning helped, sure, but it was the way those girls came together as a family that made it truly special.
I never met Maggie Dixon, but she has certainly impacted the way that I approach each season, each game, and each player that I come across. Because it turns out, if you show people love, and you mean it, they want to give you their best in return. Maggie Dixon taught me that, and I have tried to live it out as a coach ever since.