This week’s announcement that Coppin State fired men’s basketball coach Juan Dixon resonated on a more personal level for folks in Baltimore and the state of Maryland who have followed his Horatio Alger-like rise to fame and prominence.
If the Coppin State coach had not been named Juan Dixon, let’s be honest, not many would truly care. But so many care, because it is indeed Juan Dixon. He’s the local Baltimore hoops star, the Terps legend and the “Real Housewives” husband fans loved to hate. They all were invested in his story.
From attending Lake Clifton and Calvert Hall, from having his parents swallowed by the scourge of heroin, from having his brother, a Baltimore City cop, assume the role of parent, caregiver and provider, from having an aunt, Sheila Dixon, who served as the city’s City Council president and mayor, from attending the University of Maryland to ultimately make it to the NBA, bits and pieces of his story touched Baltimoreans and Terrapin fans and alumni from every racial, cultural, educational and socioeconomic range on the spectrum.
Then, after six seasons at Coppin State, a historically Black college rooted in basketball tradition under the leadership for so many years of Fang Mitchell, Dixon struggled to lead the team beyond a 51-131 record.
“Juan being let go was not totally surprising, based on what they’ve done in terms of wins and losses in recent years,” said Jerry Bembry, the co-director of the ESPN documentary, On & Coppin, which chronicled Coppin’s magical 1997 NCAA Tournament win. “I was able to cover that program at its height, and they were able to do some tremendous things with not a lot of resources. Now, you look at that campus and see all of the new buildings, they have a gym that is one of the best facilities in the state of Maryland for a small college, and you wonder why he couldn’t get it done.”
According to USA Today, Coppin State generated the lowest amount of revenue in all of Division I in 2021, with $2.71 million. Their last winning season was in 2010-2011, when Mitchell led them to an overall record of 16-14.
And even tougher than this year’s 9-23 overall record and first-round loss to Norfolk State in the MEAC Tournament was the shocking lawsuit of a former player alleging that Coppin assistant coach Lucian Brownlee sexually assaulted and blackmailed him, in addition to tricking him into sending nude photos of himself.
Dixon, who did not return calls seeking comment for this story, was named in the lawsuit for having knowledge of and failing to report the incident appropriately.
Dixon declined to comment about the lawsuit to The Baltimore Banner in November, as he prepared to take his team to play at his alma mater, beyond saying, “it’s not a distraction for me at all and I have my reasons why. Hopefully you can read between the lines. Just know this. I love all our student-athletes.”
Even without the lawsuit, Dixon was on the proverbial hot seat this year because his teams have been terrible. The hope was that Dixon would resurrect the glory days when Coppin routinely fielded excellent teams and pulled off one of the biggest wins in the history of the NCAA Tournament, upsetting No. 2 seed South Carolina in 1997.
“I think I share the same sentiments of a lot of my former teammates when I say that we got away from how that program was built over the last few years,” said Kyle Locke, who played at Coppin State from 1992 to 1996. “It was disheartening to watch the program spiral down because we all want to see it thriving again. I’m hoping we’ll be able to get a good coach with a strong connection to and affinity for the school.”
Many feel that Dixon was more concerned with his profile as a former college basketball great and current reality show character than being fully invested in what the Coppin job required. And as someone who abhors reality television and anything that starts with “The Real Housewives of,” just hearing that he was a participant in that voyeuristic nonsense left a sour taste. It impacted his brand, with news of his flaws and infidelities on display for others to mock, snicker at and gossip about.
Earlier in his career, Dixon got attention for all the right reasons. His story was so compelling. If you weren’t following along and experiencing Dixon’s personal journey in real time, and someone simply told you his life story, one could easily assume that it was a work of fiction fully suited for the Hollywood treatment.
Muggsy Bogues might be the city’s most incredible underdog story as the shortest man in the history of the NBA, but he didn’t take the state’s flagship college program to two Final Fours and a national championship like Dixon did, endearing him to the entire state and university graduates spread around the country.
Dixon is one of the most remarkable against-long-odds stories in the pantheon of sports, one of the city’s and state’s favorite sons.
If Rocky Balboa, a fictional character, has his own statue and if Rudy can get a major motion picture made about him, despite the fact that he only played one damn snap at Notre Dame, can you imagine what Dixon’s story warrants?
To review, he was a gritty, undersized player at Calvert Hall with the heart of a lion whose parents passed away from AIDS-related illnesses when he was 17 years old.
“The situation he grew up in, it would be hard for anyone to go through, seeing the things he saw and what happened to both of his parents,” said Dixon’s high school coach at Calvert Hall, Mark Amatucci. “He was a tough kid because he’d been through it. The day his dad died, after we consoled each other, I asked him if he wanted to take the night off because we had a game scheduled that evening. He said, ‘No. I’m playing.’”
That night, Gary Williams’ top assistant coach at the University of Maryland, Billy Hahn, was in the stands to watch a player on the opposing team. Dixon proceeded to leave a lasting impression.
“Juan just dominated that game,” said Amatucci. “He was at the top of his offensive and defensive game, and he played his heart out. Basketball has always been his outlet to get away from all those issues he grew up with.”
Gary Williams offered him a scholarship after attending a meaningless AAU game in Georgia, when he saw the scrawny, sinewy shooting guard diving on the floor for loose balls with fervent intensity, despite his team losing by more than 20 points in the closing minutes.
Dixon walked onto the College Park campus weighing 135 pounds soaking wet and by the time his career was done, sauntered away as the program’s all-time leading scorer, a first team All-American who delivered the university its first-ever national championship.
His trajectory touched on many facets of Baltimore life and resonated far beyond the sports and basketball space.
And he wasn’t some 7-foot behemoth that could soar to the heavens like a bird of prey on a fast break, so every little kid with a jump shot who loved basketball could envision themselves in him, could emulate him.
Simply put, he really was one of us, a young man truly worth rooting for. It’s why when he joined Coppin State in 2017, we had great hope for him and for what he could do for the program.
He took the Coppin job with the expectation that it would be a launching pad for him to ultimately land at the helm of a big-time Division I program a little further down the road.
“It’s going to be very difficult for him to get a major Division I head coaching job based on what happened on and off the court during his tenure at Coppin,” said Bembry.
“I think he’ll rebound, get up off the floor and get things straight,” said Amatucci. “When you try and test him, that’s when Juan is at his best.”
Now when you google his name, many headlines read like the one on cbssports.com, “ ‘Real Housewives of the Potomac’ star Juan Dixon out as Coppin State coach amid controversy, per report.”
Six years after his first D-I head coaching job, he leaves no closer to that dream of heading up a big-time program, and might be more known now as a reality star off the court.
Neither feels like a win for one of Baltimore and Maryland’s favorite sons.