Jim O’Brien: Here’s how Pitt can improve Its men’s basketball program


Jim O’Brien: O’Brien
column for The Valley Mirror


The University of Pittsburgh men’s basketball team completed its home schedule and first season in the Atlantic Coast Conference at the Petersen Events Center playing North Carolina State this past Monday night.

Before they start the 2014-2015 season next November I would suggest that Pitt embark on a mission to clean up its act, clear up some obvious oversights and calm down its head coach.

I am a fan of Jamie Dixon, and believe he is the best coach Pitt could have at this time.  The Panthers have won 20 games overall and ten league games for the 12th time in the last 13 seasons, so Dixon has directed one of the most successful programs in the country.  They have done much better in the ACC than I anticipated or predicted they would in this column space.

I said they lack a star player, a go-to guy, and they lack the lineup that can go far in post-season play.  I still believe that.

But we can all get better.

I don’t expect Pitt to win a national championship.  I am happy if they are in the Top 25 in basketball and in football.

But I think Dixon is overdoing it these days, as far as coaching is concerned.  He is over-coaching.  He is not the only college basketball coach guilty of thinking he’s a puppeteer, pulling strings on his players every run up the floor.  Penn State’s Pat Chambers behaves even worse on the sideline, but he has beaten Ohio State twice this season so he is doing something right.

For starters, Dixon is on the floor, on the playing surface, a lot more often than his counterpart Mike Tomlin of the Steelers, who gained fame and was fined by the NFL office for being on the playing field this past season.  The referees should chase Dixon back to the bench.  John Wooden of UCLA was hailed as the greatest college basketball coach of all time, and he sat on the bench with a rolled-up program in his hand.

When I covered the NBA championship New York Knicks in 1970, their coach, Red Holzman, often said, “You coach in practice and you let them play in the games.”

Dixon calls time out at the worst times in the closing minutes, make that seconds of games, as if he is going to impart some wisdom that will win the day for Pitt.  It hasn’t worked that way.  More often than not, the Panthers turn over the ball when they get back on the court.  Dixon has been criticized recently for calling time outs at inappropriate times against Syracuse and Notre Dame.

He is constantly screaming at his players from the sideline.  He has five men in suits next to him on the sideline and I am not sure what they do.  You only need six men in suits if you’re carrying a casket in a church, synagogue or cemetery.  If I’m a coach, I want players sitting next to me on the bench so I can make observations – and teach them – during the game.

Players should know what to do in crunch time.

Pitt pays honors to Don Hennon at every opportunity these days.  He was on the greatest All-America team of all time as a junior back in

the late ‘50s.  Hennon, by coincidence, scored 34 points in his debut as a sophomore against North Carolina State.

That All-America team, by the way, included Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, Guy Rodgers and Bob Boozer.  Hennon was second-team All-America as a senior.  Dixon needs to recruit a kid like Hennon who can shoot and score from outside.  Pitt has no such player on its present line-up.

Some people are critical of the kind of players Dixon seems to recruit, but I figure he is getting the best players he can sell on coming to Pitt.  Most of the best players still want to play for Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas, Indiana, Arizona, Memphis, Michigan, Michigan State, Connecticut, Notre Dame, even Wichita State and San Diego State, for different reasons.

I was standing near the top of the Petersen Events Center late this season and I found myself checking out the retired game jerseys in the rafters.  Hennon is there, of course, along with Charles Smith, Billy Knight and Brandin Knight.

Isn’t it about time that Pitt corrects an oversight and honors Doc Carlson and Charley Hyatt in the same manner?

Carlson coached Hyatt and many other terrific Pitt players for 31 seasons and won 367 games.  His name and victory number should be on a banner the way they honor Holzman and St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca on the ceiling at Madison Square Garden.

Pitt has used the excuse that they didn’t know what number Hyatt wore because it didn’t show up in any old photos.  George Von Benko, a sports broadcaster in Uniontown, Hyatt’s hometown, says he discovered in his research that Hyatt wore No. 15.  Hyatt was a three-time All-America back in the late ‘20s.

Here’s the unreal part of this situation.  Carlson and Hyatt were honored in the charter class of the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.  How can they not be similarly honored at Pitt?

While we’re at it, I also think that Dick Groat should have his Duke number up in the rafters or somewhere on display in the building after serving as Pitt’s radio basketball analyst to Bill Hillgrove for more than 25 years.  Groat’s jersey was the first one that was retired at Duke, and he’s in the College Basketball Hall of Fame.  I think that broadcast team, along with some of Pitt’s greatest players, should be pictured on the walls throughout the Petersen Events Center.

I remember seeing large photos of Carlson and Hennon above the stairway leading into the Pitt Field House.  I think Arnie Sowell, the great middle distance runner from nearby Schenley High, was also pictured.

Pitt has a proud sports history.  I know there is a Hall of Fame in the building, but the casual visitor doesn’t see it.

Pitt needs to improve its non-conference schedule.  Sometimes you’d think they had joined the MEAC instead of the ACC because the Panthers have played so many MEAC schools in recent seasons.

The building is half filled when Pitt plays Savannah State, Cal Poly, Prairie View, Albany and Howard because no one cares to see those games.  The tickets cost the same as the games against ACC schools.

There are schools Pitt can count on beating to keep its “Our House” home record impressive but have more significance to sports fans here, such as Army and Navy, Bucknell, Fordham and Manhattan, and I think they should play Penn State and West Virginia – don’t tell me it’s not possible – and some former Big East foes.

The scene at Pitt basketball games is great.  It’s so much fun.  The Pitt pep band, the cheerleaders, dance team, Golden Girls and The Oakland Zoo all contribute to a circus-like atmosphere.  Showing fans dancing and singing and such on the big screen is great theatre.

Pitt added some really entertaining half-time shows this past season and it added to the amusement factor.

But I think the way the Oakland Zoo welcomes visiting teams to the building makes the call-for-sportsmanship announcements a farce.  When each visiting player is announced over the p.a. system the Pitt students respond by shouting, “Sucks!”  When the visiting coach is announced, the students shout, “He sucks, too.”

Then they toss the student newspaper sheet they had been hiding their faces behind up into the air and the game is ready to start.  Then they jump up and down and to their best to distract the opposition and support the home team.

I think Pitt officials should put a stop to that.  If I were a visiting coach I would tell Pitt officials you don’t want your team announced.  Just start the game.  Why subject your kids to such verbal abuse.  Sucks what?  What are they really saying?

No visiting coach has ever asked that his team not be announced, according to associate athletic director E.J. Borghetti, who handles public relations, and he told me that the administration is reviewing the situation about the students shouting “Sucks” during pre-game introductions.

Pitt officials should also quit moving the seats of season ticket holders each year depending on their giving level.  The original agreement struck by athletic director Steve Peterson in his first stint at the school was that if you maintained the required giving level you would maintain the same seats ad infinitum.  Jeff Long, the next a.d., said there was a misunderstanding about that.  No, there wasn’t andy misunderstanding.  He and his staff simply changed the rules.  They broke a contract with their patrons. Peterson should rectify that and restore the original agreement.  Pittsburghers don’t like to move.  They like permanency.

I miss seeing the Pitt basketball players line up across the floor, arms over arms, swaying to the playing of the National Anthem.  The ACC, I have learned, dictates that the players should be lined up on the sideline during the playing of the National Anthem.  Pitt should appeal that with ACC officials and find a way to restore that formation on the floor.  So get the players on the floor and the coach off the floor; that’s the final message for Pitt today.

March Madness is here and it’s the best time of the year for basketball fans.

Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien has a book called “Chuck Noll – A Winning Way,” that is available on Amazon.com or through Jim’s website at www.jimobriensportsauthor.com

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