One of the most beloved men’s basketball players in Maryland history will return to College Park Friday afternoon for a game against the Terps.
Juan Dixon will be taking Coppin State to Xfinity Center for only the second meeting between the two programs, well aware of what happened in the first game 33 years ago. In Hall of Famer Gary Williams’ first season coaching at his alma mater, the Eagles beat the Terps 70-63 to help launch fourth-year coach Fang Mitchell and his barely heard-of program from Baltimore into the national college hoops consciousness.
Dixon was 11 years old at the time.
“[Former Maryland assistant] Bino Ranson and my brother [Phil Dixon Jr.] were best friends as kids, and they watched a lot of Maryland basketball on local television,” Dixon recalled last week. “I always enjoyed watching Walt Williams. I thought he was magical being, so big and so skilled. Larry Stewart was on that ‘89 [Coppin State] team, Phil Booth. They had a very good team. I remember Coppin winning that game was a big deal for Coach Fang’s program.”
Now in his sixth season coaching Coppin State, Dixon has been looking forward to the game since it was scheduled earlier this year, shortly after Maryland hired Kevin Willard to replace Mark Turgeon as head coach. Dixon worked as Turgeon’s special assistant (2013-16) before starting his own head coaching career with the women’s team at the University of the District of Columbia. He left UDC after one season when he was hired at Coppin State.
“Yeah, I always envisioned myself walking on those sidelines [as a head coach], whether it was coaching at Maryland or having my own program elsewhere,” Dixon said. “I’m very fortunate to be here at Coppin State, and head back to Maryland on Nov. 25. Maryland ain’t played Coppin since ’89. It has been a long time in the making. We’re looking forward to it. I’m excited about it.”
What Dixon has done in recent years hasn’t been nearly as memorable as what he did in leading the Terps to back-to-back Final Fours and its lone national championship in 2002. After being a first-round draft choice that year, he began and ended a seven-year NBA career (with several stops in-between) in Washington, mostly as a backup. He then had a short-lived stint in Europe that fizzled, after Dixon was found to have used a banned substance to get over an injury.
Coppin is off to a 3-4 start to the season, but Dixon was recently named in a civil lawsuit filed in Baltimore District Court by one of his former players.
Ibn Williams, who played at Coppin State for two seasons before transferring to Morehouse College in 2021, filed the suit after he alleged being sexually harassed, blackmailed and ultimately assaulted by a former teammate, Lucien Brownlee, who later worked on Dixon’s coaching staff. Along with Brownlee and Dixon, Coppin State Athletic Director Derek Taylor, the university itself, and the state of Maryland were also named in the suit.
As a result of the lawsuit, which was first reported by Baltimore Brew, the storyline for Friday’s game is not quite the happy homecoming and reunion that Dixon and Coppin State might have hoped for when the game was scheduled.
Dixon and Carter declined to comment to The Baltimore Banner about the lawsuit, but Dixon added that “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.”
Dixon, who is the nephew of former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, has never left the public spotlight.
In 2016, The Baltimore Sun published a story about Dixon discovering that Bruce Flanigan, a retired Maryland State trooper, was his biological father. He grew up believing he was the son of Phil Dixon Sr.
Dixon Sr. and Juan’s mother, Juanita, were heroin addicts. They died of AIDS while Juan was in high school at Calvert Hall.
Dixon also appears on a reality television show, “The Real Housewives of Potomac,” that features Robyn Dixon, his former wife who he is again engaged to marry.
Dixon does appear to be growing as a coach, too: The Eagles are off to their best start since he took over. After losing their first two games, including in overtime at Georgetown, the Eagles are 3-4.
The matchup between Coppin and Maryland comes months after Dixon’s name was mentioned, mostly by fans on message boards, as a possible successor to Turgeon. While many longtime fans had hoped Dixon would be given more serious consideration at his alma mater, athletic director Damon Evans said that he was looking for a coach with a history of sustained success.
As with many coaches in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, Dixon’s overall record of 45-110 is largely the byproduct of playing a high percentage of early season “guarantee” road games. Schools such as Coppin State receive substantial paydays for playing against those teams, and that money helps fund the university’s other sports teams.
Dixon, who said he interviewed with Maryland, understands why he wasn’t hired for what remains his “dream job” and why the 47-year-old Willard, who had turned around the program at Seton Hall in his 12 years, was. The Terps, now ranked No. 23 by the Associated Press, will go into Friday’s game with a 5-0 record after decisively beating Saint Louis (95-67) and Miami (88-70) at the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic in Connecticut last weekend. No coach in Maryland history had ever started his career 4-0.
“My win-loss [record] didn’t pop off the page, but what we’ve done over the years at Coppin State, we’ve gotten better,” Dixon said.
Dixon, who remains Maryland’s all-time men’s leading scorer (2,269 points) as well as first in 3-pointers made (239) — tied for first with Jake Layman for games played (141) and second in steals (333, 11 behind Johnny Rhodes) — thinks that his hiring in College Park might have re-energized the fan base from the start, rather than waiting to see what Willard could do.
“I thought that Maryland job to me was great timing,” Dixon said. “It was an opportunity for fans to support someone who knows the ins and outs of the institution and the program. And I was confident in myself to be able to lead that program back to where it belongs, and that’s a Top 10 program year-in and year-out and compete for national championships. But Coach Willard is going to do a great job. I’m confident. I wish Coach Willard all the best.”
Asked if not getting the job gives him extra motivation for Friday’s game, Dixon said, “It’s not about me showing what I can do. It’s about us showing a brand of basketball that the fans would have loved. It’s that simple. An exciting brand of basketball. Are my guys going to Maryland and shoot lights out? I don’t know, but we’re going to play up-tempo, we’re going to space the floor and give guys freedom to showcase their talent. Defensively, we are going to be hard-nosed, we are going to be tough, we are going to run through a brick wall for the coaching staff.
“It’s always been about the University of Maryland and the opportunity to go back home. I’d be a fool to lie. Do I think I could have done something special there with the staff that I would have assembled? Absolutely. With the support I would have got from alumni, donors? Yes! [They would have said] ‘We love what he means to this institution and this program and we’re going to support it because of Juan Dixon.’ It’s so much bigger than that. It’s about getting a storied program back to where it rightfully deserves. It’s so much bigger than Willard and the team now. It’s about what could have been.”
It has been a long road back to respectability for Dixon as a coach at Coppin State, one that is still far from completed.
After losing his first 17 games at Coppin State in a 5-27 debut season, Dixon’s team lost its first 15 games the following year to finish 8-27. All but four of the games in those prolonged losing streaks were played on the road, and more than half were against teams from Power 5 or Power 6 conferences.
Since then, Dixon has watched his team’s gradual improvement.
After posting a winning conference record (8-4) in a 2020-21 season interrupted and shortened by issues with the Eagles and other teams following COVID-19 protocol, Coppin State overcame another horrific overall start last season (1-14, and a slew of injuries didn’t help) to reach the MEAC tournament final before losing to Norfolk State.
Known as an intensely competitive player who wouldn’t back down to anyone — including Gary Williams at times — Dixon said that he understands how difficult it is to win at an HBCU. Even Mitchell, the winningest and most celebrated coach in Coppin State history, struggled for long stretches during the second half of his 28-year tenure.
“It’s part of the job,” Dixon said. “I understand my role as a head coach of the men’s basketball team. We have a job to do when it comes to bringing in revenue, funds for the athletic department. I know that I’m a good coach. We get better every year. That was the goal when I got the job six years ago. I think we’ve done that.
“We wouldn’t have a chance in hell landing young men like Sam Sessoms if our program didn’t get better every year. We got Anthony Tarke in Year four. Our young men play hard, our young men get better, and we play a brand of basketball that young student athletes enjoy. We feel as though this is our most complete basketball team, but we’ve had really good teams in the past.”
Carter, who has been athletic director at Coppin since 2016, said that he has worked to make the early season non-conference schedule this year “geographically friendlier” in terms of travel, and not as potentially one-sided with the number of Power 5 and Power 6 teams the Eagles play on the road. While 14 of the first 17 games are still away from home, all are on the East Coast and eight are within state lines or in D.C. Only four are against Power 5 teams.
“The sample size is small,” Carter said the day after the Eagles beat Navy in Baltimore last week. “But you see something this year that you didn’t see in previous years. It’s a combination of Juan really maturing as a coach and really finding a formula of understanding how to deal with personalities. I believe he understands how to work with his coaching staff. Being on the sidelines was a new thing for him when he arrived at Coppin. He really hadn’t done it [at this level]. We had to put a learning curve in place and have to be patient in knowing that it was going to take some time for him.
“You can know the game of basketball, but that doesn’t make you a great coach yet. He’s maturing into becoming a much better coach. That’s with personalities, dealing with sideline adjustments, managing relationships with the officials. All those components are what makes a coach. Understanding to recruit to fit your style. I think early he was fitting square pegs into round holes, and I think he’s found players to fit his style of play. And it doesn’t hurt to recruit a pretty good player through the transfer portal, Sam Sessoms.”
Sessoms, a senior guard from Philadelphia who split his first four seasons between Binghamton and Penn State, is taking advantage of a fifth year of eligibility that players were given by the NCAA because of the two seasons affected by the pandemic. Sessoms is averaging 22.0 points, 5.7 assists and 4.4 rebounds a game.
Having played against the Terps the past two years — scoring 17 points in a close loss last season at Xfinity Center — Sessoms is looking forward to the Black Friday game.
“It’s a big game,” Sessoms said last week. “Obviously we want to get the win for J.D. because we know we’re capable of winning it and him being one of the greatest players to go to Maryland. For the team, this is another opportunity to get a win against a Power 5 team and we feel we’re capable of getting the win. We have a high-level coaching staff and high-level players and we think we can get the job done.”
Sessoms transferred to Coppin State because he had a connection to senior swingman Justin Stears from back home. Having heard the name of his new coach, Sessom also watched some YouTube clips from Dixon’s years at Maryland that, in the eyes of Gary Williams, helped him become the school’s “most accomplished player — and it’s not even close.”
“He was an amazing player,” Sessoms said with a slight chuckle. “Amazing.”
Sessoms said that Dixon is “the most player [-friendly] coach I’ve had, you can talk to him about anything. He’s kind of chill and relaxed. He’s got his moments when he’s energetic, but that’s because he wants to win. Him being in our shoes before, obviously being great as a college player, he knows what we’re capable of, so he gets excited because of that. Besides that, he instills confidence in all the players. He’s like a coach-big-brother type.”
Carter has watched Dixon’s evolution from the 2002 Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, first from a distance and now up close — and said he is impressed.
“He was a special player with a lot of grit,” Carter said. “He overcame a lot to reach the heights he reached. That same grit is what we saw in him as someone who could lead our program. It was critical to be patient and it still is critical to allow the learning curve to work. He has been willing to listen and take criticism at times. He wants to be successful at Coppin State because he knows Coppin State gave him an opportunity to live his dream.”
Dixon knows the emotions will come back when he gets on the bus headed for College Park. Gary Williams will be among the familiar faces watching from the stands at Xfinity Center, knowing a bit of what Dixon is feeling. Toward the end of his 22-year career at Maryland, Williams took the Terps to Boston College, where he had once been head coach, looking for his 500th career victory — which he would earn on the trip.
“I think when it starts, you get into whatever you are as a coach,” Williams said. “Before the game, after the game, [there are] a lot of thoughts about what you did previously at that place or where you’re playing. [At Boston College], that was probably 900 games into my career. You can get into the actual thing you do, coaching, without the emotion you feel about that situation.”
In some ways, Dixon is still the scrawny kid from Calvert Hall who once scored 47 points against a No. 1 ranked opponent, still the overlooked freshman at Maryland who went head-to-head in practice with star guard Steve Francis trying to prove he belonged as he redshirted for a year. The chips on both of his bony shoulders remain intact.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to be in my sixth year at Coppin State,” Dixon said. “I’m living out my true purpose in life and I’m passionate about it. Every game that we play we can win. That’s just my mindset. No one gave me a chance in hell to have the success I did at the University of Maryland. But I believed in myself and I was able to win over Coach Williams’ confidence. And the rest is history. If I believed in myself as a 145-pound kid, I am sure as hell going to believe in myself as a grown man leading this program and be confident.”
Don Markus covered college sports at The Baltimore Sun, where he was on staff for 35 years. He is the author of “100 Things Maryland Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die” and was a producer for the podcast series “Len Bias: A Mixed Legacy.”