There are no banners hanging in the rafters of Duquesne’s brand-new UPMC Chuck Cooper Fieldhouse, which officially opened on Tuesday night.
Technically, there are no rafters, either, but spare me the metaphor.
I’m sure that the NCAA Tournament banners from the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s that once adorned the A.J. Palumbo Center will eventually find their way into the new building. Their absence on opening night is forgivable.
It has been a long time since anyone won anything worth memorializing at Duquesne.
For a long time, that looked like that was likely to be the status quo, as well. For most of the last 40 years, Duquesne has been a bad basketball team, coached by men that did not have the talent, the ability to acquire that talent, or the institutional support necessary to lead a winning program.
The last part is the essential bit. A really good coach can overcome an awful lot of internal and external barriers to success, and it’s probably fair to say that the Dukes never had a really good coach in that time period.
But at a place like Duquesne, which is never going to be able to pay top dollar and never going to be able to compete with the teams at the very top of the sport, even if the Dukes had managed to hire a really good coach at some point in the last 40 years, they would have never been able to sustain that success beyond the tenure of that man, and would have had a hard time keeping him in town for long.
All of that started to change with the hiring of Keith Dambrot. Dambrot had already been a successful coach before he got to Duquesne. Some people in the coaching profession expressed doubts as to why a coach like Dambrot would want to coach at a place like Duquesne, where winning had proven to be hard, if not impossible.
Dambrot believed in his own ability. He also believed in the pull of a strong academic institution, a top-tier city with job growth in attractive fields that also happens to be a great sports town. The sales job that was required from Duquesne athletic director Dave Harper was whether or not the school would give the program the support that it needed to succeed.
“They financially committed,” Dambrot said, both referring to the salary he was offered and the investment in the new facility. “They went all in. They put all chips in. That’s your only chance. If you don’t commit, you can’t win. You can’t consistently sustain anything.”
That’s what makes the opening of the new facility on Tuesday so impactful. Dambrot is an excellent coach. He’s been able to take Duquesne’s program to heights unseen in quite some time even without it. The Dukes are not quite a championship-level program, but they’re good enough to beat any team in the Atlantic-10 on any given night, as they proved Tuesday in taking down defending champs Dayton.
The facility that Duquesne unveiled on Tuesday is impressive. Dambrot said that the coaching staff from Dayton even remarked on the quality of the substantive remodel, which is high praise, considering the Flyers play in what is largely considered to be one of the best gyms in the country.
The UPMC Chuck Cooper Fieldhouse stands as lasting legacy to the commitment made by the university and athletic department to its basketball program.
“Why not Duquesne?” Dambrot posited to me shortly after his hiring. The reasons are getting fewer and fewer.
Someday, whether it’s Dambrot or a coach that follows him and takes advantage of the foundation of success he and Harper have built, someone is going to hang a new banner somewhere in the Fieldhouse.