Amherst Magazine

Sports: What It Takes

By Rebecca Binder ’02

“I like to think that we do things right,” says Dave Hixon ’75, head coach of men’s basketball. Looking around his office in Alumni Gymnasium, it’s distinctly clear that, for almost the past three decades, they have. Framed newspaper articles fill the wall above Hixon’s desk. Posters and banners from past NCAA Final Fours line doorways and windows. Trophies and plaques gather, it seems, in every spare inch.

Hixon, who this winter marks his 29th season as coach, is the guiding force behind what is one of Amherst’s flagship sports. Since the late 1970s, men’s basketball has registered a 520-219 record; since 1990, it has gone 340-114; since the year 2000, Amherst holds a truly outstanding 168-35 mark. Along the way, the Jeffs have carved out what feels like a permanent niche on the national scene. The team has made it to the NCAA championship tournament eight times since 1997, including trips to the Final Four in both 2004 and 2006. It has taken the NESCAC crown four times since 2001 and has won the Little Three Championship seven times in the past 10 years.

And while the numbers are impressive, they are not necessarily what Hixon means when he talks about doing things right. “We try to get the team to compete hard,” he says, “to have good sportsmanship, complete every play every night, respect each other, have camaraderie. We emphasize the right things.”

In October, the New England Basketball Hall of Fame agreed. It inducted the Amherst men’s program (and the women’s program at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.) into its ranks as intercollegiate programs of excellence. The inaugural awards recognize not only winning records but also sportsmanship on the court and scholastic and postgrad­uate success. Daniel E. Doyle Jr., executive director of the Institute for International Sport, which administers the hall, calls the award the most important the organization has ever given, precisely because it recognizes the whole person, not just the athlete.

“When you start out as a young coach,” says Hixon, in his characteristic New England accent, “you have certain goals in mind. This award captures those goals. But it’s an award that honors what we’ve done as a program over time. It’s not just about the past four years or so. It runs so much deeper than that, and it’s so much more satisfying.”

Over the years the program has produced a bevy of outstanding student- athletes and alumni. Almost 100 percent of players graduate. Alumni include bestselling author Harlan Coben ’84, hugely successful businessman David Wasserman ’89, actor Ken Howard ’66, renowned doctors and lawyers and, yes, even professional athletes. Jean Fugett ’72, for example, played tight end in the National Football League before making a name for himself in law and business. Men’s basketball has also proven an old adage that frustrates more programs than it soothes: that a great team is more—much more—than a group of great players. Each November, the team finds that hidden, almost magical gray area between individual talent and group success, and opens it up to the nation.

“You get to know every guy on the team very well,” says Brian Daoust ’01. John Casnocha ’06 describes his teammates as brothers, and says “the coaches are your allies.” Neil Somers ’03 walked on his first year, got cut and returned to the injury-depleted team his senior year. Yet the team always treated him like family. “I felt like I had been there all four years,” he says. “Even when I wasn’t playing, Coach Hixon checked up on me. He always asked me how classes were going, things like that.”

Hixon, like any good coach, gives much of the credit to his players, reserving special praise for the seniors who take on leadership roles. “It’s the leadership saying the right things,” the coach says. “I never would have guessed that right after he was elected a captain, Tim McLaughlin [’07] would have spoken to the team for 20 minutes about what we needed to do. He’s normally a quiet guy.”

Respect is a hallmark that gets passed down. “We get a lot of good athletes,” says Chris Smith ’00, “but a team is dependent on individuals making sacrifices. Steve Zieja [’03], for example, came in as a first-year when I was a senior, and he was arguably better than me. But I had earned my spot, and Steve understood that.” Zieja, by the way, became the team’s all-time leading scorer, with 1,708 career points. “All the kids come in as high school stars, and now they’re one of many,” says Zieja, who stayed on as an assistant coach after his graduation. “They have to be able to adjust.”

Smith remembers the day he learned that lesson. “Once, after a game,” he says, “I got into an argument with Coach Hixon in the locker room. I argued that I should be playing more; he told me that players need to learn how to play hard, but play hard within the team’s model. When I settled down and started thinking about that, I learned a lot about how to conduct myself.”

Of course, mutual respect is not a matter of sheer luck: the team carefully recruits players who are talented and, more importantly, hardworking and humble. “Most of these guys could play at another school and start early on,” says John Bedford ’06, the third all-time scorer and member of the winningest class in team history, “but they respect the system and the guys above them. They know that if they take their time and learn the system, they’ll get their shot.”

Last year the Jeffs advanced to the Final Four for the second time in three years; they set a school record for wins; they torched Tufts University for the NESCAC title; and they claimed their second consecutive outright Little Three Championship. “Every year, we have the same goal,” quad-captain Dan Wheeler ’07 says: “To win the national championship. Being so close last year whet our appetite even more.” Quad-captain McLaughlin takes a point-blank stance: “We want to win the NESCAC, and then the national championship.”

When the Class of ’06 graduated, Amherst lost a lot of scoring in Bedford, Casnocha and Ray Corrigan. The Jeffs also have to sport a brand new backcourt this year. McLaughlin looks primed to handle the backcourt. Wheeler, who averaged 14.5 points per game last year, and Andrew Olson ’08, who averaged 9.4, should be huge this year. Quad-captain Dan O’Shea ’07 will round out the scoring from the big guys. He averaged 5.8 points per game last year. “A lot of minutes opened up this year,” Hixon says. “I don’t know who is going to fill them, but I’m excited. Watching these kids evolve and grow is the fun of it.”

After hosting the season-opening Ken Wright ’52 Invitational Nov. 17-18, the Jeffs faced a slate of regional opponents, punctuated by a New Year’s Eve tilt at Trinity University in Texas and a grueling mid-January five-game road trip against conference opponents, including Williams College on Jan. 6, 2007. Amherst will host Williams on Jan. 20 before looking forward to the NESCAC tournament in February and, if the chips fall the right way, to the Final Four in the spring.

Binder, who played softball at Amherst, is a recent graduate of the Boston University School of Law.

Photos: Erik Andrews '09