Dambrot’s move not a major surprise

When I heard last week that Keith Dambrot was leaving as the University of Akron men’s basketball coach and accepting a seven-year, $7 million contract to coach at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, it didn’t surprise me one bit.

At a news conference Thursday, Dambrot was introduced as the new men’s head basketball coach at Duquesne. In his 13 years with the Zips, Dambrot, 58, became the school’s all-time winningest coach, compiling a 305-139 record. He led Akron to consecutive Mid-American Conference regular-season championships in 2016 and 2017 and was also named MAC Coach of the Year in those two seasons.

I had the honor and privilege of knowing Dambrot going back to the late ’90s, when he coached LeBron James as a freshman at St. Vincent-St. Mary and I was a sportswriter for the Akron Beacon Journal, covering both guys. I know Dambrot’s decision to leave Akron wasn’t about the money.

I’m guessing that his decision for leaving the city which resurrected his career was two-fold. First, he felt frustrated by the fact that the NCAA tournament selection committee rarely awards at-large bids to mid-major programs like Akron. The NCAA’s track record when it comes to the mid-majors is “win your conference tournament or forget about the NCAA tournament.”

The Zips won the MAC regular season title the last two years but lost in the MAC tournament championship games, thus, missing out on the NCAA automatic bid. In fact, the last time the MAC received an at-large bid was in 1999.

“When you’re not happy after winning 26 and 27 games, you have to re-evaluate,” Dambrot told Elton Alexander of the Plain Dealer Monday night. “The one-bid league thing was really starting to wear on me and my staff.”

Dambrot also said, “This was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I never could have made my comeback without Akron. Not many people get to coach for their alma mater. I will always be an Akron Zip.”

Dambrot grew up in Akron, played baseball at Firestone High School, and later at Akron, before embarking on his college coaching career.

However, I feel the second reason why he decided to leave and head to Duquesne wasn’t so much about the money, as much as it was having a personal connection to the school.

As I wrote in my book, LeBron James: The Rise of a Star, Dambrot was “raised by Jewish parents not only known to be liberals but who, according to family and friends, had taught their son to be accepting of all people, regardless of their economic status, race or ethnic background.”

His mother, Faye, who passed away of lung cancer in 1999 at the age of 65, started the Women’s Studies program at the University of Akron and was a strong, vocal proponent of equal rights.

“She wasn’t afraid to fight for what she thought was right, even before it was fashionable. She didn’t care what people thought,” Dambrot said.

And Keith’s dad, Sid, played basketball at Duquesne.

During Thursday’s press conference, Keith revealed the personal connection he and his family has with Duquesne. Keith’s father, who is 86, helped the Dukes reach No. 1 in the AP poll during his senior year in 1954. He said he wants to be buried in his blue Duquesne letterman’s sweater with the red D on it.

“If he wants to wear his letter sweater into his casket, then I have to resurrect Duquesne basketball before I die,” Keith said during the press conference. “Or I’m going to die trying and wear my letter jacket in that thing.”

Meanwhile, Duquesne was one of the first schools to have African-American players. According to the school’s website: “Duquesne was founded in 1878 by a group of Catholic missionaries also known as the Spiritans. From humble beginnings as a school for the children of Pittsburgh’s poor immigrants, Duquesne today is an educational and economic powerhouse comprising nine schools of study that serves nearly 10,000.”

I remember Dambrot once asking me, “Did you know the first black professional basketball player played at Duquesne and his name was Chuck Cooper?”

I didn’t know that, but Keith educated me. I found out that Cooper was born and died in Pittsburgh, and was one of the first African-American players in the NBA, along with Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton and Earl Lloyd in 1950. Cooper also was the first African-American drafted by an NBA team — the Boston Celtics — as the first pick in the second round.

To me, Dambrot’s decision to leave Akron and head to Duquesne wasn’t about the money, or the chance to play in the NCAA tournament. Those things are a plus, obviously.

To me, though, it speaks more to the fabric of who he is, and what Faye and Sid Dambrot taught him about what’s most important in life — to be accepting of all people, regardless of their economic status, race or ethnic background.

Knowing Keith, he’ll continue to do that at Duquesne, which is a special place for him and his family. And he’ll win a few basketball games along the way.

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