Pittsburgh, PA — A standing room only crowd flocked the PPG Paints Arena’s Lexus Club, but by no means was it to watch Sidney Crosby score a goal or for Matt Murray to make a stick save.
Thursday night brought fans, athletics teams, family and friends together to celebrate a new beginning as Keith Dambrot was introduced as the 17th head coach in Duquesne men’s basketball history.
It was a crowd that might have been larger than several Duquesne games this past season. This is not a slight on that team, but rather an expression of excitement at the direction this program is taking moving forward.
“I really feel like I am coming home,” Dambrot said. “When I coached at Akron, I always felt like I was coaching at the school where I belonged, where I had a lot of support. I feel the same way. This is mind-boggling how many people are here.”
Throughout Dave Harper’s time as Duquesne Athletics Director, he has stated the idea of being purposeful. It is no secret that the two weeks prior to the above announcement were chaotic with many different and ultimately incorrect reports of who the team’s new coach would be before finally Dambrot was announced to fill the role Monday evening.
With all of the noise and some vacant coaching jobs in the Atlantic 10, it could have been an extremely agonizing and lengthy two week period, but Harper stayed in his lane and never wavered.
“During a process, you have to block everything out and be solely focused on the right person and the right coach,” he said. “There is no time line. The most important thing you do, whether you run a business or whether you’re hiring a coach, you find the right person with the right skills, talents, competitiveness, sense of excellence. It may sound simple, but it was always about finding the right coach and the right person, and that’s what we’ve got.”
Why Duquesne now?
Forgive Dambrot if he enjoys a good fairy tale, especially if his idea of happily ever after involves coaching at Duquesne.
Dambrot’s father Sid, now 86, played for the program in the 1950’s and this was a fact that was never forgotten.
“My dad has this old letter sweater, and it’s a blue sweater with the red D on it,” said Keith Dambrot. “About 15 years ago he said to me, you know when I die, I want to wear that in my casket. It sounds kind of stupid, but it’s really kind of a way people feel about Duquesne. It’s like that at the Catholic institutions.”
Five years ago, Dambrot was reported to be in the running for the Duquesne coaching job but it was not the right time for him.
When Harper called and both sides did their homework, an agreement was made. This time, Dambrot was on board.
“I think from my assessment right now I felt like the commitment Duquesne was making to be great, interest me,” Dambrot said.
It was not just Harper and Duquesne president Ken Gormley than won Dambrot over, but it was a realization of Akron’s situation.
When your program is in the same breath as Duke, Kansas and Gonzaga for continued winning, yet no NCAA Tournament berth is given, it can get frustrating.
The margin for error is essentially none in the Mid-American Conference, of which Akron is a member. This is a conference in which one team has made the NCAA Tournament.
Each of the past two seasons, Akron has won at a very high rate and did not win the MAC Tournament meaning it ha to play in the NIT.
“Look, we won 26 games last year, 27 games this year, and I wasn’t really happy,” admitted Dambrot. “At that point you have to analyze whether you need to make a change. It wasn’t just me, it was my coaching staff as well. We just felt like the one-bid league was bothering us.”
Dambrot then went back to his father and Duquesne, which gives him a sense of pride. He turned down a couple of schools, clearly indicating it would take a special opportunity to leave an Akron program he dearly loved.
Then Duquesne called and Dambrot saw what he viewed as unfinished business.
“I felt like a lot of people were underestimating my dad’s school, and I don’t like the fact that there are no banners in that gym from a long time ago until now,” he said. “I asked a lot of people a lot of questions and people that I trusted, and I just felt like we could win big. If we win big, we’re going to show everybody that they were wrong. I can’t understand why Duquesne can’t be a big winner. I’ll be very disappointed if we don’t win.”
On the surface, Dambrot using the word “Pittsburghian” is a page out of the George W. Bush playbook, but as comical as this word choice was, he was using it for the right reasons. This idea was to display an all-too-familiar mindset of Pittsburgh.
“We’re going to change the whole mindset and culture that we’re going to be Pittsburghians or whatever they’re called,” he said. “She’s (Dambrot’s wife Donna) a Michigander, we’re going to be Pittsburghians, all right. That is blue-collar, tough, rust-belt tough, hard-nosed, tougher than the other teams we play.”
Part of this involves a significantly larger commitment to defense. Dambrot takes a lot of pride in his defense which during his tenure at Akron was almost entirely man-to-man.
Of course how much if any man defense Dambrot uses may depend on who he brings over via recruiting, Akron and those who are returning to Duquesne.
“Every coach has a way they prefer to play, I prefer to play good hard-nosed man-to-man,” said Dambrot. “I like to play inside out but I coached at all levels and have coached all kinds of players. I feel like I’ve coached long enough or old enough to be able to play in a variety of different ways so eventually I’d like to play mostly man but I have to be smart enough to win games in the end. In the first year at Akron we played 35-40% zone, we didn’t have as good of talent and did what we had to do to win. We’ll see what we have to do here to win.”
Duquesne’s Mike Lewis II spoke to reporters following Thursday evening’s press conference and said he was “very likely” to return for a sophomore season.
“The things he said today were things he’s said to me all week. He has a plan,” Lewis II said.
Lewis II previously asked to request his release from Duquesne to look at other schools.
He said it
“It was the hardest decision I ever made because I played little league baseball with those people. I went to kindergarten with those people. I lived there the majority of my life. They helped me win at Akron. They gave me the opportunity. I live on a nice lake. My wife’s happy. It was an unbelievably hard decision. I figure at some point in your life you’ve got to let your hair down, and I just wanted the chance at this. I just felt like I couldn’t let Duquesne go 40 years and not go to the NCAA Tournament or at least give it a whirl. I just felt like I had those ties that could bring it all together.” Dambrot on leaving Akron