The University of Akron basketball team held its first practice of the 2013-’14 season last Friday. Led by 54-year-old coach Keith Dambrot, a 1982 graduate of the school, the two-time defending Mid-American Conference regular-season champions—only the third team in 30 years to earn that honor—personify that dangerous mid-major that flies under the radar, ready to pounce on an unassuming powerhouse foe. For the last eight seasons, Akron has won at least 20 games, one of 15 teams nationwide to do so. With Dambrot at the helm, it's the third-longest active streak of 20-win seasons among mid-major coaches (in 2004-'05 the team just missed the cut, winning 19). Last season, Dambrot earned MAC Coach of the Year after leading his alma mater to a school-record 26 wins, to MAC regular season and tournament championships, and to the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years and the third time in five (the school has a total of four NCAA Tournament appearances). Ironically, the Zips were eliminated by VCU, which is coached by Shaka Smart, Dambrot’s assistant at Akron from 2003 through ’06. Akron knows what it has in Dambrot, who signed a 10-year contract in 2012, and received a one-year extension last month, taking him through the 2022-'23 season. A day before that first practice, Dambrot took time to talk with ESPN Events, touching on the tradition of Akron basketball, and the opportunity to play in the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic.
Q: As you head into the first day of practice for 2013-'14, what’s your mindset?
Dambrot: We feel pretty good about our team. We’ve got eight guys that have played, and then we’ve got five talented new guys. So we’ll just try to put them all together and attack our weaknesses at this point.
Q: Do you see an advantage in the NCAA’s the new rules allowing more days to practice, even if the number of hours remains the same?
Dambrot: I like it better because I always felt like we were always rushing to get everything in before the first game, to make sure that we could play against the zone and we could play against full-court pressure. I felt like it was a constant rush. I like it this way because you’ve got more weeks to kind of figure it all out, and it’s not as much of a constant rush.
Q: You need to replace Zeke Marshall, the MAC’s Defensive Player of the Year and the school’s all-time leading shot-blocker. Who are you looking at to pick up the slack?
Dambrot: We felt like we kind of stifled [sophomore] Pat Forsythe’s development a little last year because, as the season went on, Zeke played better and better and better and we didn’t give Pat as many minutes. But we thought early in the season, when we were giving him minutes that he played pretty well. So we feel like Pat can help us defensively. We also have two good young kids behind him; we have a big 6-9 ½, 300-pounder, Isaiah Johnson, who’s a freshman, and we have another 6-9, 235-pounder, Kwan Cheatham, also a freshman. So we feel like we’ve got good size in there, which has been a big advantage for us. We still have [senior Demetrius “Tree”] Treadwell at the big forward spot and [senior Nick] Harney behind him, who averaged 10 points a game. Harney will end up, at the beginning, playing that small forward spot, but he’ll also play behind Treadwell. So we’re still a pretty big team.
Q: What’s been the key to keeping Akron so successful during your tenure?
Dambrot: We’ve had good players. We’ve kind of taken an old-school approach. So I think from that perspective we’ve had good success because of that, but we’re smart enough to know it’s about the players. Over the last nine years the worst season we’ve had was our first, and that was 19-10. So we’ve won over 20 games for the last eight years. The majority of our team is four-year players—we’ve only taken one junior college player—so we’ve been able to keep guys for four years. We’ve built a winning culture here, and I think the guys that wore the uniform before these guys kind of teach the new ones how we win here.
Q: You have the most 20-win seasons and the most consecutive 20-win seasons in school history. You’re also the first Akron coach to have this many consecutive 20-win seasons since Bob Huggins coached the Zips. How do you see your place in school history?
Dambrot: Bob’s a great coach, obviously. I know Coach [Dan] Hipsher had three good years here. So we’re proud of those guys and what they’ve done. Over the last nine years, what our program’s accomplished has been to make Akron a really good mid-major program. What we’re trying to do now is not only sustain our success but take the next step. Those stages are hard to accomplish. You just have to continue to do things the right way to achieve all your goals.
Q: There are a lot of Akron alumni on the coaching staff. As an alumnus, how important is it to bring back former Zips who are familiar with the tradition?
Dambrot: We base everything on trust, loyalty and commitment. When you really look at it, other than Dan Peters, who is older than I am, every one of these guys has played for me at one point or another. We have coach [Terry] Weigand and coach [Charles] Thomas and Rick McFadden. Our [graduate assistants] were either managers or players for us. So we’ve kind of taken care of our own. That’s huge when you go out and recruit, because it’s kind of an extended family that we’ve gone out and created. It goes back all the way to when I was an assistant at Eastern Michigan and Charles played for us. So it’s not just one school. It’s been multiple schools. I think that kind of shows where you put your values.
Q: The Zips will play in the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic (Dec. 22-25). How important is it for the program to get exposure by participating in these early season tournaments?
Dambrot: It’s huge. Last year we played in Puerto Rico and played well [the team went 2-1, beating UNC Asheville and Penn State, losing to Oklahoma State]. This year we’re at Diamond Head. Just to be able to get those guys on a neutral floor is big. Last year we played the 59th-best out-of-conference schedule in the country, and this year’s schedule is even better. Getting on television is a key to recruiting, so we’re on television quite a bit. We go to St. Mary’s and to South Carolina and to Middle Tennessee and to Cleveland State. So we’ve got a really hard schedule.
Q: Among your most successful assistants to move on to major conference jobs is VCU head coach Shaka Smart. Did you know he was going to be as successful a head coach as he’s been?
Dambrot: I knew he was special, there’s no question about that. In a different kind of way I compare him a little bit to when I had LeBron [James, who Dambrot coached at Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High School]. You can kind of tell those guys that are special. So we’ve had Shaka and then Jeff Boals at Ohio State and Lamont Paris move on to Wisconsin. So we’ve had some good coaches here. We have some good coaches here now. I thought Shaka had a lot of traits that were going to get him the right opportunity and allow him to become a star.