AKRON He’s the dean of Mid-American Conference men’s basketball coaches and now, Keith Dambrot is the winningest coach in University of Akron history.
Dambrot, in his 13th season at his alma mater, won his 289th game on Jan. 3 in an 89-84 win over Bowling Green. In the short term, the victory lifted Akron to 11-3 on the season and 1-0 in MAC play, but the triumph also elevated Dambrot past former UA coach Russ Beichly, who amassed a 288-144 record during an 18-year tenure as coach from 1941-59.
After the game, Dambrot admitted that the win meant more to him because of his deep connection to the university and community. His mother was a longtime faculty member at UA and he played baseball for the Zips during his college career. Not many coaches can stay at a school for 13 years, Dambrot noted, but even fewer can coach in the place they’re from.
Still, true to form, the veteran coach quickly looked to shift the focus back to the task at hand rather than talking about the record.
“The game was about what I expected,” Dambrot said of the record-setting win. “We did just enough to win. I guess we can score, but we can’t guard anyone.”
Defense has been a focal point for the Zips throughout his tenure and during games, it’s not uncommon to see Dambrot clap his hands and bark out to his players on the court, “Don’t rest!” as they look for a defensive stop. During a postgame interview, Dambrot noted that his team ranks much higher nationally on offense (65th at 79.5 points per game) than on defense (101st at 68.4 points per game).
That 11.1-point scoring margin might be the best in the MAC through the first night of conference play, but it’s clear that defensive lapses are a big concern for the coaching staff. After an impressive all-around performance by senior center Isaiah Johnson (15 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists), Dambrot hinted that Johnson could play fewer minutes going forward if the extra rest would help him be more effective on the defensive end.
No matter who’s on the floor, Dambrot plans to make sure they’re defending to the best of their ability.
“I will hold them accountable on the defensive end,” he said.
Defensive debates aside, the Zips are well on their way to extending a streak that has become one of the hallmarks of their head coach’s tenure at his alma mater. Akron has won 21 or more games in 11 consecutive seasons, making them one of just a handful of Division I programs to achieve that feat. The win over Bowling Green was also the Zips’ 24th straight home victory, the third longest streak in the nation.
Each of those feats underscores the level of success Akron has achieved over the past decade. Although he never saw Beichly’s teams play, Dambrot recalled attending games when current West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins was on the bench for the Zips, watching warmups from the bleachers at the now-demolished Memorial Hall, which stood adjacent to James A. Rhodes Arena before being torn down to create additional green space on campus.
Ironically, during his appearance at the team’s preseason media day at the student union in the center of campus, Dambrot vowed to make sure that before he retired, he would make sure that the program had a new - or at least renovated - arena. That’s an idea that has been discussed in various forms between the university and even city officials in recent years, but for now, the Zips continue to play in a home that has undergone a few minor changes, but nothing major.
As the Bowling Green game came to an end and public address announcer Jeff Shreve informed the crowd that Dambrot had set the record, the coach did his best not to draw too much attention to himself. More milestones could be in the offing, as he could win his 300th game at Akron by season’s end, an accomplishment that would also put him over 400 total wins for his career.
Fittingly, the milestone win came with a coaching staff featuring several players who have played under Dambrot during his stops at Tiffin, Ashland, Central Michigan and Akron. Assistants Terry Weigand, Rick McFadden, Steve McNees and graduate assistant Reggie McAdams also suited up for one of Dambrot’s teams and were on the bench as he finally reached the pinnacle for coaching success for the program he’s called home for more than a decade.
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