From Jamaica to Alabama and Buffalo to D.C., how Smoke Dixon’s journey is helping him transform Vanderbilt football
The former Alabama standout has returned to the SEC with hopes of helping Clark Lea revitalize the Commodores.
October 12, 2021
“In high school we had a little area—there wasn’t a lot of grass there—so at one point I kicked up a couple of steps and it kicked up some dust and [my friend Pablo] said, ‘Dude, you can roll, it’s like smoking out here,’ so that’s how I got the nickname Smoke from my man Pablo.”
Over 20 years ago, when Vanderbilt director of scouting Gerald Dixon used to run a 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds, he picked up the nickname “Smoke.” And it stuck.
At the time, he was being recruited out of Paint Branch High School in Maryland by some of the best college teams in the country to play cornerback, eventually committing to the University of Alabama.
In his first year, Dixon played 12 games for the Crimson Tide and was part of the 1999 Freshman All-SEC team in a season that culminated in a 34-7 SEC Championship game victory for the Tide against the Florida Gators. From an Orange Bowl appearance to two SEC West division titles, Dixon knows what it takes to win at the collegiate level, especially in the SEC, and he thinks Vanderbilt has the potential to win consistently.
“I know that Vanderbilt can get to the place of competing and winning the SEC,” he told The Hustler. “We have the right people here and [head coach Clark] Lea has the right culture.”
And he plans on being an intricate part of that winning culture.
The Road to Vanderbilt
Dixon’s journey to Vanderbilt has been an unorthodox one. After leaving Alabama in 2002, the Jamaica native hopped around the NFL, NFL Europe and CFL, and even taught high school English while doubling as an assistant coach at Miami Coral Park Senior High School.
In 2008, Dixon became an assistant coach at The Citadel, a program that had just one winning season in the decade prior and consistently struggled against rivals Georgia Southern and Appalachian State.
“When I first got to The Citadel, one of my goals was, we’re gonna cultivate and build this place up right to get to the place that we can beat Georgia Southern [and Appalachian State],” Dixon said.
By the time Dixon left the Citadel after six years coaching on the defensive side of the ball, the Bulldogs had won three of their last four games against their two rivals.
Dixon was eventually hired by Jim Monos––the then director of player personnel for the Buffalo Bills––to work for the team as a scout in 2014. When the front office was fired in 2017, Dixon was able to impress incoming general manager Brandon Beane enough to retain his position and help build a roster that is currently a Super Bowl contender.
After four years in Buffalo, he took a risk and jumped to the XFL to be a part of the D.C. Defenders coaching staff. Dixon helped the team achieve a 3-2 record before the season was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That was my first opportunity to actually run an organization, and it was awesome. That’s the best I’ve felt since the Citadel, in terms of being hands-on and totally involved, and being invested,” he said.
Throughout all his stops, Dixon has been proud of his ability to help set foundations for future success. Whether it was helping a small D1 program best its rivals or managing a team in a new league, he has constantly been intrigued by building success.
“I’m always the guy that’s won the path, just paved my own way,” Dixon said. “I’ve gone to many places that no one really gave you that chance of winning and success was not there when you first got there.”
This attitude and his variety of experiences make him a perfect fit for the next stages of Vanderbilt football.
Arrival on West End
The first call Dixon received regarding his current role came from Barton Simmons––Vanderbilt’s current general manager.
“We just sat on the phone and talked for hours on hours, just different ideas, different thoughts of how we’d want to build a team,” Dixon said.
The idea of helping operate an organization––something he did and enjoyed in his XFL position––and create a new culture in Nashville intrigued Dixon, but it was a conversation with Lea that sold him on the role.
After sitting down with the Commodores’ new head coach, Dixon felt there were many similarities between Lea and one of his former bosses, Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott. By the time his conversation with Lea ended, Dixon had bought in on his vision and plan to get Vanderbilt back to relevance in the SEC.
Since being hired in January, Dixon’s official title with the program has been director of scouting, but he does so much more than just sitting in front of a screen watching high school tape.
“Whenever you usually take a job on, there are some descriptives in there, but then once you get to the location, you start finding other things to do, and I’m one of those people that I don’t really settle into just one role,” Dixon said. “I’m more of a guy that wherever I’m needed, I help out.”
The former Alabama standout said he works with everyone who is committed to making Vanderbilt football a winning program.
“Smoke’s role is critical to the way we’re trying to model this operation,” Simmons said of his colleague. “We lean on each other in terms of bouncing ideas off each other and really working through the day-to-day problems and the structures and processes that we’re trying to put in place to build this operation long term.”
Although he operates in many spheres, Dixon’s central priorities at Vanderbilt can be split into three roles, the first being scouting and finding the right players that are going to help move Vanderbilt forward.
“My job is to identify the specific talent that’s going to get Vanderbilt back to the top of the SEC and just get the right type of guys with the developmental qualities and the right approach that Coach Lea and our staff preaches,” Dixon said.
According to Dixon, the entire personnel staff shares the same goal: getting the right people to Vanderbilt to build a winning culture on West End. They are seeking players who not only love football, but also want the challenge of pushing Vanderbilt football into a new era.
After identifying those players, his next responsibility is to recruit them to Nashville.
“You also want to study what plays and what’s going to project in the next five years because you can’t build your team for now. You have to build your team for what’s going to be the next wave,” Dixon said. “Understanding my last jobs, and dealing with professionals, and seeing what the talent is, that’s how I approach recruiting.”
For a program that has had zero top-40 recruiting classes in the past five years, Dixon’s insight will be valuable and finding the correct players will be paramount.
Aside from finding and recruiting future Vanderbilt players, Dixon’s other major role is opponent scouting.
“[Dixon] works closely with our coaching staff and head coach in terms of our advanced scouting of opponents,” Simmons said.
Dixon’s experience scouting at nearly every level of football is no doubt a valuable asset for Lea and his staff. Simmons admires his detail-oriented nature and his willingness to be different from the rest of the conference when evaluating teams and players. Dixon relishes the chance to wear several different hats within McGugin Center and believes his ever-evolving position highlights his versatility and skillset.
“I love it because it’s one of the roles that you can’t really define,” he said. “Every day that I come in, I try my best to build and develop other people around me.”
Dixon is always in constant communication with everybody in the building. On a daily basis, he works with both the coaches and other members of the personnel staff. Because he works across so many departments, Dixon has to continually develop relationships with people, which is something he is known to excel at.
“Developing relationships with people is an art,” he said. “I just care about people and care about building relationships. So that’s been my thing and me being Jamaican and an immigrant, I’ve always found it cool to find out about the different walks of lives and everybody else’s culture and how you got to this place.”
The Next Steps of the Journey
Vanderbilt has been behind the curve in identifying talent and recruiting for the SEC, which is why the new staff has placed such a strong emphasis on changing that. With a number of newly-created recruiting positions and Simmons and Dixon leading an innovative talent-acquisition strategy, Vanderbilt is in a great position for long-term success.
“Smoke is extremely prideful and conscientious and is very invested in Vanderbilt’s greatness. That’s something that is evident every day and that I think is going to give us a real opportunity at success,” Simmons said.
Vanderbilt’s incoming recruiting class currently ranks 37th in the nation according to 247Sports—a marked improvement from previous years. Dixon, Simmons and the entire recruiting staff has immediately proven to be impactful.
“I want to be the best at my job, so whatever that is, I’m going to do it,” Dixon said. “And that’s how I work, and everyday it’s a tireless effort, but I’m willing to fight for that. That’s easy. That’s why I wake up every day.”
Dixon’s long journey has brought him all the way to Nashville and back to the SEC to a new challenge. But he’s excited for the opportunity and believes that he can help develop Vanderbilt into a competitive program within the best college football conference in the country.
“I’ve told the people that I have interviewed with or talked to, “Today does not cost you a lot, but next time I see you, it’s gonna cost you some more.’ So I would say go ahead and get in early on this investment, and you’ll get a big bang at the end, I promise you that.”