PITTSBURGH — “You’re not in Plainfield anymore, Gavin!”
It’s only 40 minutes into his first real college basketball practice since arriving at Duquesne for the fall semester, and freshman Gavin Bizeau is already hearing it from his new coach, Keith Dambrot. As he hunches forward under the basket with his hands on his knees, exhausted from the nonstep set of drills, Dambrot’s stern reminder snaps Bizeau back to reality.
Sensing the 6-foot-11 forward’s fatigue, Dambrot let Bizeau’s group rest a little bit longer. When it came time for them to rotate back onto the court, though, the coach’s message to the Plainfield, Indiana, native was clear: high school is over, and it’s a different playing field now.
And if it wasn’t clear before, it is now: Dambrot isn’t in the business of taking in teacher’s pets. Even though his longtime assistant, Terry Weigand, played with Bizeau’s father, John, at Division II Ashland University in the late 1980s, and even though Dambrot has known Bizeau since he was a grade schooler, he won’t be playing any favorites.
Bizeau — rated by ESPN as the No. 22 center in the nation in the 2018 class — isn’t fazed by his coach’s callout. Instead, it perks him up and gets him to work even harder and through the rest of the practice. After all, having grown up with a notoriously-tough power forward for a dad and coach, Bizeau is used to that type of tough love — and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Like many residents of the Hoosier State, basketball is a way of life for the Bizeaus.
Long before John installed a basketball court in the backyard of his Plainfield home for his 8-year-old son to practice on, the elder Bizeau put together an accomplished college basketball career of his own. John won a Division II JUCO national championship before transferring to Ashland, where he played alongside Weigand, the team’s starting point guard.
The two became roommates and close friends while helping lead Ashland to a berth in the NCAA Division II Tournament in their only season together on the court. Along the way, John developed a reputation as the team’s unofficial “enforcer”.
“John was very intense. Just a tough guy. … He was always finding ways [to get under your skin],” Weigand said. “He wouldn’t get you right there, but he was coming. He was going to get you back eventually.”
Although John played more of a traditional low-post role than his son, who likes to step out on the perimeter and shoot jump shots, Weigand insists John was more than just a bruiser. He said John was a good passer for his size, but above all else, he was a “competitor.”
Weigand graduated from Ashland in 1989, the same year Dambrot took over as head coach. He worked under Dambrot for two years as a graduate assistant before taking over as head coach when Dambrot left for Central Michigan in 1991.
And who did he hire as his graduate assistant? Well, his old roommate of course.
“He was with me for two years, then he got smart and got out of coaching,” Weigand joked.
Weigand remained head coach at Ashland for four years before leaving to become an assistant coach at Mount Union. He spent eight-and-a-half years there before re-uniting with Dambrot in 2004, joining his staff as an assistant when Dambrot took over as Akron’s head coach. They’ve been together ever since, guiding the Zips to 10 postseason appearances in 13 years at Akron and are now preparing for year two at Duquesne.
Dambrot got his first look at the younger Bizeau long before the recruiting process started. Whenever Akron came to town to play Ball State, John would bring the whole family to sit behind the bench and watch Dambrot and Weigand coach. Unbeknownst to John, a plan started to form in his son’s head.
“I always kind of knew I was going to end up playing for [Dambrot] just because I know how much of a winner he is and I trust him to develop me to get to the next level,” Bizeau said.
Meanwhile, John left the college coaching ranks to launch an auditing and consulting company with six others, though he still found time to coach his son up until junior high. Around that same time, he started to realize his wiry son may have a future playing college ball just like his old man.
“We were in this holiday tournament, I think it was maybe sixth grade,” John said. “It was a tied score, time is running out, and it’s our ball to inbound. We set up this play, and they totally screw it up because they’re sixth graders and it’s like herding cats. But somehow he gets the ball in his hands and makes the winning shot.”
As John tells it, there are two kinds of coaches in travel basketball when dads are involved: those who think their kid can do no wrong, and those who are harder on their kids than the other players.
“Unfortunately, I was the one who was hard on his kid, so it was kind of good that I stepped away,” John said.
John sounds a bit remorseful speaking about his days coaching Bizeau, but his son understands now that it prepared him to deal with Dambrot’s intense practices and tough-love teaching methods.
“There’s some tough memories of when he wouldn’t even talk to me on the way home,” Bizeau said. “I got called some names and stuff. I know he just wanted what was best for me.”
One particular memory sticks out for Bizeau from his time getting coached by his dad: During a game of travel ball where John wasn’t satisfied with Bizeau’s effort, he told him to take his shoes off and come out of the game for the entire fourth quarter. Their team ended up losing the game, but Bizeau realizes now his dad was trying to teach him a lesson about life beyond the box score.
“It’s hard to understand that at the time. You’re just like, ‘I hate playing for you. I want a new coach,’” Bizeau said. “But looking back on it, I’m really glad he was there developing me.”
Although the younger Bizeau’s talent started shining through at an early age, his size didn’t always match his ability.
Bizeau was only six feet tall when he finished junior high, but grew five inches by the time he started playing as a high school freshman — hence the forward’s small-ball skills in a big man’s body. Still, his coaches weren’t quite sure where to put him, which made his first two years of high school ball a “rough time.”
“Sophomore year I started varsity, and then for some reason they moved me down to JV as a 6-foot-9 sophomore, and I was eating up,” Bizeau said. “But junior and senior year I just really took it serious and just took over the game.”
Bizeau averaged 21.6 points, 11.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game as a senior, earning one of 13 coveted spots on the IndyStar Indiana All-Star Team along the way. He received offers from MAC schools Ball State and Toledo, but he always knew who he wanted to play for: Dambrot and the man he used to call “Uncle Terry.”
“It’s family,” Bizeau said. “You’ve got that family bond, and there’s nothing to worry about because I know he’s always going to have my back and Coach [Dambrot] is always going to have my back. Because I’ve known them for so long.”
Just because Bizeau wanted to play for one of his dad’s best friends, though, doesn’t mean Dambrot was reserving a spot for him.
“It’s a business,” Dambrot said. “If it was my own son, and he’s not good enough, he can’t play. We can’t give him a scholarship. Gavin was a four-star recruit, he had a lot of big people recruiting him at one point. And that’s when he was 180 pounds — he’s 215 pounds now. He’s got good potential.”
Dambrot calls Bizeau “a skill guy,” but he knows that skill alone isn’t enough to be successful at the D-I level. That’s why he and the other coaches constantly remind Bizeau of his lineage and the reputation he has to live up to.
“We always tell him, ‘If you’re as tough and mean as John, you’re going to be alright,’” Dambrot said. “Generally, that apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. So while he’s skilled, I think he’s got a little mean streak in him that’s going to make him a good player.”
It might be too early to tell whether Bizeau can match his father’s intensity on the court, but he certainly isn’t lacking in confidence. Bizeau “guarantees” he and the other members of the 2018 recruiting class — which features seven incoming players with 7-foot wingspans — are going to “change the culture” of the Atlantic 10 Conference.
Changing the culture of an entire conference may sound like a bold proclamation for a true freshman, but Bizeau insists he’s prepared to make an impact right away.
“I think I’m ready for it, just because I consider myself a winner,” Bizeau said. “I do what it takes. I’m fine with going through adversity. I think we’re going to be ready, and I’ve got good teammates that are going to help us out. We’re going to be good.”