Jon Teitel's "Coaching Greats" Series: Akron's Keith Dambrot

July 8th, 2011
In the most recent installment in his "Coaching Greats" interview series CHN writer spent some time with current Akron head coach Keith Dambrot. During his time at his alma mater, the former Akron baseball captain has won 162 games and led the Zips to a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances. Coach Dambrot also coached LeBron James in high school for two years, a period in which St. Vincent/ St. Mary's won 53 of 54 games.

Jon Teitel: Your uncle Irwin was the NCAA Tournament MVP in 1950 for CCNY before being drafted seventh overall by the Knicks (one spot ahead of Hall of Famer George Yardley), and your father Sid went to the NIT for three straight years as a player at Duquesne in the 1950s. Was it a coincidence that you had such an athletic family, or do you credit at least some of your success to genetics? 

Keith Dambrot: I am the worst male member of my family as far as basketball!  My dad started on the #1 team in the country, but at least I got my mom's intellectual genes.  My dad and uncle did make me a better coach, as they taught me that defense wins titles. 

JT: Irwin was convicted for his role in a point-shaving scandal during his time in college. How is he viewed by your family, and what impact did it have on his own life? 

KD: I do not think it affected us very much, but it certainly affected him.  It is hard to understand unless you lived back then. Nobody had any money.  It is something that I talk to my team about in order to teach them a lesson.  He has recovered and had a successful dental career.  

JT: You went to Akron for college, where your mother Faye was a psychology professor who helped form the school's women's studies department. Why did you decide to go to Akron, and was it good or bad to have your mother teaching

KD: I thought it was a positive, as I was proud of her.  She was a pioneer for women, so I grew up as "Fay's son".  She was around men who were involved in sports, which was a weird dichotomy. 

JT: You played 3rd base for the varsity baseball team and were named captain and MVP. How good a baseball player were you, and why did you make the switch from baseball player to basketball coach? 

KD: I always liked basketball better due to my family connections, but I was a better baseball player.  I never thought about coaching basketball until my high school coach Bob Rupert brought me in as an assistant. 

JT: What are your memories of the 1988 NCAA Tournament, where you were an assistant at EMU under Coach Ben Braun (Charles Smith had 31 points and 12 rebounds in a Pitt victory)? 

KD: Coach Braun is probably my best friend in the world. A lot of my basketball philosophy is based on what Ben taught me.  He was great to work for, and we had some great guys on that team like future NBA player Grant Long.  EMU had never done well in the MAC before, but that was the start of their success. 

JT: You spent two years as coach at Central Michigan, but were fired in 1993 for allegedly saying, "You know, we need some tough n------ on our team". How did you feel about getting fired, and how did that one statement change your life? 

KD: At the time it was a catastrophe and I thought that I would never get to coach again.  You can say that I was young, or naïve, or unprofessional, but people who know me know that it was not meant to be racial.  It was the dumbest thing I have ever done, but it has made me a better coach and person, because if I get depressed these days I just sit back and realize how lucky I am to be a coach. 

JT: In 1998 you became head coach at St. Vincent-St. Mary HS in Akron, and in your final two years there you went 53-1 and won back-to-back state titles. Do you think you had the best team in the country, and do you remember the one loss? 

KD: I remember the one-point loss to top-ranked Oak Hill Academy, who featured guys like DeSagna Diop and Rashaad Carruth.  LeBron James and his teammates were only sophomores so we were probably not the best team at the point, but we were very competitive. 

JT: LeBron played for your high school team after participating in $1 clinics that you conducted at the local JCC when he was only 13. What do you remember about the first time you met LeBron, and when did you first realize how special a player he was? 

KD: The first time I met him was at the clinic when Coach Dru Joyce brought him over and said that he was talented.  I remember that LeBron was like a sponge and just wanted to learn as much as he could.  I realized how good he was after about three practices, which is when I started telling people that he was going to be a pro.  By his sophomore season I realized how advanced he was and knew that he would go to the NBA instead of college.  Between being known as "Fay's son" and "LeBron's coach", I have never had an identity of my own!

JT: In 2004 you took over as head coach of Akron. Why did you take the job, and what did it mean to you to become coach at your alma mater? 

KD: I did not have any choice at that point.  I was not surprised that Coach Dan Hipsher got fired, but was surprised by how quickly I got the job.  I sold stocks and bonds in the mid-1990s when nobody would hire me to be a coach, so there was no way I was going to turn down the Akron job after they offered it to me. 

2006 Postseason NIT

JT: Dru Joyce III made a lay-up with nine seconds left to send the game into OT, and you ended up with a seven-point win over Temple. Was it weird to coach against the Owls without John Chaney there (due to his wife's health issues), and where does Dru's shot rank among the most clutch you have ever seen? 

KD: Akron had never won a postseason game since moving to D-I, so it was a big break for us when Chaney did not show up but they still had a great player in Mardy Collins.  It was huge for us to beat them and put our program on the map, which really helped us with recruiting.  It was fitting that little Dru made the shot because I would not have been at Akron were in not for players like him and LeBron.

JT: Romeo Travis had 25 points, 15 rebounds and three blocks in a loss to Creighton. How devastating was that loss, and what was the feeling like in your locker room afterwards? 

KD: It was not that devastating.  We had played on Saturday night in the MAC Tournament, then Tuesday night in Philly against Temple, followed by a Thursday game at Creighton, so we knew it would be a tough week. We just tried to do the best we could and have fun, which is sometimes the best way to play.  Creighton coach Dana Altman did not lose a lot of games at home in front of 18,000 people, so as a realist I knew the odds of winning were rough. 

JT: What are your memories of the 2007 MAC Tournament championship game (after losing a high school state championship to your St. Vincent-St. Mary team in 2003, Doug Penno banked in a three-point shot at the buzzer for a one-point win by Miami (OH))? 

KD: Now THAT game was devastating.  We were a really good team that could have done well in the tourney were it not for the clock mismanagement (TV replays appeared to show that the clock did not start properly before the shot).  I thought that loss might affect our program because we needed to make the NCAA Tournament in order to take the next step.  Not making the NIT that year was also devastating. 

JT: What are your memories of the 2008 NIT (Nick Dials scored 21 points in a five-point OT win over Florida State, then Jeremiah Wood scored 25 in a five-point loss to eventual runner-up UMass)? 

KD: I thought that we played really well at Florida State, and anytime you can beat an ACC team it is huge.  We had UMass on the ropes in their building but just ran out of gas.  Wood was in great shape at the end of the year, which helped us get to the NIT.  

JT: What are your memories of the 2009 NCAA Tournament, the first for Akron in 23 years (Josh Heytvelt scored 22 points in Gonzaga's win in Portland)? 

KD: I thought our team was a little green, but we played really well on offense for two-thirds of the game before going stale.  Gonzaga was just too big and strong for us, and we had our hands full with guys like Matt Bouldin as well.  We were in the game and just needed some more consistency in the final 8 minutes, but did not play great defense. 

JT: When LeBron announced last summer that he was going to join the Miami Heat, you said, "I am happy for him, but at the same time, I feel bad for the people". What did you mean by that, and how are the people dealing with it so far? 

KD: I am happy for him because he made the decision based purely on business reasons. I do not second-guess LeBron at all.  He wanted to go where he could win some titles, and he deserves to win some titles.  At the same time, I feel bad for the northeast Ohio area because he was a glimmer of hope and one of the main factors that helped revitalize the area. 

JT: When people look back on your career, how do you want to be remembered the most? 

KD: I would like to be remembered as a mid-major guy who stuck around and coached at his alma mater and gave it his all to make it a good program. 
Coach Dambrot is also on Jon's list of best coaches in MAC history.

Akron: Keith Dambrot (2004-present) 162-75, 2 NCAA tourneys, 2 conference titles
Ball State: Ray McCallum (1993-2000) 126-76, 2 NCAA tourneys, 2 conference titles
Bowling Green: Harold Anderson (1942-1963) 362-185, 3 NCAA tourneys, 3 conference titles
Buffalo: Reggie Witherspoon (1999-present) 164-197, 1 conference title, 1-time conference COY
Central Michigan: Dick Parfitt (1972-1985) 178-168, 2 NCAA tourneys, 2 conference titles, 1-time conference COY
Eastern Michigan: Ben Braun (1985-1996) 185-132, 3 NCAA tourneys, 3 conference titles, 3-time conference COY
Kent State: Jim Christian (2002-2008) 137-59, 2 NCAA tourneys, 4 conference titles, 2-time conference COY
Miami (OH): Charlie Coles (1996-present) 257-205, 3 NCAA tourneys, 3 conference titles, 1-time conference COY
Northern Illinois: John McDougal (1976-1986) 136-141, 1 NCAA tourney, 1 conference title, 1-time conference COY
Ohio: James Snyder (1949-1974) 354-245, 7 NCAA tourneys, 7 conference titles, 2-time conference COY
Toledo: Bob Nichols (1965-1987) 375-213, 3 NCAA tourneys, 4 conference titles, 3-time conference COY
Western Michigan: Herbert "Buck" Read (1922-1949) 345-169