Have you ever heard of Keith Dambrot?
That’s okay, he’s probably never heard of you, either. He’s in his first year as head basketball coach at Duquesne and right now almost nobody cares about Duquesne basketball. Being head coach, or, for that matter, playing for Duquesne could have been used for the federal government’s witness protection program for most of the last 30 years.
Dambrot is trying to change that and he may be on his way. Duquesne beat Dayton 70-62 Saturday night for its 10th win of the season. That matches the total for last season.
I have to admit I stopped caring about Duquesne basketball a long time ago. Most of the people who have worked in the Pittsburgh media will tell you that they just wanted Duquesne to drop basketball and go away.
After Danny Nee went 3-24 in 2006 and was fired, I said that Duquesne’s basketball team was not only an embarrassment to the university but an embarrassment to the city and it was time for Duquesne to drop the sport.
Then something crazy happened.
Duquesne hired Ron Everhart. He won 17 games in his second season and 21 in his third. Duquesne actually went to the NIT. Everhart won 19 games in his fifth year. I really believed he had pulled off the second best turnaround in Pittsburgh sports history.
Chuck Noll is still holding on to the number one spot.
For some reason somebody decided to fire Everhart after his sixth year. No sensible reason has ever been given.
His replacement, Jim Ferry, came in and went 8-22 in 2012-13.
He stayed in the job long enough to make the program an embarrassment again and left Dambrot with a team that went 10-22.
It looked like it was time to start thinking about dropping basketball again. But Dambrot matched that total Saturday night and beating Dayton is significant. Dayton has been one of the best programs in the Atlantic 10 for a long time. It’s a small, private Roman Catholic school in an urban area.
You know, like St. Joseph’s.
And St. John’s.
And Seton Hall.
The big 35-year mystery has been, why hasn’t Duquesne been able to have anything resembling the success that those programs have had?
I asked a scout that question once and his answer was, “They don’t cheat enough.” Maybe that’s true but Dambrot doesn’t want to hear about what Duquesne can’t do. He swears he will put Duquesne back on the basketball map again.
His attitude came through loud and clear after Saturday night’s win. Kostas Antekounmpo of Dayton dunked over Duquesne’s Chas Brown and then was hit with a technical for taunting. Brown then got a T for physical play after the taunt.
Dambrot loved it. “I think the one thing it showed is that Duquesne isn’t going to get punked anymore. I didn’t particularly care for the play, but at least he showed we’re not going too take that anymore, we’re not going too be the step-children of the league.”
Duquesne basketball has been the step child of the Pittsburgh sports scene for a long time and you’d have to be pretty old to remember when it wasn’t.
I’m old but I don’t remember when Duquesne was ranked number one in the country in the mid-50s.
I do remember when Pitt basketball played a distant second fiddle to Duquesne. When I was 16, my dad took me to see Willie Somerset score 48 points against Xavier (there was no 3 point basket.)
I remember when national letter of intent day for basketball was a big deal around here and the story was which program–Pitt or Duquesne–was going to get the best local recruits.
I remember when there were a lot of really good local recruits.
Mike Rice was a household name and a big deal when he was Duquesne’s coach in the early 80s and won 38 games in two seasons and went to the NIT in back-to-back years when the NIT mattered.
The Pitt-Duquesne basketball game was the number one topic on the talk shows the week of the game and one of the top two or three sports events in the city for several years, just behind the Pitt-Penn State football game.
Not too long ago, Pitt showed under Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon that Western Pa. can get excited about college basketball.
There’s a long list of coaches who have tried to do what Dambrot thinks he can do and failed. He has a long way to go, but he’s already off to a better start than anybody should have expected.
Remember his name and keep your eye on him.