Top on-court moments from David Hixon’s Hall of Fame career coaching Amherst basketball

By KYLE GRABOWSKI

Staff Writer

Published: 08-14-2023 7:33 PM

Dave Hixon always wore a suit to Amherst College’s men’s basketball games but never coached in it. He walked out of the locker room to cheers in LeFrak Gymnasium and banter on the road, shook his counterpart’s hand and chatted during shootaround. Once the teams returned to their benches, he slipped off the suit jacket, rolled up his dress shirt sleeves and went to work.

For 42 years, Hixon’s work was coaching games at Amherst. More often than not that meant winning them. The soon-to-be-inducted Hall of Famer won 73.8% of his games and amassed 826 victories, which was 15th all time when he retired in 2020 and still ranks in the top 20.

Hixon will become the first coach who spent the entirety of his career in Division 3 inducted in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame. He led Amherst, his alma mater, for 42 seasons. Here’s a far-from-comprehensive list of noteworthy moments from his tenure.

An Amherst man

He graduated from Amherst College in 1975 and earned the Hitchcock Fellowship to teach and coach at Amherst. The teaching part only lasted six weeks before he switched to coaching full time. Hixon applied for a position at Deerfield Academy but wasn’t hired. He received a master’s degree from UMass then volunteered at Amherst coaching basketball, track & field and football. Amherst College then hired Hixon in 1977 when he was just 24 years old.

Two members of the athletic department encouraged him to apply for the head men’s basketball coach position when his predecessor (and coach) Rick Wilson retired after 29 seasons. The other six had more experience, but Hixon was from Amherst. His alma mater made him the youngest coach in the country at the time.

First wins

Amherst started 0-3 in Hixon’s first season. He finally broke through against Westfield State 87-86 on a last-second bucket by Calvin Malone. The team still started 3-9 but won seven of its last 10 games to finish 10-12. The wins included a 63-48 home victory over archrival Williams, the first of many.

ECAC success

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With NESCAC rules preventing Amherst from competing in the NCAA Tournament until 1994, the program’s only postseason option was the East Coast Athletic Conference tournament. The ECAC hosted combined Division 2/Division 3 tournaments from 1973 to 1980. Hixon’s Amherst squad squared off against Assumption and Hall of Fame coach Jim O’Brien, who later became the Hall of Fame’s president and chief executive, in the opening round and fell 81-62.

Amherst captured its first ECAC Division 3 championship in 1989, defeating Colby in front of a standing-room only crowd at LeFrak Gymnasium.

Stunning debut

NESCAC teams were finally allowed in the NCAA Tournament in 1994. Amherst was placed in a regional with Franklin & Marshall, the No. 1 team in the country at the time. Hixon and his team took out familiar foe Colby 80-77 in their opener in the second round before matching up with the Diplomats. The debutants from the Pioneer Valley shocked Franklin & Marshall in the sectional semifinals before falling to Lebanon Valley with a trip to the Final Four on the line.

“I realized, geez, we can play at this national level. The expectation was you were going to make it again and make it again and eventually win a national championship,” Hixon said. “There was a little more pressure on that than the old days.”

Conference crowns

The NESCAC began hosting conference championship tournaments following the 2000-01 regular season. Amherst won the first two and holds the league record for conference titles with eight. It appeared in the first six championship games, beating Trinity in 2001 and 2002 before falling against Williams in the next two seasons.

Hixon also led the team to conference crowns in 2005, 2006 (an overtime bout with Tufts), 2012-14 and in his final season at the helm in 2019.

Reservations at the Final Four

Amherst reached its first Final Four in 2004 after knocking on the door for a decade. The then-Lord Jeffs won at least a game in every NCAA Tournament and dropped a quarterfinal against Williams in 2003. Hixon’s teams played in seven Final Fours in 11 years from 2004-16. Each was held in Salem, Virginia, at the time. 

“They used to joke down there it was called the Amherst Invitational,” Hixon said.

On top of the world

Barely anything stood in Amherst’s way in 2007. The team bulldozed to a 24-1 regular season record. They lost the NESCAC championship to Williams but ripped off five wins in a row in the NCAA Tournament to claim the national championship 80-67 over Virginia Wesleyan. Only one team lost to Amherst single digits: Wooster in the semifinals 67-60. Andrew Olson, now the Cleveland Cavaliers shooting coach, was named the most outstanding player. The photo of Hixon hugging Olson in his championship hat is one of the enduring images of his career. 

Fort LeFrak

LeFrak Gymnasium, built in 1976 and re-opened in 1985 after a fire, became an impenetrable stronghold between 2010-2013. Amherst won a school-record 35 consecutive games between November 19, 2010, a season-opening overtime victory against Maine-Farmington in the Ken Wright Invitational, and November 27, 2013, over Lasell. Babson finally snapped the streak after 1,113 days on December 6, 2013.

Working overtime

Hixon presided over the three longest games in Amherst men’s basketball history: triple overtime contests against Clark in 2000, Trinity in 2002 and Middlebury in 2013. Amherst lost the first two before taking down the third-ranked Panthers 104-101 on the road February 12, 2013. Northampton’s Willy Workman, now a pro in Israel, scored 30 points to go along with 13 rebounds and five assists. He also intentionally missed a free throw and put it back in the waning seconds of the second overtime to force a third for No. 2 Amherst. National player of the Year Aaron Toomey splashed a go-ahead 3-pointer with three seconds left to seal the win.

“That was one of the craziest games I’ve ever been a part of,” Toomey said.

The victory secured the top seed in the NESCAC tournament, which Amherst won 74-73 over Williams.

Back on top

Toomey and Workman helped deliver a second national championship in 2013. Amherst took down Mary Hardin Baylor at then-Phillips Arena in Atlanta (the Hawks’ home) rather than the traditional host site Salem as part of the 75th anniversary of the NCAA Tournament celebrations.

“He was giving us a pregame speech. We had done the scout, and the last thing he said to the group of guys was let’s go out there and play one more game of Amherst basketball and win the national championship,” Workman said. “He had built it. We had built it. We were ready for it. He was telling us to go and be that, be what we were. That’s what we did.”

Amherst prevailed 87-70 for the title. Allen Williamson, the most outstanding player, scored a game-high 18 points, but Workman posted another double-double (14 points, 10 rebounds) and Toomey added 16 points and six assists. Four Amherst players reached double figure scoring (Connor Green had 16).

“I feel like my whole career ... led up to today and I’m glad it all ended up this way, a great way to finish up a career,” Williamson said after the game.

Hixon Court

Hixon stepped away from Amherst in September of 2019 to tend to his ailing father, legendary high school coach Wil Hixon. The pair won a state title together in 1970 at Andover High School and were inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003. Dave Hixon officially retired in April 2020 as the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic set in. That prevented any sort of large-scale celebration immediately but allowed time to plan one.

Amherst named LeFrak Gymnasium’s floor “Hixon Court” in May of 2022. Players from every era gathered under the banners they helped hang to celebrate Hixon, the coach that brought them all together and helped them succeed.

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