Binders and scattered loose paper cover Sonita Warren-Dixon’s work space, two small folding tables that she has set up in the corner of the Asheville (North Carolina) High gymnasium while her new office is cleaned.
She eyes a large stack of paper work that has yet to be finished, sitting next to an unfinished lunch, while taking phone calls from her new coaching staff.
It’s Aug. 12, her first day as the school’s athletic director. There is a lot to get done before the first day of school, and plenty of new challenges.
But her new position also marks a historic moment for WNC high school athletics. She is the area’s first female African-American athletic director.
“It didn’t seem like it was a big deal at first,” said Warren-Dixon, who will remain the girls basketball coach. “But I know it’s significant because it opens the door for little girls who look like me, who may want to do the same thing.”
‘This one can’
Warren-Dixon, 53, has made a career of opening previously closed doors.
She grew up in Haywood County and attended Tuscola High School. She was one of five African-American students in the class of 1984.
“I’ve always done what I have to do to integrate,” she said. “But I never thought the color of my skin would stop me from getting opportunities. I’ve always believed that if you want something, it’s up to you to do what you have to do to get it.”
She was hired as a girls basketball coach at Asheville High and led the Cougars to three consecutive state titles from 2003 to 2005. In 2011, she was asked to coach the boys team, something that had never been done before in WNC.
“People would say, ‘A woman can’t coach boys basketball’ and I’d say, ‘This one can,” said Rex Wells, a former AD at Asheville High who hired Warren-Dixon. “Those kids played for her because they knew that she loved them and she was a heck of a coach. It didn’t matter that she was a woman.”
Warren-Dixon compiled a 64-54 record in five seasons as coach of the Asheville boys program. In 2016, she was hired as Cherokee’s boys basketball coach, replacing 600-win coach Willis Tullos.
Once again, she became the first woman to coach boys basketball at Cherokee High School.
“I’ve always been grateful for the opportunities that have been given to me,” she said. “But you have to make the most of those opportunities.”
She came to Cherokee with the full support of the community, but she received a less than warm reception from other conference coaches and their fan bases.
“Some people weren’t happy that this black woman was strolling in and kicking their butts,” Warren-Dixon said. “We had some incidents. A few times I had to be escorted out by security for my safety. But that’s just how it goes.”