Dixon launches career with Tide

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The former NFL player will be on the other side of the whistle this fall as Galax's new football coach.

By Craig Worrell, Sports Editor

 Bill Sutherland swears Mark Dixon’s reference letter will not be showing up on eBay.

Dixon, 38, was introduced as Galax’s new head varsity football coach during the division’s school board meeting Tuesday evening, ending a process that began when former GHS coach Jared Van Acker stepped down in November. Dixon was chosen from a short list of three finalists from an original field of 20-plus applicants. “It was just a fun process to talk to these folks and get their responses,” said Sutherland, principal at Galax High. “We felt like we could have hired any one of those three.” A former all-America offensive lineman at Virginia, Dixon submitted an application that included a recommendation from Hall of Fame coach Jimmy Johnson, under whom Dixon played during a five-year stint with the Miami Dolphins. And he can draw from the experience of having played under some of the best football minds of this generation. But he didn’t get the job by name-dropping. “He answered some questions in a no-nonsense way that kind of set him apart,” said Sutherland. “He didn’t give answers I expected to hear.” Dixon’s hiring will probably be a popular one in Galax. Relatively new to the area, and new to the profession, Dixon was the Maroon Tide’ s JV basketball coach this winter and worked with the varsity football team in the summer and early part of the season before applying his full attention to obtaining a Master’s degree from Radford University. The experience served as a de facto test drive for the GHS administration. “We had a very real and practical experience with him coaching kids here during the winter,” said Sutherland, “and I’ll tell you, he’s the kind of coach that I always wanted to be. I don’t think I ever heard him say something negative to a kid. Even when he was getting on a kid for not doing something the right way, it was always a very positive influence. With a lot of our kids that haven’t had a lot of good experiences, he was ‘Pick your head up and look me in the eye. Now, let’s do this...’ ” Sutherland saw Dixon work as diligently with the far end of his bench as he did with the starting five, and he saw the players respond in a positive manner. “Having that practical experience with coach Dixon really set him apart,” Sutherland said. “You felt like you knew what you were getting.” Not a full-time employee of the school during his heretofore brief coaching tenure, Dixon will earn his Master’s in clinical psychology from R.U. this spring and be a member of the faculty when football season rolls around. “I’m extremely excited,” said Dixon, who settled in the area to be nearer to his daughters, ages 10 and 8. “It’s like a second dream come true for me, the first one being able to play in the NFL, and second one that I’ve always wanted to coach. To have the chance to do that in the community that has been so good to my girls, to give something back here, it seems like a great fit.” Though he will enter the 2010 season inexperienced as a coach, the new Tide boss will not be short on experience. A highly-touted prospect out of Ragsdale High in Jamestown, N.C., Dixon played college ball at UVa under George Welsh, who transformed the Cavaliers from Duke North into the nation’s No. 1 team. His line coach there was Tom O’Brien, now the head man at N.C. State, and he played in three professional leagues, starting with a year in the WLAF followed by three years in the Canadian Football League. As a Miami Dolphin, Dixon’s boss was the Super Bowl-winning Jimmy Johnson. The Miami staff during his five years there also included the likes of Chan Gailey, Randy Shannon, Dave Wannestedt and Norv Turner. “I’m definitely nervous,” Dixon said of his new vocation. “Any time you take on a new challenge you’re going to be a little nervous. That’s just my temperament, and I think that’s one of the things that has helped me. It’s given me the edge to prepare a little longer and a little harder.” “He’s somebody who took his abilities and worked with those things and learned techniques and developed his talents, and that’s one of the things that makes him a very good coach,” Sutherland said. “He’s had to break those things down in his own mind.  He did the little things to set him self apart as a pro athlete and as a college athlete. Those are good skills to serve kids in Galax.” Dixon plans on laying a foundation with a 4-3 defense and an I-formation offense, then building from there. “We’ll match the system once I figure out the personnel,” hw said. “To just get up and running the I is the best thing for us to teach early. You’ll see a lot of stuff, but probably later in the year.” Though a head coach for less than 24 hours at the time of this interview, Dixon was already showing hints of his coaching philosophy. From O’Brien comes an attention to detail and a sense of long-term goals. “What I take from him is that you do something every single day and work on little things every single day, you can have a chance to play at a real high level,” he said. “When you start doing it, it seems like you’ll never quite get there, but if you stay the course you will. I learned to trust the process of doing the little fundamentals every day.” From Welsh, a former Navy quarterback, comes the basic tenets one would expect from a military academy graduate. “From coach Welsh I learned time management and discipline and structure,” he said. “He used to say that there’s one thing that is equal with everybody and that is we all have 24 hours in a day. He could manage your 24 hours typically better than the coach we were playing against could manage his players’ 24 hours. I’ll take from that having my practices scheduled down to the minute, really moving, really fast-paced.” And from Johnson comes an ideal of holding high standards long enough for his players to take them for their own. “He expected you to be better than you thought you could be, and he would hold those expectations until you could grab hold of them,” Dixon said. Expectations aside, Galax will hope to improve on last year’s 3-7 mark. Fourteen first- and second-team all-district positions last year were filled by Maroon Tide players. “There’s so much talent,” he said. “But we have to get stronger. I noticed in basketball. We physically have to become stronger. We are every bit they athlete that [the opponent is], but they are physically bigger and stronger. We have to move that direction kind of in a hurry.”