Fifteen years ago, Keith Dambrot was convinced he'd never coach again.
By ZAC JACKSON FS Ohio
AKRON, Ohio – When practice ends and the gym is all but cleared, Keith Dambrot starts walking.
Around and around the JAR Arena floor the University of Akron coach goes, every day, for usually 30 but sometimes 45 minutes. He keeps the time on a digital watch on his left wrist, the same wrist he’s been known to wear his players’ rubber wristbands during games.
Dambrot is driven by routine and superstition, and these walks are driven by his desire to still be making them almost decade from now. He’s 54, and he signed a 10-year extension with his alma mater last summer. He’s come face to face with his coaching mortality once, and before he hands off the reigns at Akron he wants to continue to both figuratively raise the ceiling for the program and, sometime soon, literally stick the shovel in the ground for a new arena.
On these walks Dambrot pictures himself in Akron’s next game, and he finds himself mentally drawing up last-second plays and substitution patterns. He plays through scenarios in his mind, replays the day’s practice then meets his assistant coaches for lunch for more talk about the team and the next game at hand.
"I don’t have a lot of hobbies," he said, and he only laughed briefly.
He told his wife a few years back that he was "ready to grow up," that he'd accepted that there was little correlation between his superstitious routines and results of Akron games, but what he really meant was he was ready to give up a few of them. And now, with the Zips riding a national-best 17-game win streak, it took a lot more internal debate than it should have a couple weeks ago for Dambrot to actually get his hair cut.
He wore a sports jacket on the sideline once, for a big national TV game like Akron will play Friday night, "and we absolutely got our butts kicked," so the jackets now stay in the closet at home. He considers his pregame nap all but mandatory, and he likes to eat before the games with his players but at a table all his own. He started out this season wearing a new pair of shoes, but after a couple losses his teenage son suddenly had a fancy pair of black dress shoes to call his own.
A baseball player during his own college days, Dambrot basically grew up on this campus, where his mom was a professor. He also grew up loving basketball and was raised on the importance of defense by a father who’d played on Duquesne teams ranked No. 1 in the country in the 1950s. Even in his first basketball coaching job as a college student, when he helped coach the high school junior varsity at his alma mater, he preached defense to a group the way Sid Dambrot had always preached it to him, and that group played it well enough for Firestone to win the Akron City Series JV championship.
As soon as he was done playing baseball at Akron and had his degree, he started as an assistant basketball coach at Akron. By 1984 he had his MBA from Akron and his first college head-coaching job at Tiffin College. He went from there to Eastern Michigan as an assistant, then won 48 games in two seasons as head coach at Div. II Ashland before taking over at Central Michigan in 1991.
He was 32 and very much on the fast track.
Several years later he was in his late 30s, selling stocks and bonds in Akron and running basketball clinics on the weekends. When the head-coaching job at Firestone High School came open, a friend pushed Dambrot to chase it.
Dambrot could barely get an interview. He said he knew he had "no chance" of getting the job.
His fast-track career went off-track in 1993, when he was fired by Central Michigan.
Word spread through campus that Dambrot had used a racial slur in the locker room. Four days after the incident, Dambrot was placed on university suspension. Ten days later, he was fired.
The case went to court – and then multiple cases went to multiple courts. Exactly what was said, both in the locker room and in the various cases, is well documented. Racial tensions were heightened on campus. Various rights groups and the national media descended upon Mount Pleasant, Mich.
Dambrot maintained that he was using the word as slang and as a challenge to his team, not as a derogatory team. In backing up that claim, nine African-American players at Central Michigan joined the federal lawsuit when Dambrot sued Central Michigan for unlawful termination.
The results of the suits varied. The end result for Dambrot was that he was out of coaching, considered "poison," as he said recently, by potential employers. He returned to Akron and worked as a financial planner, his only connection to basketball through clinics he ran for area kids.
For six years in that job, he was "miserable." He made a good living, but basketball had been his life.
"I liked the money in stocks, but I didn’t like the job," Dambrot said. "I was bored to death."
He says it humbly. Earlier this season he won his 300th game as a college head coach and, later, his 200th at Akron, and Dambrot said he took pride in those personal accomplishments "only because there was a time, and I can remember it like yesterday, that I thought I’d never coach again. I’m very lucky, and I’ll never lose sight of that."
Now an Akron assistant coach, Charles Thomas was once a teenage basketball star Dambrot recruited. Charles and his twin brother, Carl, played at Eastern Michigan when Dambrot was an assistant there, and they’ve maintained a relationship in more than 25 years since.
Both Carl and Charles Thomas had professional basketball careers, and when Carl played for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 1990s, Dambrot managed Carl’s investments out of his Akron office.
"Seeing him behind that desk, wearing that tie and opening that folder, it just looked funny," Charles Thomas said. "It didn’t seem right."
Thomas, who is African-American, knows something that wasn’t right happened 20 years at Central Michigan. His support for Dambrot has never wavered.
"I was at his house maybe a month after (the incident)," Thomas said. "He said he got caught up in the moment. I told him then I knew he wasn’t like that, and I know it now. He recruited me when I was 17 years old. I knew he made one bad decision and isn’t a bad person.
"I also wasn’t afraid to call him a dummy, and he didn’t fight it. He fought Central Michigan because he felt like he was fighting with and for his team, that’s all. He understands it was wrong.
"I have no qualms or problems about it because that’s not him. I don’t condone it, but I would never condemn him for it because I know him. And anybody who knows Keith Dambrot knows he’s not a racist. He’s a top-notch person."
It wasn’t just Firestone that was afraid to hire Dambrot in the late '90s. He also interviewed at the now-closed Central-Hower High School, which sits on the University of Akron campus, just a few hundred yards from where Dambrot takes his walks every day around noon.
It’s not far from there to St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, and Dambrot knew the school president, Fred Ost. Because it was a private school, Dambrot thought he had a better shot there, and in 1998 he was hired. He was still managing money for clients by day, but he was back on the sideline.
"I wanted to go screaming down the street when he got that job," Donna Dambrot said of her husband. "I can’t even explain the feeling. For him to be back doing what he loves, it was so amazing.
"Selling stocks and bonds was strictly a means to support his family. He just didn’t have the passion for it. Getting back to coaching, he was instantly the old Keith. He was back in his element."
He was still working his clinics at the local Jewish community center, and it was there that he met a 13-year old LeBron James. They connected instantly, and Dambrot began the process of recruiting James, his talented group of friends and their families to send the boys to high school at St. Vincent-St. Mary.
Charles Thomas moved from Michigan to assist Dambrot at St. V-M, even living with the Dambrot family for four months. Late in their eighth grade year, James’ close friend Dru Joyce III decided that St. V-M was the best fit for him, and his friends followed.
"The rest is a little like a fairy tale," Dambrot said.
These daily walks take Dambrot under the huge banner of Bob Huggins that hangs in the corner of the JAR, the reminder that Huggins was the first coach to take Akron to a Div. I NCAA Tournament. Dambrot also walks under the two NCAA Tournament banners his teams have hung in the last four seasons.
He barely looks up on most days. He’s busy dreaming up a play to get a good look if his teams need a last shot next month to get back to the NCAA Tournament.
Even before collecting the first of back-to-back state titles he’d win at St. V-M in 2000-01, Dambrot called Huggins, who was then at Cincinnati, and told him he needed to come to Akron to see "the best player in Ohio." When Huggins reacted like many coaches did, hinting to Dambrot that he needed to pump the brakes on his enthusiasm and expectations, Dambrot did change his approach to selling James’ talents.
"Then I told them he might be the best ever," Dambrot said.
After James’ sophomore year at St. V-M, Dambrot was offered a low-paying job as an assistant at Akron and a chance to return to college coaching. He debated for all of about two seconds.
"The biggest decision I had to make was, 'Am I going to leave LeBron?'" he said. "In my mind I had to try to make a full comeback for my own sake, my own mental well-being. I loved being back (coaching) and I didn’t know if there would ever be another opportunity, if any.
"I had to take the risk."
That was in 2001. On March 10, 2004, he was hired as Akron’s head coach.
Rebuilding his reputation was an ongoing process.
"People tried to use (the incident) against us in recruiting when I was at Akron," VCU coach Shaka Smart, a Dambrot assistant from 2004-06 said. "I don’t know if they still do, but a decade after the incident I know it was being brought up in recruiting circles. He was put in a very negative light."
"What he’s done since is prove, time and time again, that he cares about his players as much as any coach I know, and that he cares about them as people as much as players. If there’s any negativity or thought that he’s anything other than a very good person out there now, I think it’s somebody really stretching. I’ve never been around a head coach who cared so much about his players."
Dambrot now recruits players who weren’t born when he was fired at Central Michigan. But all of Akron’s players know about the incident, and some of them know strictly because Dambrot discusses it often.
"It’s important that young people know that you might be one mistake from having everything taken away from you," Dambrot said. "I talk about it because I want to emphasize that I went from thinking I had everything to being out of the game. It was my fault. Now, I want it to be a good lesson."
Said Smart: "Keith is one of most open-minded people I know. He comes from a family of open-minded, good people. He made a mistake. And if you know the context of what was said, I’m not saying it was right, but what he was trying to get across wasn’t what came out.
"He shouldn’t have said it. He knows that now, and he probably knew it then. But knowing Keith the way I do, I say with confidence that there was no bad intent. He got caught in a bad situation."
Every fall, college basketball coaches are allotted a certain number of hours per week for individual workouts with their players. At VCU, those workouts always start with and are focused on defense.
"I learned that from Keith," Smart said.
Smart’s "Havoc" defense was a big part of VCU’s improbable run from the First Four to the Final Four in 2011. He credits Dambrot for not only teaching him certain defensive principles, but for reinforcing that a commitment to defense can be a commitment to winning.
On his first day at Akron, Smart wasn’t sure what to think when Dambrot told him to get in the car and 10 minutes later Smart was in some dimly-lit gym working out a skinny basketball prodigy named LeBron. Today, he’s thankful for every experience he’s shared with Dambrot.
"Keith is just a terrific person," Smart said. "I learned a lot from him, but most importantly I think I learned how a head coach should treat people. Those relationships and those people – everybody around the program, even your fans – are your foundation as a coach. Keith always went out of his way to be nice, to let people know he cared.
"People that have no way to help him in his daily life or job, he treats them just as well as he treats his assistant coaches or his players or his bosses. Somebody that’s maybe down on their luck...for whatever reason, Keith is always going out of his way to pay attention, let (somebody) know that he cares. That’s something I noticed early and something I hope I took with me when I left."
Dambrot was driving his son, Robby, home from an out-of-state soccer tournament during the VCU-Kansas regional final in 2011 and listening to the game on the radio. When VCU clinched the win and the Final Four berth, Dambrot was so happy for Smart that he cried.
Earlier this month, Robby Dambrot signed to play for Akron’s nationally recognized soccer program. Keith and Donna Dambrot’s first child, Alysse, is a senior at Akron.
Eight college basketball teams nationally have won 20-plus games in each of the last eight seasons, and Akron is on that list with four teams that have played in national championship games during that span. Dambrot believes a mid-major program can and will win a national championship one of these years, but he knows it will take a combination of talent, luck and circumstances.
He’s most proud not of the banners, the milestones or even the national ranking that could come if this year’s Zips can extend this winning streak. He’s relaxed his game-day workouts, even cut practice a few minutes short at times without notice. Begrudgingly, he’ll get a haircut during a win streak and won’t pull his own hair out if he can’t wear the same pair of shorts until a certain amount of time before each game.
"We’ve taken no short cuts here," Dambrot said. "We’ve done it absolutely the right way. We’ve had no major issues. We’ve taken a lot of four-year guys and we’ve graduated every player since I’ve been the head coach who has stayed. We have not skimped in any area. We’ve taken a long-term approach.
"We have good housing, good equipment, good food, good academic support. With maybe everything but the arena, we’re just like a high-major. If you ask coaches around the country, I think they’ll say we have a good program."
In January, Akron hosted LeBron James Bobblehead Night. Three weeks ago, it hosted Keith Dambrot Bobblehead Night.
In the past two springs, other programs reached out to see if Dambrot was interested in their coaching vacancies. Duquesne last spring made the most public overture, and Dambrot considered it.
In the end, his decision mirrored the one he made in leaving St. V-M 12 years ago in one way. It didn’t take him long to choose the job at Akron.
"He has such a genuine love for Akron that I thought there was very little chance that any offer could drag him away," Donna Dambrot said. "This is where he wants to be. Knowing somebody else was interested was a mark of success. He was willing to listen, but I’ve never thought he wanted to leave."
Said Keith Dambrot: "We’ve been really lucky. Most coaches are hopping around the country; their kids never get settled. Now that Robby is coming to school here, my wife has let me know that if I go anywhere, I’m going by myself."
What’s left, Dambrot hopes, is for the hometown guy to take the hometown team back to the NCAA Tournament and at least few lines through the bracket. When he’s not checking his watch he’s checking Akron’s RPI ranking. Right now, he knows that the 21-4 Zips had better keep winning and win their way in, leaving nothing to chance.
He’s not obsessed with this winning streak and thinks his players are both loose and mature enough not to be, either. But if anybody knows how costly one mistake can be, it’s the short, fiery guy with the fresh haircut stomping along the Akron sideline.
"He always tells the players, 'Don’t listen to the bark, listen to the message' when he comes at them," Charles Thomas said. "He’s intense, but he’s also the first guy to pick you up when you’re having a bad day. He’ll talk. He’ll listen. He really practices what he preaches – an open door policy, open lines of communication.
"It’s funny that a baseball guy is this good of a basketball coach, but he knows his stuff. What he’s doing now, this is him. This is what he’s meant to be doing."