‘A model of mentorship’: David Hixon’s coaching tree extends far and wide

By KYLE GRABOWSKI

Staff Writer

Published: 08-09-2023 5:12 PM

The Amherst College men’s basketball coaches’ office door swung open. Then-assistant Matt Goldsmith felt the timing inopportune.

He, David Hixon and the rest of the staff were elbows deep in preparing for a massive weekend of games against rivals Middlebury and Williams. One of the soccer players that Hixon coached 20 years ago in his time wearing various hats over 42 years at the college stopped by and wanted to chat. 

Hixon spun away from the practice plan and spoke to the former soccer player for nearly an hour.

“I’d be like, ‘coach what are we doing? What are we wasting our time with?’” Goldsmith remembered. “For him, it was never a waste of time.”

The relationships Hixon built and nurtured matter to him more than the 826 wins or two national championships in a Hall of Fame career. Everyone associated with the Amherst men’s basketball program during his tenure calls it a family. They know they can reach out to Hixon, who they often call simply “Coach” or “Hix,” at any time. If he doesn’t pick up the phone right away, he sends a text that he’ll call back as soon as he can.

“Now I understand why that was such a gift of his to be present and speak to anyone who came into that office and give them his time. That’s his superpower is to be able to talk to someone like that for an hour, make them feel heard, listen, be present and the next time he came back remember his kids name or whatever, some tidbit or fact abut him,” said Goldsmith, now The College of New Jersey’s head coach. “That’s why people care so much about the Amherst program and what he was able to build.”

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Goldsmith is one of three former Hixon assistants leading Division 3 programs. Muhlenberg hired Kevin Hopkins, who played for Amherst from 2004-08 and coached there in two stints from 2012-17, in 2017. Aaron Toomey, a two-time national player of the year that served as the Mammoth’s interim head coach when Hixon took a leave of absence to care for his father in 2019, will take over Hartford this fall. Numerous other former players dot high school sidelines and assistant coaching chairs.

“There aren’t many people who chose to come to Amherst College — and there aren’t a lot of parents who choose to pay that much money — to have their kids go into coaching,” said Hixon, who will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday in Springfield. “The goal, I think, when you go to Amherst is to go out and really get a great job that will solidify you for the rest of your life financially.”

Coaching is not that, especially in Division 3. It only became that in Division 1 recently. Many of the coaches’ classmates are doctors, lawyers and business leaders.

“People who are in Division 3 coaching are not doing it for the money. There’s got to be something else. Most often it’s the relationship side of things that drives people to be in coaching to have an impact. It’s not like he’s sitting guys down and talking about coaching, but you see it every day in how he interacts with guys on the floor and how he interacts with staff, even other coaches in the athletic department. There’s always other head coaches coming in asking for advice because he had such a wealth of experience,” Hopkins said. “He was just a guy who loved coaching and teaching and talking about trying to figure out how to make kids better people. To see that on a day to day basis definitely helped.”

Hixon’s coaching tree resembles a willow more than an oak. He didn’t preach strict systems, only run “his” sets or cling to anything between the lines over the course of his career. The way his teams played evolved with the talent available and the way the game transformed. Hixon’s knack for connection remained constant.

“The feeling is still the same. All those personal stories about it are still there,” said Northampton boys basketball coach Rey Harp, who played for Hixon in the mid 1990s. “The style of play changed because it had to. There were massive changes to the style of play, which sometimes people who have been there that long don’t do. That constantly looking for a way to make better what you have is one of the things that, for me, rings the truest.”

Even as his additions altered the program, Hixon remained a constant. He accepted input and feedback, growing and changing as well.

“That’s a model of mentorship,” Harp said. “His legacy is in all these coaches that are in these great positions and are building their own relationships and their own styles.”

His mentorship didn’t end when he retired. Hixon still watches every game his former assistants coach and every Amherst game. Sometimes that requires flipping between streams, firing up multiple devices at once or rolling the tape back later.

“It’s stressful because I want them to do well, I want them to win. It’s a little bit like I’m coaching. I enjoy it, but it’s also stressful at times,” Hixon said.

Goldsmith’s TCNJ team stumbled to a 2-12 start last season. He often called Hixon to vent or ask advice.

“He was really frustrated and trying to figure it out. I had 42 years of trying to figure it out and had frustrating years, too. To talk to all of my guys about their players and how they’re playing, I’d let them ask if they asked me ‘well coach what do you think about this? What am I doing wrong with this?’ That’s fun for me to chime in and give advice,” Hixon said.

They also lean on him when looking for a job or considering a move. Is the program a good fit? Does he know anyone at a school or in an area?

“I’ve joked with them that although I’ve been out of it a few years now that I have Hall of Fame on my resume all of a sudden I’ve become a more important voice as a recommender just because I’ve got a little more credibility,” Hixon said. “The hope was always wherever they went, they could make a program like Amherst. That was the sort of thing that made me think we’d done something really cool. ”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.]]>