Hall of Fame coach David Hixon a true family man
|Published: 08-10-2023 5:04 PM
Michael Hixon waggled his feet sitting on a LeFrak Gymnasium locker room bench.
The Amherst College men’s basketball team sat around the toddler, feet on the floor, heads down. Some covered their faces with towels.
“Dad, what’s the matter?” Michael asked his father, Dave Hixon, who coached the team for 42 years.
Amherst had just lost against Bowdoin at home after defeating then-No. 1 Colby on the road the previous night. Michael and his older brother Matthew asked their mother Mandy Hixon, who coached diving at UMass, Amherst and Williams, if they could go into the locker room after the game.
“Give me five minutes,” Dave told his family. “I went in and chewed on our guys a little bit on what we didn’t do right and how we weren’t ready to play after coming in in such a great position. Then I let the kids come in.”
They entered the aftermath, prompting Michael’s question. That’s a complicated scenario to explain to a child.
“Dad’s not very happy,” Dave said.
Michael took a beat. He waggled his feet some more.
“Dad’s team didn’t play very well, and dad didn’t do a good job either. WE lost the game and we’re not very happy right now.”
Another pause. Another waggle.
“Well guess what?” Michael asked.
“This is like the fourth question, so I’m like ‘what Michael, what?” David said. “All my guys are looking up like, ‘this kid’s getting toward the edge here.’”
“My pants are dry,” Michael said.
“He was so proud. Him being dry superseded whether we won or lost at that point in time, which was great,” Dave said. “Those are the sort of experience that ran through their childhoods.”
The Hixon boys did not have a normal childhood because the Hixons are not a normal family. Both parents coached college sports with a passion and intensity that would have overwhelmed most. David won 826 games and two national championships and will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday. Mandy is a 16-time Atlantic 10 Diving Coach of the Year that molded conference divers of the year and All-Americans. She was named the New England Diving coach of the Year six times at Amherst and was the 1990 NCAA Diving Coach of the Year.
They married in June of 1991. How they would raise children juggling two coaches schedules never crossed their minds.
“I don’t even think we thought about that. We were just coaches we got married and we were like, ‘we’re older let’s have kids.’ We figured it out along the way,” Mandy said. “There was no real thought.”
The kids grew up in the gym and at the pool. Their parents ferried them between each and their own activities depending on their schedules.
“It was this handoff thing,” said Matthew, an Oscar-nominated video editor. “I had no idea anyone else would be raised any different.”
They rode the bus from school to UMass’ Boyden Gymnasium in the afternoon. Matthew did his homework. Michael dove.
“He didn’t want to do his homework,” Mandy said.
The boys became enamored with their parents’ teams. Rosters became Rolodexes for babysitters.
“Growing up Amherst basketball was the most important thing in the world to me. Getting to know all the players was such a cool thing. It was such a great way to grow up. Those guys became my role models. More than anything my dad was my role model the entire time,” said Michael, who won two Olympic silver medals in synchronized diving. “Watching the way he cared about his job, and my mom too, a level of excellence and a level of performance. My brother and I both took that to heart. it set a foundation in our lives where you care a lot about the ways you conduct yourself. You care a lot about making sure the best outcome is given the best possibility to happen and care a lot about the work you put into it.”
They spent weekends on bus rides to away games or around locker rooms.
“Watching movies they shouldn’t have been watching. They were with college kids, so they grew up very quickly,” Mandy said. “They were the kids on the school bus telling all the kids bad stuff because they had learned it from the college kids.”
Dave and Mandy taught them a lot, too. Some of it was intentional. Other parts the kids absorbed on their own.
“Players all talk about both of my parents can see passion in people and point those directions. They have a keen eye toward what people can do and what people in sports can become,” Matthew said. “They’re really good at seeing beyond sports and seeing the impact sports have on real life. That’s the cool thing about Division 3, you have to have that vision.”
Everyone’s schedules calmed down at roughly the same time in March. By the time the days warmed, the family took to the Connecticut River on their boat. Matthew learned to water ski by the time he was five.
“We would go to the Cape every summer and see my dad’s college friends. Simpler stuff, New England stuff. He’s such a New Englander,” Matthew said. “We weren’t the family that went to Europe or another country.”
Naturally, both Hixon boys played sports from young ages. Michael was blessed with immense athleticism and drive. He excelled on the football field, basketball court, lacrosse field, whatever he picked.
Michael eventually gravitated to his parents’ sports: basketball and diving. As a freshman at Amherst Regional, he left school early to make it to diving practice then returned for varsity basketball practice then went back to the pool to dive more. Homework had to wait until he ate and returned home around 10 p.m.
“It was not going to be sustainable for us,” Michael said.
He chose diving and became an NCAA national champion and a two-time Olympian. David still gave his input at the dive meets, passing along notes and observations.
“The issue is when you have parents who are coaches. It doesn’t matter what they coach, they think they can coach everything,” Michael said. “Unfortunately most of the time he was still right, which was tough to deal with.”
Matthew drifted away from traditional team sports. He took up tae kwon do, ran cross country and played ultimate frisbee.
“Matthew was different. He had a younger brother that was better than him at most sports,” David said. “He always seemed to be a clutch performer. He didn’t really like practice. He didn’t like to go around in the yard and just shoot around, he liked to play games.”
Matthew also participated in the performing arts. He appeared in plays and performances.
“He found his own niche and was passionate about performing at a young age,” Dave said. “He just had a knack for it. It blossomed.”
Telling his sports obsessed parents he was going to focus on theater and video made Matthew nervous at first. The nerves dissipated the moment the thoughts left his head through his mouth.
“It’s that thing where it’s inside your head and you think the worst things could happen before you tell someone. My parents understand passion, and they’ve both spent their lives dedicated to doing something they love,” Matthew said. “It took a year or two after saying it for me to understand why they were supportive of it.”
The whole family supported each other. They attended Matthew’s performances, Dave’s games and Michael and Mandy’s dive meets whenever they could. When they couldn’t be there in person, a phone call followed shortly after.
“Even if we were always traveling a lot or had a lot of stuff going on, I don’t think we ever felt our family was very far apart,” Michael said. “Things were always pretty busy but that was never an issue. You never felt like anybody wasn’t around.”
Everyone will be there Saturday in Springfield when Dave delivers his Hall of Fame speech at Symphony Hall. He’ll be the first coach inducted who spent his entire career at the Division 3 level.
“Division 3 basketball, as special as it is to so many people, definitely can get overlooked on a stage like this,” Michael said. “He’s so deserving. What a great ambassador for the sport, someone I think we should all look up to.”