Keith Dambrot’s success goes beyond winning and losing

When you have a consistent track record of success, people will find anything they can to criticize you. This has happened over the past couple of weeks for Akron Zips basketball coach Keith Dambrot.

Since Akron’s 70-65 loss to Kent State in the Mid-American Conference championship game on March 11th, some have questioned the success of Dambrot as a head coach. They have referenced his 3-6 record in nine appearances in the MAC championship game, so let’s start right there, shall we?

While Akron has won just three of its nine appearances in the game, the Zips have been in the championship game nine times in the last 11 seasons which includes seven in a row from 2007-2013. Both of those are claims no other school can make since the tournament began in 1980.

DambrotDambrot’s nine appearances as a head coach in the MAC championship game put him in elite company when it comes to championship games in the MAC. That list? It’s Dambrot. That’s all. Charlie Coles is the only other coach who comes close, with eight (two at Central Michigan and six at Miami). In fact, Dambrot has led the Zips to more MAC championship games in the past 11 seasons than all but three other schools have been to the game since 1980.

Overall in the MAC Tournament, Dambrot is 27-10 as the leader of the Zips.

As far as winning overall? Dambrot has that covered, too.

When the Zips defeated Bowling Green on January 5th this season, Dambrot became the school’s all-time winningest basketball coach with his 289th victory to surpass Russell Beichly. With Akron’s win over Houston in the first round of the NIT, Dambrot currently has 305 wins at the school.

Consistency has been the key to success for Dambrot and the Zips.

This season was the 12th straight in which the Zips have won 21 or more games. In fact, they have won 23 or more games in nine of those seasons which includes a program-record 27 wins this season. Its current streak of 21+ win seasons puts Akron in a class that includes just the Zips, Gonzaga, Duke and Kansas with current streaks of 21+ win seasons. The only season under Dambrot in which Akron didn’t win 21 or more games was his initial season in 2004-05, when the team won 19.

One of the reasons Akron has been able to remain consistent is because of Dambrot’s ability to adapt as a coach. Instead of trying to force a square peg into a round hole by making each team play by the same parameters as the last, Dambrot is able to use his team’s talents to its fullest. If that means they become a team that relies on 3-point shooting, so be it. If that means learning how to play inside out, that’s what they do. Whether it’s playing offense at a slow pace or at a faster pace, Akron always figures out a way.

The Zips have averaged as few as 66.8 points per game in a season under Dambrot and have also averaged as many as 77.2 points per game this season.

While the offense is adaptable, the defense is non-negotiable. If you want to see the floor as a Zip, you will play hard on the defensive end.

“If you don’t guard, you don’t play around here. That’s how we built the program,” Dambrot said after a game in January 2014. “We’ve got to bang them up, bruise them up, slop it up, beat ass. That’s what we have to do if we are going to win. Simple.”

And defend they do.

In Dambrot’s 13 seasons at the helm, Akron has held its opponents to less than 66 points per game nine times and to 42.0% or worse shooting nine times. Even in a season like this one where they allowed the highest points per game under Dambrot (70.4), the Zips still had a scoring differential of +7.2.

As strange as it may seem, coaching isn’t just about the wins and losses. It can also be about how a coach connects with his team, interacts with his players and the respect the players have for the coach.

And Dambrot has that down, too.

Dambrot has always shown a special connection to his players, and that connection has led to many moments where the head coach has had the back of one of his players through difficult times.

When Quincy Diggs was suspended by school administration for the 2013 season, it was Dambrot who stayed in the player’s corner. Diggs was reinstated for the 2014 season and was able to give advice to other players who were having a tough time because of the lessons he was taught by his head coach.

“He taught me about handling adversity,” Diggs said of Dambrot after a game in 2014. “He told me you have to fight (through it) and that’s exactly what I did.”

One of the more newsworthy off-court issues that has arisen during Dambrot’s reign at Akron was undoubtedly the arrest and suspension of point guard Alex Abreu right before Akron took on rival Kent State in the regular season finale in 2013. Despite the criticism Abreu took from most people, Dambrot said after the game that night that he was still going to back his player through his toughest of times.

“I am going to stick behind him. It is my obligation to stick behind him and get him through his difficult times,” Dambrot said that night. “Nobody knows better than me that people make mistakes. If anybody can forgive him, it’s going to be me.”

“I did tell our guys we have to give him more love than we have ever given anybody in our life because that’s what you do to a brother that is in trouble. We are going to be there for him. That’s all you can do and that’s why people come to Akron because that’s what we built the program on.”

Yes, that’s exactly what Dambrot has built his Akron program on – love for each other and the togetherness of a family.

It isn’t just about the public showing of support for a player when it comes to Akron’s coach that makes him special, though.

There was the night of February 21, 2015.

Freshman guard Noah Robotham had been averaging 8.9 points per game for the Zips when he injured his right knee. After the injury, Robotham went to the free throw line, where he hit one of two free throws before coming out of the game. The confirmation of a torn ACL wouldn’t come until a couple of days later, but if you saw Dambrot after the game, you didn’t need an MRI to know the truth.

After waiting for Dambrot to come into the media room following the game for what seemed like forever without Dambrot making his way in, another reporter and I asked about the coach. We were then led to the training room, where Dambrot was sitting on a table, head down, jacket off, tie loosened, top button of his dress shirt already unbuttoned. It was the look of a kid who had just lost his puppy.

It was then that we knew we wouldn’t be seeing Robotham again that season.

The look and body language from Dambrot? It wasn’t self-pity, even though nobody would have blamed him if it was. It was a genuine concern for one of his players – no, one of his sons. It’s one of those things that sets Dambrot apart.

So you can go ahead and judge Dambrot’s “success” based on just his record in the MAC championship game. As for me, I will judge him by the entire body of work.

After all, it’s a pretty impressive body of work.

Comments? Questions? You can email Ryan at ryanisley23@gmail.com or connect with him on Twitter @isley23.

 

Hiring Ianello Was A Mistake for Akron

By Ryan Isley (Originally posted on 10/7/2010)

University of Akron athletic director Tom Wistrcill and his entire staff are learning an important lesson the hard way that you cannot judge a book by the cover.

Last football season, the Zips were a woefully underachieving 3-9 (2-6 in the MAC), bringing to an end the six-year tenure of head coach J.D. Brookhart.

During the hiring process to replace Brookhart, Wistrcill and his staff were hoodwinked and bamboozled by Touchdown Jesus into hiring then-Notre Dame interim head coach Rob Ianello.

Wistrcill was out to make a splash with this hiring, knowing that the football team was falling behind in popularity to the men’s basketball team, which had been to three straight MAC championship games (they made it four this past seasonafter Ianello was hired) and the men’s soccer team, which had just advanced to the NCAA semi-finals five days before Akron announced Ianello as their new head coach.

What better way to make a splash than to steal away the guy that Notre Dame had tabbed to run their program when they fired Charlie Weis? Or so Wisctrill thought.

Ianello sold himself to Wistrcill the way he sold his former teams to recruits, and Wistrcill fell hook, line and sinker for everything the 45-year-old Port Chester, New York native was selling.

Wistrcill did the equivalent of going through a drive-thru and ordering a gourmet cheeseburger only to drive away and unwrap it to find a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, as the Zips are now 0-5 with no end to the misery in sight.

Looking at the bio that Akron has distributed about Ianello, they will tell you that Ianello is the only coach to be named one of the 25 best recruiters nationally from 2005-09 by Rivals.com and that he directed three straight top-10 recruiting classes at Notre Dame from 2006-08.

What Akron has either failed to realize, or has decided to completely ignore, is the fact that Ianello has been an assistant recruiting coordinator or a recruiting coordinator at Alabama, Wisconsin, Arizona and Notre Dame, schools that are a lot easier to sell to recruits than is Akron.

What Akron will also tell you is that Ianello served as the offensive coordinator at Notre Dame in 2009, when the Fighting Irish had the sixth-best passing unit in the country in and were ninth-best overall offensively in the nation.

What they neglect to tell you is that the offense was led by quarterback Jimmy Clausen (now the starting quarterback for the NFL’s Carolina Panthers), wide receivers Golden Tate (an AP All-American) and Michael Floyd (one of the best sophomores in the country despite missing five games to injury) and tight end Kyle Rudolph (the top-rated tight end in the country this season).

Those caliber of players are just simply not going to commit to Akron.

Need proof?

Of the top 150 recruits listed at ESPN.com, seven of them are verbally committed to Notre Dame, even with Ianello not there, while Akron will not be mentioned in the top-150 at all.

What Wistrcill and Akron did was make a hire based on Ianello’s recruiting past and completely ignored the fact that he had been no higher than a position coach until last season at Notre Dame.

Wistrcill needed to get a name, not a resume.

He knew that he needed to be able to put fans in the seats of their new $61.6 million stadium, as their failure last season resulted in less than 10,000 people filing through the gates for the season finale.

Unfortunately for Wistcrill, the fans were not as easy to trick as he was, which was evident when less than 16,000 fans showed up for this season’s opener against Syracuse. Those who did show up left shaking their heads in disgust after watching the Zips get dominated by one of the worst teams in the six BCS conferences.

Akron had scheduled their second game of the season against FCS opponent Gardner-Webb and just over 10,000 fans showed up for that. To make matters worse, the Zips found a way to lose that game before heading on the road for two weeks.

After losses at Kentucky and Indiana, two more BCS non-powerhouses, Akron returned home where they were thumped 50-14 by Northern Illinois in front of just over 12,000 fans.

Last season under Brookhart, the offense averaged almost 301 yards per game and gave up 367 yards per game defensively.

So far this season, the Zips are worse in each category, averaging just 267 yards per game on offense and allowing 462 yards per game on defense.

Quarterback Patrick Nicely has regressed under the eye of Ianello, completing just 46% of his passes and has just three touchdown passes to two interceptions.

This does not bode well for a program that the returned 17 starters from a year ago, a team that many thought would compete for the top spot in the MAC East before collapsing.

Then again, maybe Wistrcill should have just checked out the book from the library instead of committing to it and buying it because of the cover, because so far the story inside has been less than uplifting.

Of course, Ianello could write a new chapter in that book with a win against Kent State this Saturday, but so far there is nothing to suggest that this story is that type of fairytale.