Now that Pitt swung and missed with fan favorite Sean Miller in trying to replace former head coach Jamie Dixon, other names are surfacing as potential candidates.
One that is gaining steam among the fanbase is assistant and former player Brandin Knight. Knight, FWIW, has a lot of people in his corner. Dixon was said to endorse him for the job and several former players have come out on his behalf as well. It's a move reminiscent of when Dixon was hired himself after serving as Ben Howland's assistant before Howland up and left for UCLA. Dixon, too, had the support of his head coach and was said to be the choice among the current players.
Besides that, however, Knight's and Dixon's situations aren't all that similar.
For one thing, Dixon had much more experience than Knight when he took over as the head coach here. After winding down his Pitt playing career, Knight played for three years in the NBDL and very briefly (as in, extremely briefly - he played in one game) with the Houston Rockets. He didn't begin his coaching career until the summer of 2008 and he just wrapped up his eighth year serving as an assistant with the Panthers this season. That's a decent amount of experience but nothing compared to what Dixon had amassed by the time he took the job.
Dixon began his career in 1989 as a head coach for a college in New Zealand. After that, from 1989 to 1999, he was an assistant at various stops, including UC Santa Barbara, Hawaii, and Northern Arizona, where he served under Howland. He and Howland met up again at Pitt and were together for four years before Jamie got the job in 2003. All told, Dixon had 14 years of coaching experience - significantly more than Knight. Maybe just as importantly, he had that experience in many different environments serving under different coaches with different techniques, etc. Dixon was no doubt more polished than Knight is to this point. All Knight has learned so far as a coach is what he was taught under Dixon, really.
Consider, too, what Barnes said recently. He wants a coach that will play an up-tempo style. Perhaps Knight could do that, but coaching in the same system with Dixon during these years - the same system that Barnes wants to get away from ... let's just say it might be a tough sell for him to convince Barnes he's the guy to come in and change things. Don't forget that Knight also played in the same system as a player. Outside of his brief professional career, again, that system is what he's known.
But looking beyond the individuals, the Pitt job is also different, too. When Dixon got the job, Pitt was still in the Big East and not nearly as financially set as they are now in the ACC. Sure, Dixon had the facilities, but Pitt was still somewhat of a program on the rise. All these many years later, the Panthers have dropped a bit but have much more a reputation now than when Dixon took over. The program has simply achieved more. When Dixon took over, the Panthers had two NCAA Tournament appearances under Howland. Under Dixon, they've added 11 more appearances, including a few Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight.
That works the other way, too. When Howland left, the team was coming off of two very strong seasons, going 29-6 and 28-5. While the program has more of a name now, Pitt has regressed from where they were several years ago under Dixon. The name is there, but the success hasn't been. There was definitely pressure to keep it going when Dixon signed on, but in reality, the program was still a big unknown. It wasn't known if Pitt could continue the success they had and it's said that Howland even wondered how much longer it could last. Dropping off then wouldn't have been ideal, but it would have been understandable given where the Panthers were only a few short years before that in the Ralph Willard era.
Now, more than ever, Pitt needs to reestablish itself. The Panthers have already had some down years in missing the NCAA Tournament and having some early exits. They've still been an above average program when you consider the vast landscape of college basketball and how many teams don't make the tournament. But for what Pitt had achieved last decade, there's no question they have taken a step back. If Pitt struggles over these next few years, it becomes very easy to start fading into oblivion. If you think things are bad now, imagine where the program could be if they continue missing the NCAA Tournament.
That's part of the reason why this hire is so crucial. Pitt can't afford to take a huge risk here and they need to ensure that the program doesn't completely sink.
Is that a call for the administration to go against Knight? Not particularly, but I think there's enough money that Pitt can go out and find an established guy so I wouldn't personally go in that direction. For me, there are far too many other options of guys that have proven success as a head coach.
Knight is gaining some traction with fans and guess what? He could turn out to be a great head coach - here or elsewhere. This isn't necessarily an indictment on him and I've often said that he's arguably the most important Pitt player in the Howland/Dixon era since he was the one to really lead the resurgence. But with what Pitt can pay and what is on the line, I'm not sure he'd be the right call.
Whichever side you come out on, the thing we should all be able to agree on is that his situation is significantly different than that of Dixon's when he was an assistant.
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