Coaching is in Dru Joyce III's DNA. Duquesne's new head coach is eager to join the family business

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PITTSBURGH (AP) — Coaching is essentially baked into Dru Joyce III's DNA. His father is a basketball coach. His brother, too.

So when Duquesne coach Keith Dambrot called Joyce in the spring of 2022 and asked his former point guard to help him turn around a program more than 40 years removed from its last NCAA Tournament appearance, Joyce understood the assignment.

“I could have run from the situation,” Joyce said. “He was coming off the worst year of his career. I knew he only had a couple more years left ... I knew it was a risk, but worth the risk.”

One that paid off handsomely. For Duquesne. For Dambrot. And for the man now entrusted to ensure the Dukes' electric run to an Atlantic 10 title and the second round of the NCAA Tournament last month wasn't a one-off.

Fighting back tears Monday while talking about the fulfillment of a lifelong journey, Joyce — hired last Thursday to replace the now-retired Dambrot — stressed he is ready to pick up where his longtime mentor and friend left off.

“This is going to be difficult to repeat … (but) we’re going to raise the trophy again,” Joyce said. “We’re just getting started.”

The 39-year-old Joyce spent the last two years as an associate head coach under Dambrot, who decided last summer that the 2023-24 season would be his last. And while he didn't have an official say in the decision, Dambrot made it very clear to athletic director Dave Harper and everyone else at Duquesne that Joyce was primed for the job.

Even if Joyce wasn't quite so sure.

“You never really know if you're ready,” Joyce said.

Maybe, but Joyce believes he prepared himself anyway. Asked if he treated the last season as an audition of sorts — it wasn't unusual for Joyce to run practices this year while Dambrot helped wife Donna in her battle against breast cancer — and Joyce nodded.

“You’re always in an interview-type process as an assistant coach ... because you want to put your best foot forward if you aspire to be a head coach,” Joyce said. "You don’t have to do that blatantly, you just do it organically by being who you are.”

What the Dukes, who finished 25-12 and earned the program's first NCAA Tournament victory since 1969, see in Joyce is a younger version of the relentlessly energetic Dambrot.

“They’re the same,” sophomore guard Kareem Rozier said. “He’s still got that fire lit under him and we see it every day. When Coach D wasn’t yelling or doing what he (does), (Joyce) made sure to take the torch and do it.”

While Duquesne president Ken Gormley said the school did a “thorough national search," ultimately the choice wasn't difficult to make.

“There's no question in our mind that Dru was the best person, the perfect person to continue the upward trajectory,” Gormley said.

Joyce's personal trajectory has been pointing up for the better part of 30 years. He and lifelong friend LeBron James became close while in grade school, a bond they maintained during their high school career playing for Dambrot at St. Vincent-St. Mary's in Akron, Ohio, and have maintained well into adulthood.

It was James who officially broke the news of Joyce's promotion last week, though Joyce laughed when asked if there's a chance James — who at 40 has made it clear he doesn't expect to play much longer — will serve as the program's official “insider.”

“I think he's got other things to do,” Joyce said with a smile.

So does Joyce, though it's the one thing others told him he was capable of long ago, perhaps even before Joyce knew it himself.

“I heard so many people tell me from a young age, ‘You’re going to be a head coach one day,'” Joyce said. “I’m here and it feels as if I made them fortune tellers. I had a chance to make them right and I’m proud of that.”


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