College basketball: North grad Dixon still moving up in the coaching ranks

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 17, 2023

By Mike London

RALEIGH — Larry Dixon was in a mall in August when his cell phone buzzed.

The incoming call was from N.C. State head basketball coach Kevin Keatts.

“Sounds like you’re at an amusement park,” Keatts said. “What in the world are you doing?”

“I’m in a mall, shopping for back-to-school clothes with my daughter, who’s a sophomore at North Carolina A&T,” Dixon explained. “I’m hemorrhaging money. I need a job.”

“Well, spend it all on her,” Keatts told him with a laugh. “I’m going to hire you.”

College coaches, especially assistant coaches learn to land on their feet.

Dixon has landed on his feet one more time.

Back in March, South Florida dumped head coach Brian Gregory. Gregory had led a jump from 10 wins in 2017-18 to 24 wins in 2018-19, but a 14-18 record in 2022-23 was the fourth straight losing season. Gregory was out, so his staff was out, as well. Dixon had been with Gregory for five years.

South Florida rarely has won big in basketball. There have been three NCAA tournaments and just one league championship in 50 years. South Florida is no easy job, but Dixon poured heart and soul into making the Bulls better.

“We actually had the most wins in a five-year stretch that they’ve had in the last 30 years,” Dixon said. “And our players were graduating. It was tough because I was very comfortable working with Coach Gregory and I loved living in Tampa. But it’s turned out to be a blessing. Being let go led to me being back home in North Carolina with the Wolfpack.”

He’ll be living out of a suitcase for a while, and eating out every night, but the furniture for his apartment is on the way. He’ll be settled in soon in Raleigh.

A North Rowan graduate, Dixon played college ball at Johnson C. Smith, and the degree he earned there has served him well. He’s always been able to make a good living as a basketball coach.

“My first coaching job was at South Rowan High School, and I’ll always be grateful to Dr. Alan King for giving me a chance,” Dixon said.

His first chance to be a varsity head coach came at Garinger in Charlotte, and he was in demand after turning things around there. He took a huge pay cut to leave Garinger for an assistant coaching job at St. Andrews College, but that gamble got his foot in the door of college coaching and led to bigger and better things.

“A lot of people said I was foolish, but I believed in myself,” Dixon said. “And now I’ve been able to do what I love for 27 years now.”

He brings a wealth of experience to the Wolfpack. Before he was at South Florida, he was at Georgia Southern for five seasons. He helped coach big winners at Winthrop, and he’s coached at East Carolina and South Carolina State.

“N.C. State already had a great coaching staff, so I’ve just got to go in there and not mess it up,” Dixon said. “I’ll do all the things that assistant coaches do, other than recruiting off-campus, but I can still help recruiting in a lot of ways. I’ve always recruited North Carolina, and I know the basketball coaches. I may be biased, but I believe North Carolina has the best high school players and coaches in the country.”

When you’re a young coach, you’re basically worried about wins. As you get older, your goals get broader. At 51, Dixon’s priority is doing everything that he can to see that every player in the program gets a degree. Basketball life is short, and a player has to be ready for the next thing. If Dixon has learned one thing over the years, that’s it.

“You’ve got to have that degree to lean on in life,’ Dixon said.

Dixon still has the goal of being a college head coach. He’s still optimistic his day will come.

“Some school will have to take a chance on me, but I’m well prepared for it,” Dixon said. “I’ve had head-coaching interviews, they were solid experiences, and they went well. I’ve worked with outstanding coaches, and bring a lot of knowledge and experience to the table. Now I’m getting a chance to continue to grow at N.C. State and to coach in the ACC for the first time, and that’s another important step. Becoming a head coach would be the icing on the cake for my career.”

Dixon said his parents, who still live in Rowan County, are the only people more excited than he is about being back in North Carolina.

“My dad lives right behind North Rowan,” he said. “My mom and step-dad live next to the hospital (in Salisbury).”

In addition to his daughter, Dixon has a son who works in Atlanta.

Dixon has seen a lot and done a lot, and he is confident he still has a lot of years left to give back to the game.

“Because of basketball and that degree, I’ve been living a good life as a college coach,” he said. “I’ve been to Hawaii, to the Cayman Islands, to Costa Rica. I’ve seen so many places that a kid who grew up in Salisbury, Spencer and East Spencer never expected to see.”