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.

 

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