Celebrating Maggie Dixon: Coaching, Quest, and Commitment

By Ros Gold-Onwude

Hoisted on the shoulders of the ecstatic cadets who rushed the court, a 28-year-old Maggie Dixon relished the moment, a climax of a season in which she inspired her players, gained the respect of her school and captivated the nation. The first year head coach took the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on an unexpected journey to a 20-11 season, a Patriot League Tournament Championship, and thus, a bid to the NCAA tournament, the first tournament appearance for any Army basketball team, ever. The magnitude of her accomplishments, the fire of her spirit, and the potential of her impact on the game of basketball would go devastatingly fully unrealized as just a few weeks later she would suddenly die due to an unexpected arrhythmic episode to her heart. We continue to memorialize Coach Maggie Dixon and all that she represented today in the form of the Maggie Dixon Classic tournament. The Maggie Dixon Classic is now an annually held premier women’s basketball tournament hosted on the grand stage of “the world’s most famous arena”, Madison Square Garden, in New York City.

The 2012 Maggie Dixon Classic took place on December 9th, featuring a game one matchup between Rutgers University and Louisiana Tech with former Liberty star Teresa Weatherspoon making her Madison Square Garden debut as a coach. Game two followed with a 2011 Sweet 16 rematch of #4 Duke and St. John’s University. Crowds enjoyed a 73-46 Rutgers defeat of La. Tech and a 60-42 Duke victory over St. John’s. However, the influence of the day’s tournament held the most weight off of the court. The head coaches of each team, all in different stages of their careers, took a moment to reflect on the late Dixon. Each recounting of Maggie’s impact made clear how much more there is to basketball than simply the ball and hoop. Each coach, in their own way, revealed a shared understanding that in their dedication to coaching they subscribed to more than wins and losses. They confided the moments that stuck out to them, moments that get lost in the stat sheet. Moments that define just how much is actually at stake for them as individuals, as coaches, leaders, role models, educators, and mentors of young student athletes.

THE NY LIBERTY HERO: Teresa Weatherspoon, Louisiana Tech.
“I remember hearing a story about Maggie Dixon at the very beginnings of her career. She was trying to get an assistant coaching job at DePaul and was asking for an interview with head coach Doug Bruno. She just wanted five minutes of Bruno’s time. She was persistent. I heard the five minutes went on to be a three-hour conversation with Bruno. And she got the job. When I think of Maggie I think of this story because of her belief in herself. Belief in one’s self is one of the most influential and contagious qualities you can have. As a coach you want to instill a belief in self into each of your players. It starts with you though; the players piggyback off of the coach. I would like to have that same impact.”

Saturday, December 8th was Weatherspoon’s birthday. It was an emotional day for the birthday girl taking her team into Madison Square Garden for their first time to ever grace the court during a shoot-around practice. Weatherspoon, affectionately called “T-Spoon” by WNBA and New York Liberty fans, flourished on the very same court during her days as the fiery and emotional all star point guard for the Liberty from 1997-2003. She led the Liberty to early WNBA prominence highlighted by the franchise’s first ever WNBA finals appearance in 1997. She also achieved multiple personal awards including winning Defensive Player of the Year two times. Returning to The Garden, this time for the first time ever as a coach, T-Spoon described the moment, “I lost my voice from the excitement. It’s very emotional for me to walk into this arena with my staff and my kids and for them to have had the chance to understand what MSG is all about. To have the opportunity to play and leave their mark here. It was just awesome to watch them react to the floor, take pictures, tour the locker room, get a look at the new transformations and ultimately have them gain exposure to something different”.

Teresa Weatherspoon’s name is one of legend as a player and now gains in recognition as one of women’s college basketball’s up-and-coming coaches. Weatherspoon has a fitting connection to Coach Dixon having received the Maggie Dixon Rookie Coach of the Year award in 2010. The award is just one more way the late rookie Army coach has been memorialized. “Maggie Dixon had the attention and respect of her players. As a coach I impact the life of kids- that’s what it’s about for me. I love them as people, number one, and as players, number two. The greatest thing I have as a coach is their trust, growth and ability to develop them,” says Weatherspoon.

Weatherspoon, the coach, spent her birthday continuing to study and focus on the game at hand, trying to give her kids the best chance to be successful. The only birthday gift she hoped for coming into the game was the best effort of her players. Before the game an ever-intense T-Spoon asked her players, “What mark do you want to leave when you walk off this court?”

At the end of the interview, Weatherspoon reflected, “Coaching at its most rewarding is being able to get kids to want to be great. I find the most frustrating moment as a coach is getting kids to want to be great consistently. I tell them, ‘Desire isn’t enough. There must be a plan followed by actions’. But then again, coaches must be patient”, she obliged.

THE LEGEND: C. Vivian Stringer, Rutgers.
“I was impressed by Maggie’s enthusiasm for the players and how it infected the entire school. The way she attracted the guys, the cadets to the games and they rallied around her team. It was because of her heart. I looked at her and thought, ‘she loves this.’ What sticks out is how she took joy in teaching and that is very special, especially in a first year coach. Most first year coaches are just happy to be there! But when it actually works, you, the team, the crowd… it’s just a feeling you never forget. It’s like a first kiss, you know, and you never forget.”

Coach Stringer is a three-time National Coach of the Year winner, a 2009 inductee to the Basketball Hall of Fame, and has led three different schools to Final Four berths. Starting at Cheney State College from 1972-1983 before then moving on to the University of Iowa from 1983-1995, she currently calls Rutgers University home. She can often be found courtside at Liberty games as three of her former Rutgers players, Cappie Pondexter, Essence Carson, and Kia Vaughn all are members of the team. In the midst of decades of highlights, All-American players, awards, and national recognition, the legendary coach considers what her “first-kiss coaching moment” was- the first big moment she would never forget.

“Back when I was coaching at Cheney State College, there was this big tournament being held in New York, also at Madison Square Garden. Only the top teams from around the country were invited to play; at the time it was Penn State, Maryland, and the like. Cheney wasn’t invited to play in the tournament. We’d try and get rejected. We didn’t even have a weight room, but I still thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great to play in this tournament’? So I found the number of the director of the tournament, called him and asked him, ‘What do you have to do to come to New York and play in this tournament at Madison Square Garden?’ “

The director responded, “First you have to beat the Penn State’s, the Maryland’s, the Rutgers’. Then call me”.

Stringer explains, “In order to achieve something you have to know what you need to do, that is, what the steps are. So I thanked him and we hung up the phone. And you know what, my teams did just that. We beat those teams.” She laughs, “and I DID call him. I’ll never forget. He knew it was me calling, too. He told me, “I knew you would call. Yes, you are invited to play in the tournament.” Stringer finishes, “you can wish and want and hope, but there is a price for everything. That was a proud moment for me”.

During this year’s Maggie Dixon Classic Rutgers faced off with La. Tech, pitting the legendary coach Stringer against the eager Weatherspoon. Gracefully, Coach Stringer assessed her coaching opponent, “I’ve always admired Teresa as both a player and as a person. Like Maggie did, Weatherspoon has a commitment to the game and players first. With so much talent as a player it would have been a shame to keep that knowledge to herself. I appreciate that she returned to her alma mater to give back to the game and her school. Louisiana Tech is a women’s basketball program rich with tradition. I believe the path to rekindling that legacy and previous level of success will have to be propelled behind the force of a former player. I think Teresa is capable of doing good things there and competing. And I encourage not only her, but also other young female basketball players to consider careers in coaching. We’ve got to identify and mentor future “Maggie Dixon’s” out there. Within women’s basketball we should keep our eyes open as to whose hands we put the future of the game into and work to cultivate young talent. As coaches it is important to mentor each other, to share information, and to have the possibility of players transitioning to coaching positions become more common. Sometimes you have to see it to believe it”.

THE YOUNG SLUGGER: Joe Tartamella, St. John’s.
“I met Maggie briefly at the Final Four in 2006. It was a brief, yet impactful encounter. You could feel the magnitude of what she did for these players. I was a really young coach at the time, either a graduate assistant or assistant of some sort and she took the time to speak to me. She was very nice and you understood why the players loved her. So much of her success had to do with the kind of person and human being she was. I knew she was a tremendous leader and I am happy I was able to interact with her. To this day, she is an example I look to in that she took a team that no one had heard of so very far.”

Coach T assumed a new role, transitioning into his first year as head coach of the St. John’s women’s basketball program after committing nine years in various roles to helping build the program. The only school to actually call New York City their home, the Queens based team, coaching staff and players, came not only into Madison Garden on a mission, but also to the St. John’s program with a shared dream: to bring a nationally prominent women’s college basketball program to New York. “We’ve moved to the top of a very competitive Big East conference, we’ve achieved national rankings, what I want to do here, as coach, and what we want to do here, as a program, is stay consistent. New Yorker’s love basketball. Girls’ high school basketball has heated up in this city, and there is a base of fans that will rally behind great teams. It is important for St. John's to provide a great team,” insists Tartamella.

Pregame, Coach T looked at his players, an east coast based roster that included nine players from the immediate New York, New Jersey, Connecticut area, and their senior star, Shenneika Smith, straight out of Brooklyn, knowing a piece of their story together would be left at the “world’s most famous arena” on their very own stomping grounds. “Duke is a good team, a great team, even scary at times with their number of weapons. But these are the reasons we schedule these games, the reason the players decided to come to St. John’s. These are the games you get up for, playing out of conference, for many of us representing for our hometown, having a chance to prove that you can and should be playing with the best teams in the country. It’s key to keep in mind Maggie Dixon, once an underdog herself, and all that she stood for and managed to accomplish. Each game as a coach you urge the players of what they are playing for,” he says.

THE HEADLINER: Joanne P. McCallie, Duke.
“I didn’t know Maggie Dixon personally but I was one of the many who were captivated by her. I watched her lead the Army team to the tournament. I, like everyone else, followed the story, impressed by her ability to inspire her players. You didn’t have to know Maggie personally to see the magnitude of her effect on the game and on people. In coaching and in life, that is a very unique gift. We are honored by the chance to play at Madison Square Garden in her memory.”

Headlining the 2012 Maggie Dixon Classic was the highly touted, undefeated, #4 nationally ranked Duke squad that most fans came out to see in person. Led by Coach P, one of the most highly accomplished coaches in the business, as well as one of the best center/guard tandems in women’s college basketball today in Elizabeth Williams and Chelsea Gray, Duke came to the Garden. They Played. They Conquered. And they were supposed to. Coach P gave big praise to her point guard, “I believe Chelsea Gray is the best point guard in the nation because of everything that she does: points, rebounds, assists, takes charges, she has great size, great professionalism, and leadership. I don’t believe there is any better passer than Gray, at this very moment, on either the women's or men's side of college basketball. And yet, she seems to fly under the radar,” she laments.

And there it was, a quick glimmer of it, the chip on her shoulder, arguably justified, showed. This particular “chip” is a good quality, probably better labeled as “hunger”, something that a coach must have to succeed, regardless of where they reside on the ladder of coaching hierarchy. The 2005 AP Coach of the Year, winner of multiple conference Coach of the Year awards, participant in 11 NCAA tournaments and consistent builder of winning programs has moved up the coaching ladder from Auburn to Maine to Michigan State and now currently holds court at Duke.

Much like the late Dixon, McCallie is game for the challenge, certainly a challenge of different scales and circumstance, yet equally personal and equally professional. Coach P looks at her move from top 20 program Michigan State to top ten program Duke and admits, “I am in a pool of coaches that are getting there, chasing, trying to knock down the door. Duke women’s basketball has been a perennial power but actually winning a championship has eluded us. My team is talented, but not one person on our roster has been to a Final Four. Every single person on this team, on this coaching staff, is chasing the greats”.

Five and a half years into her tenure at Duke she looks at long standing icons of the game, the Geno’s, the Pat’s, the Tara’s, who have spent decades at programs, built legacies and won multiple championships, and with the most respect for what they’ve done asks no one else but herself, “who is next and why not me”?

This question encapsulates the quest of any coach, from Maggie Dixon to McCallie to Weatherspoon to Tartamella to Stringer. From first year coaches of “on-the-bubble” teams to coaches hunting for their first or additional national championship, the questions: “why not us, why not my team, and why not me” is what keeps coaches spending sleepless night after sleepless night watching extra video. That inquisition must be translated from coach to the players, which on the collegiate level, means a translation from adult to mere kids. Herein lies the college coach’s plight, a Rubik’s Cube of messages, lessons, strategy, and the vision to separate but yet connect practice to practice, game to game, season to season, fueling and refueling themselves only with passion. As coaches, each year they are trying to define: What can I do? What can my players do? What are we capable of? How do we reach that potential? How can we overachieve our potential?

Coach P continued, at this point pondering out loud to herself, “You know, that’s exactly it, and you just have to wonder: what else might Maggie have done? With such a great spirit, how much more would she have impacted women’s basketball? Obviously, that’s a question that will go unanswered.”