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Army Women’s Basketball Coach Dave Magarity
turns tragedy to triumph leading troops to 24-5 season

From sudden death of Coach Maggie Dixon last spring to now preparing for postseason, inspired squad has gone above and beyond the call of duty.

By John Ingoldsby
February 26, 2007

WEST POINT, NY—The best coaching job in America under adversity—this side of
Sean Payton—has arguably been turned in this season by Dave Magarity.

Both Magarity, the Army Women’s Basketball Coach, and New Orleans Saints Coach Payton were left to pick up the pieces of shattered programs in the spring of 2006. For Magarity, it was staying with an Army women’s basketball team reeling from the tragically sudden death of Coach Maggie Dixon in April. For Payton, it was taking over a team without a home in a city nearly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

Against all odds, both succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations and almost single- handedly elevated the teams they coach, the communities they represent, and all who admire success born out of despair.

In some ways, Magarity’s finishing the regular season Saturday with a 24-5 record has been even more remarkable. This is his first year ever as the head coach of a women’s basketball team. Last year was the first time the Philadelphia native ever coached women at all when he was Dixon’s assistant at the storied institution on the banks of the Hudson River.

Quite the radical departure for the New York area men’s coaching veteran, who had 313 wins during his 23 years as head coach at Marist College, Iona College, and St. Francis (PA) College, his alma mater.

How did he do in his first year leading the Lady Cadets? The inspired squad’s 24 wins is the most in Army’s Division 1 history, breaking the 25-year-old mark of 21 set in by the 1980-81 squad. This season also included a 12-game winning streak from November through January, the longest winning streak in the 30-year history of women’s basketball at the U.S. Military Academy.

The 24-5 slate included an 11-3 Patriot League record, second to Bucknell, whom they beat in the Senior Day finale on Saturday as Magarity started all four seniors, who rewarded him by jumping to a 6-0 lead. This earns Magarity’s troops the number two seed behind the Bisons for the Patriot League Postseason Tournament, beginning Saturday, March 3, with a game against seven seed Lehigh in Annapolis. The tournament winner garners an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.

But to know how this special squad arrived here, one must understand from where they started the journey, which basically began at last year’s Patriot League championship. Last March, the ladies of the Long Gray Line followed up their Patriot League regular season championship by winning the league’s postseason tournament to qualify for their first-ever NCAA Tournament.

The jubilant scene of the triumphant team hoisting Dixon atop their shoulders was seen by all nationwide. Sadly, most saw it three weeks after the fact when the 28-year-old Dixon collapsed and died from a heart condition.

“It was incredibly tragic, and everything was just turned inside out and upside down,” recalled Magarity while sitting in his office recently at Michie Football Stadium. “The next couple days were just a blur with the services here, the funeral in LA where she grew up, so we flew the whole team and everybody out. So then we came back, and they fly Maggie’s body back to be buried two days later at West Point, and that was just incredible. For the next couple of weeks I didn’t want to talk about it.”

Yet, the coaching vacancy stemming from the unspeakable tragedy had to be addressed.

“The administration at West Point was great,” Magarity added. “After the initial shock, the team had gone to them and said, ‘We want Coach Magarity to get the job.’ I did not know any of that. It was a very tough time for everybody and the administration never once pressured me. For a few weeks, I went back and forth. With myself, my wife, and those close to me.”

Magarity had returned to coaching in October 2005, after briefly holding the position of Assistant Commissioner/Director of Men’s Basketball Operations with the Mid-American Conference (MAC), and a similar post with the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC). When he considered returning to coaching by taking the Army women’s assistant position, those whose opinion he solicited simply said, “Dave, you’re a coach.”

Yet, here he was, just one year back on the sidelines and facing this unfathomable situation.

As if that were not enough to deal with, Magarity had been offered a job last spring with the New Orleans Hornets of the NBA. Magarity had discussed this opportunity with Dixon before her death, and she was completely on board with his joining the pro game.
Adding to the implausible set of circumstances, Dixon was planning to replace him with Magarity’s daughter, Maureen, after the two had completed an interview at the Women’s Final Four in Boston.

“The administration was very clear to me that they wanted to hire Maureen, whether I stayed or not, because they knew Maggie had offered her the job,” noted Magarity.

“I didn’t want to leave anybody hanging out there, and it was a tough decision. I thought
about the team, the kids, and the chance to coach with my daughter,” he added. “But everything is in limbo now, and it seemed everybody wanted me to take the Army job. The girls were comfortable with me and knew me.”

Magarity continued, “My questions were: Can I do this and do I want to do this? But I love these kids, the best of the best, an incredible group of individuals that form an incredible team. They are so close because of what they go through here at The Academy. It’s that ultimate team thing, like Team USA winning the hockey gold medal in 1980. That’s why what we are doing right now is just an incredible story, because it’s not like we have more talent than other teams.”

“So I called Director of Athletics Kevin Anderson and Deputy AD Gene Marshall, and we met and I said I would like to take the job. I was not taking it to get them through a rough time, but was taking it to continue what we started last year, because I was a part of that.”

Magarity pauses here, and smiles as he reflects how his association with Dixon began, “I was the only person Maggie hired, and this was after only one interview. When we met, she just blew me away. My head was spinning. I felt comfortable with her. She called her
brother Jamie (men’s basketball coach at Pitt), who I knew, to ask about me, and he said,‘If you don’t hire him, I might.'”

The Black Knights are glad that Dixon listened to her older brother, who was also her basketball mentor and sounding board. But Magarity himself had reservations. “I thought it was going to be a tough year, since anything short of repeating would be a

In a sad irony, Magarity and Jamie’s paths crossed again at the Norfolk, Virginia airport on the fateful day Maggie collapsed, as both were trying to get back to West Point in the confusing aftermath of hearing the horrible news.

So how did he start to build up a team that had been emotionally torn down? Magarity chose to challenge this group of America’s future leaders with their own words.

“You guys have told me that you want to repeat as champions. My job as coach is to make you the best you can be, especially here at West Point. To not continue the foundation established last year is unacceptable. We want to follow up last year’s firsts with new firsts.”

Strong words from a strong man to a strong team. But they are just words, and it was up to the team to turn those words into success on the hardwood, thereby justifying their expressed desire to have him succeed Dixon.

“It would be a discredit to Coach Dixon if we just maintained,” said star junior Guard Cara Enright, last year’s Patriot League Player of the Year. “Coach Magarity sat down with everyone, both individually and as a team, to help us deal with everything from last year and help us define and reach our goals.”

Sophomore guard Alex McGuire, last year’s Patriot League Rookie of the Year concurs, adding, “After Coach Dixon died, it took awhile to recover, but Coach Magarity stepped back and gave us room. We know he loves us, and we are happy he stayed with us.”

In true Army fashion, McGuire then focused on the mission, “We want to win another Patriot League championship, and the entire team is on board. That is our common goal.”

Last year’s Co-Captain Megan Vrabel, who is done playing but stayed on as an intern to assist Magarity, knows how hard that has been this year. “We have had a target on our back since the season began, and now that target is even bigger since everyone wants to stop the winning streak. But Coach Magarity, who was definitely our first choice, has us
prepared for each game.”

That may be because Magarity himself said to the team before the season started, “You are now the hunted. How are you going to deal with that?”

By buying in and believing in the coach they requested, according to sophomore guard Courtney Wright says. “Coach Magarity staying on is absolutely the best thing that could have happened. He made the transition easier. But we have to work ever harder to keep up the good season.”

How do they continue to do that?

Junior Forward Stephanie Stone has the answer. “We take it one day, one game, one
practice, even one play at a time. Really small steps.”

But it was Senior Captain Jen Henson who captured the essence of what this team has accomplished, and what successes may lay ahead. “Even two years ago, you would never put the phrase Army women’s basketball and the NCAA Tournament together.”

That may be due to the unique recruiting situation at West Point, where no scholarships are given and graduates these days go off to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In fact, just a few weeks ago in January, Magarity received a letter from a former player heading to Iraq. “She is a tremendous leader, who was ultimately inspired by last year.”

But the Army is not necessarily inspiring to all.

Magarity chuckles as he remembers his first recruiting call. “I called a high school star, and her mother picked up the phone. I identified myself as the Associate Head Coach at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point wanting to speak with her daughter about coming here to play basketball for us. The only words the mother said were, ‘Don’t call here again.’ That was my welcome to recruiting at Army.”

Despite these obstacles, undoubtedly heightened during current conflicts like now, the Academy certainly has had a glorious sports history. Success on the fields of play, like the fields of battle, is omnipresent on these sacred grounds. Duty, Honor, Country define
West Point, with academics and the desire to serve among the top priorities. However, from time to time, sports takes center stage and this is one of those times.

These female cagers may not capture the nation’s attention like the football team with its national championships and Heisman Trophy winners during the world war years and beyond. But maybe they should.

Like the lore of the gridiron glory days, basketball is also part of the Academy’s pedigree, especially when considering two coaches who are part of the Long Gray Line’s lineage.

Bob Knight began his journey to become the winningest college basketball coach of all
time as the head coach here from 1965 to 1971, after starting out as an assistant. He had as his team captain in 1969 a certain cadet whose last name also began with K. As in Coach K, Mike Krzyzewski, who himself began his head coaching career as Army
basketball coach from 1975 to 1980.

It is no coincidence that two of the most successful coaches of all time learned their winning ways at West Point.

Lieutenant General Franklin L. Hagenbeck, Superintendent (The Supe) of the Academy, said it succinctly to the athletes at the Spring Sports Luncheon on a recent cold mid-January day. “Winning starts here. We expect to win.”

It is part of the tradition, at a place where tradition still means something. Coach Magarity has clearly shown this year that he is a worthy standard bearer of that tradition, as he and his team have gone above and beyond the call of duty.

After all, what else would Patriot League Coach of the Year Maggie Dixon have expected from the only person she personally hired during her brief stint at West Point,
when she followed Army protocol in bringing in only the best and the brightest.

John Ingoldsby is a free-lance sports writer based in Medfield, Massachusetts, who
graduated two years behind Coach Magarity at St. Francis (PA) University.

Story URL: http://nwe.scout.com/2/693340.html

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