AN APPRECIATION

Maggie Dixon, coach, United States Military Academy

One in an occasional series.

By Al Mattei
Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

Maggie Dixon was at the epicenter of one of the best feel-good stories in all of sport, and not just college basketball, in March 2006.

Yes, there were great stories when it came to George Mason's improbable run to the men's Final Four, Maryland's stirring overtime wins on the women's side, and Northwestern State men's buzzer-beater in Round 1.

But in a season of true March Madness, which saw unlikely heroes in men's and women's basketball, perhaps the most heartfelt story ultimately became its most tragic when Maggie Dixon, head coach of Army's women's basketball team, died suddenly at the age of 28 -- less than a month after becoming the first service academy ever to qualify for the NCAA Division I women's basketball tournament.

The United States Military Academy, you must understand, is behind a physiological 8-ball when it comes to competition in women's athletics, much less basketball. After all, young men and women come to West Point as plebes, but leave as military officers -- not groomed for professional sports.

For women, the obstacles have been much greater since West Point graduated its first class of female cadets in 1980. Its women's athletic programs were destined to not even approach the glory years of the early to mid-20th Century, when football was a big-time event five times a year in the upper Hudson Valley.

These days, people who come to the United States Military Academy cannot be over a certain height or weight; you can't drive a tank or operate certain machinery if you have the physical dimensions of, say, Yao Ming.

But obstacles were nothing new to Dixon. Coming out of lightly regarded University of San Diego, she failed to make a WNBA team and promptly marched into the office of DePaul University head coach Doug Bruno. With no coaching experience, she was given the head of basketball operations and eventually progressed to assistant coach.

Dixon came to the West Point campus less than two weeks before the start of practice and, beyond all expectations, won the Patriot League's regular-season crown.At West Point, Maggie Dixon became part of the culture. She made impassioned addresses to the corps of cadets to get them to take time out of their rigorous studies to watch the women play.

It worked -- with a few dozen pizzas as an incentive -- as the Patriot League final against Holy Cross was played at Christl Arena, the Black Knights' home court. Army was down 10 points heading down to the penultimate TV timeout, but, buoyed by the home supporters, went on a 15-2 run to take the lead.

Two late free throws and a last-second Crusader miss sealed the game.

There they were, true Knights of the court, players and coaches being hoisted up on the shoulders of cadets male and female in a scene that looked like an olive and tan mosh pit.

On a segment broadcast on ESPNEWS the next day, you could see the absolute joy that she was feeling even the day after the win gave West Point the Patriot League's NCAA Automatic Qualifier berth.

It almost didn't matter that Army was drawn to play Tennessee in the first round. It was a 102-54 loss, to be sure -- but one which drew respect from the Lady Vols players.

"It was an honor, personally, to play against them," said Tennessee guard Shanna Zolman. "They're making a commitment to serve our country and maybe even to fight for our country. You have to have so much respect for what they're doing. I think it makes you understand and realize what's really important. It makes you understand that some things are a lot more important than basketball."

Like the tutelage of Maggie Dixon. During the Patriot League final, you could see the earnestness in her eyes and in the way she addressed the team during TV timeouts.

"Keep believing," she seemed to say to them.

General William Lennox, the superindendent of West Point, who wore camouflage face paint to the game, probably could not have agreed more.

"From the time Maggie arrived here, her enthusiastic 'no limits' approach earned her the respect and love of everyone," he said.

And think of this. In just six months, she earned Army a league championship. Two Army coaches on the men's side, Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski never earned the Black Knights a championship -- and both are in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

Fittingly, on April 14, 2006, Maggie Dixon received an honor that might be greater than any Hall of Fame -- burial at West Point near General William Custer and Heisman Trophy winner Glenn "Mr. Outside" Davis.

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