Jamie Dixon and Mark Few have a friendship that goes back more than 30 years. Now, they could meet with everything at stake Saturday.
Steve Alford and Tommy Amaker were once bitter rivals on the basketball court. Now, they seek advice from each other on a regular basis. Sean Miller was once a standout Big East point guard at Pittsburgh. Now, he’s regarded as one of the best recruiters in the country.
Rick Byrd is the least talked about of the bunch. But he’s the longest tenured and most modest and has made a career in a place most known for its love for country music.
When the West Region of the NCAA Tournament tips off at EnergySolutions Arena on Thursday, a cluster of some of the most well-known and successful coaches that college basketball has to offer will accompany it. Over two days and six games, they will try to outsmart and out-scheme each other. These are some of the biggest stars of the profession, the coaches whom players flock to and grow up wanting to play for.
“Maybe I should be asking for autographs,” Byrd quipped.
In this region, you have Few leading Gonzaga, the top seed in the West and a program that’s morphed from mid-major to giant in the last decade. You have Dixon leading Pitt, a Big East school headed to the Atlantic Coach Conference. Alford sputtered at Iowa once upon a time, but the Bobby Knight disciple has flourished at New Mexico and has the Lobos sitting as a Final Four dark horse. Amaker played and coached at Duke before moving on to Seton Hall and Michigan. He’s also had his difficulties, but he’s turned the Crimson into an Ivy League power. Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall has made the Shockers stubbornly competitive in the Missouri Valley Conference.
These men have more than 1,800 coaching victories combined. They have more than 150 years worth of experience among them, and most of them have become pillars of their respective institutions. The one thing these eight men don’t have is the one thing every coach craves to be a part of his résumé.
A Final Four appearance.
Dixon and Miller have come close, leading the Panthers and the Arizona Wildcats to the final eight. Few has had the most consistent success, turning tiny Gonzaga into a household name nationally.
“When you get to this level, you are going to see things like this,” Dixon said. “You are going to get pods that have great coaches. I think with this one, you will see good basketball. You will see teams that are prepared and teams that run good sets on both sides of the ball. It’s fun at this level.”
Dixon and Few are such good friends that Gonzaga became a place for Pitt to practice last season while the Panthers played in the CBI postseason tournament. Few sat in on those workouts and even spoke to the team. Dixon will also be the subject of coaching rumors, as reports surfaced that he was offered USC’s vacant job opening. It may be enticing, because Dixon is from the West Coast.
Alford and Amaker remember speaking to each other about coaching as far back as 1987, when they were perhaps the two premier point guards in the nation for Indiana and Duke. Their relationship has grown through the years.
The two men will meet on Thursday. Few and Dixon could match clipboards on Saturday in the third round.
“We never thought we would get this deep in the coaching profession,” Amaker said. “But it’s going to be fun. Steve has that program among the elite in the country. They are physical, they play great defense — they are truly a team that has to be reckoned with.”
And then there’s Byrd. Witty with a deep Southern drawl, he has turned little Belmont from Nashville, Tenn., into a national media darling. His Bruins play basketball at a breakneck pace. They shoot 3-pointers, they pressure on defense and they will run with anyone.
Byrd has been at Belmont since 1986. He became a head coach at 33, and was one of the youngest in the country at that time. Now, he’s an elder with the same spirit that he started with 30 years ago.
“If nothing else, our game with Arizona’s going to be entertaining,” Byrd said. “These are two teams that don’t mind getting up and down the floor.”
Byrd has guided Belmont from NAIA status to an Independent Division I team to a beast in the Atlantic Sun, and finally to the champions of the Ohio Valley Conference. For him and the seven others in the Salt Lake City pod, coaching has been a journey.
All eight would like its 2013 version to last through at least two more wins.
NCAA coaching files
Eight coaches who are bringing their teams to Salt Lake City for second- and third-round games:
Mark Few, Gonzaga • Graduated from Oregon. Coached under Don Monson and has coached only at Gonzaga.
Jamie Dixon, Pittsburgh • Coached under UCLA coach Ben Howland at Pitt. Has led the Panthers to the Elite Eight.
Gregg Marshall, Wichita State • Took Winthrop to seven NCAA tournaments. Is making his second Big Dance appearance at Wichita State.
Roman Banks, Southern • Is in his second season at Southern.
Steve Alford, New Mexico • Won an NCAA title as a player at Indiana. Is looking for his first Final Four appearance as a head coach.
Sean Miller, Arizona • Once appeared on the Johnny Carson show as a 10-year-old dribbling wizard. Played his college ball at Pitt.
Tommy Amaker, Harvard • Played for Duke. Has coached at Seton Hall and Michigan.
Rick Byrd, Belmont • Has been with the Bruins for almost 30 seasons.
Wednesday — All practices open to the public
Noon-12:40 p.m. •
12:45-1:25 p.m. • Southern
1:30-2:10 p.m. • Pittsburgh
2:15-2:55 p.m. • Gonzaga
4:25-5:05 p.m. • Arizona
5:10-5:50 p.m. • New Mexico
5:55-6:35 p.m. • Belmont
6:40-7:20 p.m. • Harvard
At EnergySolutions Arena
Thursday’s second-round games
• (8) Pittsburgh vs. (9) Wichita State, 11:40 a.m., TBS
• (1) Gonzaga vs. (16) Southern,2:10 p.m., TBS
• (6) Arizona vs. (11) Belmont,5:20 p.m., TNT
• (3) New Mexico vs. (14) Harvard, 7:50 p.m., TNT
Saturday’s third-round games
• Gonzaga-Southern winner vs. Pittsburgh-Wichita State winner, TBD
• New Mexico-Harvard winner vs. Arizona-Belmont winner, TBD