Senior Writer

Flourishing Five No. 5: Pitt committed to hoops excellence


(First in a series. Some schools have great football teams. Some have great basketball teams. But a select few have the best of both worlds. ranks and profiles the schools who’ve positioned themselves for success now and into the future in both sports. Today, No. 5 Pittsburgh. Mon., July 26, No. 4 revealed.)

It's 430,000 total square feet and big enough to hold more than 12,000 fans for games. It's got a beautiful glass front off of which campus buildings reflect. There are nearly 20 luxury suites, including five courtside. The whole thing cost $119 million to build, and it's the reason Pittsburgh basketball has gone from an afterthought to a Big East power in less than a decade.

The Petersen Events Center opened in 2002 and Jamie Dixon arrived a year later. (Getty Images)  
The Petersen Events Center opened in 2002 and Jamie Dixon arrived a year later. (Getty Images)  
Yes, Ben Howland deserves an immense amount of credit.

Jamie Dixon, too.

But the Petersen Events Center is the foundation of Pitt's program.

"That facility was huge," Howland said when asked for the key to the success that helped land Pittsburgh on the list of the nation's best combined football/basketball schools. "Louisville's new facility is going to be nice, but Pitt has had the nicest facility in the Big East. There aren't many facilities like that anywhere."

I started this column with the Petersen Events Center because it's too simple to attribute Pitt's success to a couple of perfect hires in Howland and Dixon. No question, those hires matter a great deal, and none of this would be possible without them. But perfect hires aren't enough to sustain excellence in this sport because those perfect hires will move to bigger and better things when bigger and better things present themselves unless a school is committed -- with millions and millions of dollars -- to having a first-class program.


Flourishing Five: No. 5 Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh football
Dennis Dodd Dennis Dodd
No flash, just old-time style and grit. That's Dave Wannstedt's team. With stars like Dion Lewis and Greg Romeus, they're doing their part to make Pitt one of the best football/basketball schools. Read >>
Pittsburgh basketball
Season Overall Tourney
2005-06 25-8 1-1
2006-07 29-8 2-1
2007-08 27-10 1-1
2008-09 28-4 3-1
2009-10 25-9 1-1
Totals 134-39 8-5
-- 2008 Big East tournament champions
-- Held No. 1 ranking for first time in school history during 2008-09 season
-- Advanced to Elite Eight in 2008-09
-- Jamie Dixon named Naismith Coach of the Year in 2009; Jim Phelan Coach of the Year in 2010
Draft picks
Player Pick (Year) Team
Aaron Gray 49 (2007) Chicago
Sam Young 36 (2009) Memphis
DeJuan Blair 37 (2009) San Antonio
Recruiting Horizons remain bright for Pitt
Related links
Pittsburgh Panthers official athletic site
Petersen Events Center
Series rundown
No. 4 Wisconsin: Football | Basketball
No. 3 Ohio State: Football | Basketball
No. 2 Texas: Football | Basketball
No. 1 Florida: Football | Basketball
Blog: Honorable mention | Who's the worst?
He left for UCLA in 2003 because he's a West Coast guy who had never coached further east than Northern Arizona when he took the Pitt job in 1999, point being there was nothing Pitt was ever going to be able to do to keep Howland when the premier program in California's premier city called. It's the equivalent of North Carolina pursuing Roy Williams or Kentucky reaching for John Calipari. Kansas and Memphis are nice, great even. But when North Carolina and Kentucky want somebody, North Carolina and Kentucky are usually going to get that somebody, plain and simple. Same goes for UCLA, which is why Howland leaving Pitt for Pauley Pavilion was unavoidable. The Panthers' program would be defined by what happened next, and aided by the arena Howland recruited to for years but actually only coached inside for one season, i.e., his final season that produced a 28-5 record and second straight Big East title.

Let me explain: Hiring Dixon, a 37-year-old assistant at the time, to succeed Howland was equal parts brilliance and luck. But attributing Pitt's place in the college basketball world to that hire would be to miss the larger point -- that point being that Pitt would've already lost Dixon to Arizona, Arizona State, Southern California or Oregon without the Petersen Events Center and a strong financial commitment that has the Panthers spending in the top half of the Big East.

"I heard the rumors that he was going to Arizona State, Arizona, everywhere," said Pitt forward Gary McGhee. "He's a West Coast guy so sometimes we got scared that he was going to leave. But I think he just loves Pittsburgh, loves that he's helped build this into one of the top programs in the country."

That's partly true.

I've talked to Dixon enough to know that he does indeed love Pittsburgh. But I also know that Dana Altman loved Creighton and that Mark Turgeon loved Wichita State, point being that loving something you built or helped build isn't enough to keep coaches from moving. More often than not, guys leave jobs they love for different jobs when the opportunity presented is undeniably better than the job possessed, which brings me back to Dixon and Pitt. I have no idea if Dixon could've accomplished what he's accomplished -- seven NCAA tournament appearances in his first seven years as a head coach -- without the Petersen Events Center and the role it serves as a recruiting tool and true homecourt advantage. But I can assure you Dixon wouldn't still be the coach at Pittsburgh if not for the Petersen Events Center and the role it serves as a recruiting tool and true homecourt advantage.

And that's the point I'm trying to make.

Great programs can become great programs because of a great coach, but the glory will be short-lived without a strong foundation in place. Eventually the great coach will leave. And though it's possible to replace one great coach with another great coach, that other great coach will also eventually leave unless he has reasons to remain. Take Mark Few, for instance. He's remained at Gonzaga all these years because he loves the area and the way of life it provides. But none of that would matter much if the administration didn't invest in a way that allowed Few to run a Top 25 program. Without the McCarthey Athletic Center and an endless supply of chartered flights, Few would now be the coach at Indiana or Oregon or somewhere other than Gonzaga. He's stayed put because Gonzaga decided to commit -- with millions and millions of dollars -- to having the type of program that lets Few compete at the highest level.

Pitt has done the same thing.

"I don't want to downplay loyalty because loyalty is a great thing, and I don't think there's any better thing to be called than loyal. But I'm not staying at Pitt out of loyalty," Dixon once told me. "I'm staying at Pitt because we have everything, and because the administration is second to none. I'm staying because of the fans and the players we have. I've got everything I need."

And it all starts with that shiny building on campus.

"Absolutely," Howland said. "We went from one of the oldest and poorest facilities of any BCS program to one of the top five in the country. That made a huge difference."

Gary Parrish is a senior college basketball columnist for and frequent contributor to the CBS Sports Network. The Mississippi native also hosts the highest-rated sports talk radio show -- The Gary Parrish Show -- in the history of Memphis. He lives in that area with his wife, two children and a dog.

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