CRANBERRY, Pa. – Keith Dambrot never played a minute of basketball at Duquesne, yet the reception he has received since being announced as the Dukes’ newest head coach in March has him believing he did.
Starved for a winning team and energized about Dambrot’s winning track record at Akron, more than 150 Duquesne fans, alumni, faculty, and staff gathered Thursday night at The Sports Grille at Cranberry to hear their new coach speak about the upcoming season and the future of Dukes basketball.
“They [fans] almost view it like I played here, because of my dad, so they feel like one of their own is coaching them,” Dambrot said. “It’s kind of strange because I didn’t go to Duquesne. I almost feel like I certainly did, and they feel like I did.”
The 58-year old coach stopped to shake hands, snap pictures, and even sign memorabilia over the course of two hours. He spoke for approximately 10 minutes on his goals for the program—winning championships—and urged fans to fill up the Palumbo Center once the season tips off Nov. 11 against St. Francis (N.Y.).
“When I came for the press conference, I was shocked by how many people were there, and tonight is another example of this—Duquesne fans really wanting to have a good program,” Dambrot said.
Dambrot kept his message short to grant more time for questions, but his modus operandi was consistent throughout the night.
“Just that we can’t take a backseat, we have to be aggressive, and we have to believe in ourselves,” Dambrot said. “We can’t have a woe is me attitude. We have to believe Duquesne is great again. I think that starts at the top.”
Duquesne athletic director Dave Harper believes Thursday night’s turnout was another example of fans reconnecting with the program.
“I think a lot of people, who may have been alienated from the program, are taking interest again,” Harper said. “It’s our job to make sure we tell them our story, and they can choose to onboard or not.”
“They want to see it from step one and through, so it’s going to be fun to watch Keith build it, and I think that’s why a lot of folks are onboarding again.”
The response was positively overwhelming, as attendees traveled from all corners of the city for the chance to meet Dambrot. One alumnus in particular, Daryl Houle (‘03), made the three-hour trek from Toledo, Ohio, to show his support.
“He [Dambrot] was very, very personable, which is what I would expect from a big-time coach,” Houle, who is a season ticket holder, said. “I liked his enthusiasm and his connection to Duquesne. He knows the struggles we’ve gone through or that we’re going through, and he wants to change that.”
For Pittsburgh native George Ellis, who’s father graduated from Duquesne and remembers the old Steel Bowls played at the Civic Arena, Dambrot offers a renewed sense of hope and optimism that has been missing from the program in recent memory.
“I’ve been disappointed for a few years, so I think this is a very bright side,” Ellis said. “His track record is phenomenal, we’re real excited, and I think it’s awesome the organization brought him here and he’s willing to do this, shake hands with everybody, and get a fresh start.”
Duquesne will host a similar event Monday at the City Tap House in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the start of the Atlantic 10 media days.
Dambrot’s dad, Sid, played for Duquesne from 1952-54 when the Dukes were widely considered one of the top teams in college basketball. He fully grasps what the program used to represent and what it meant to people of Pittsburgh.
“Back in the old days, Duquesne was Pittsburgh’s team, so I’m just hoping we can reinvent the wheel,” Dambrot said.
Garry Nelson, who starred for the Dukes from 1968-71, can speak firsthand to the glory days of Duquesne basketball. Nelson, who stands 6-foot-10, teamed up with his brother, Barry, and Gary Majors to form the tallest frontcourt in the nation at the time. The Dukes went 59-16 during his career, were nationally ranked, and made appearances in the NIT and NCAA tournament. He said the level of enthusiasm for the program since Dambrot signed on is extraordinary, and he believes better days are ahead.
“It’s unbelievable the excitement he is generating, and he hasn’t even played a game yet,” Nelson said afterwards. “People want to see a winner. Plus, he knows how to win. He knows how to develop a program and recruit kids, so everybody is excited. It’s been a long time.”