Keith Dambrot returned Duquesne to the NCAAs just as he promised. Now it's time to walk away

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Keith Dambrot didn't want to overstay his welcome. Didn't want his love of his chosen profession to morph into something far less joyous.

The Duquesne coach was “80% sure” last summer that this season would be his last, a number that spiked to 100% when his wife, Donna, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Even now, with Donna feeling well enough to travel and the Dukes heading to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 47 years — just as Dambrot promised when he took over at his father's alma mater in 2017 — that percentage hasn't wavered.

Saying simply “I think it's time,” the 65-year-old Dambrot announced Monday he will retire whenever Duquesne's NCAA run ends.

“I didn't want to cheat (the job),” Dambrot said, with the Atlantic 10 trophy the Dukes won on Sunday standing nearby. “And I just felt like I could see myself losing that edge at some point. And that's why I said, ‘I don’t want to end like that.' I'm not built that way.”

Instead, Dambrot will walk away having turned a task deemed “Mission Impossible” into something that over the weekend felt inevitable.

Duquesne ripped off four straight wins in the Atlantic 10 tournament, the last a gritty rock fight against VCU with Donna Dambrot watching from the stands that earned the Dukes the A-10's automatic NCAA berth.

A trip to Omaha, Nebraska, where the 11th-seeded Dukes (24-11) will face sixth-seeded BYU (23-10) on Thursday, awaits.

And while there will be time to prepare for the Cougars and a chance to capture the program's first game in the NCAAs since 1969, Duquesne athletic director Dave Harper didn't want to wait until after the tournament ends to let Dambrot have his moment.

“Today is about Keith Dambrot, period,” Harper said. “He deserves this.”

The news conference was planned months ago when Dambrot told the administration and his assistants — though not the young men he coaches — about his decision. Those plans didn't change even as a roster featuring players from eight countries took over the Barclays Center in Brooklyn over the weekend.

Admittedly a little bleary-eyed after the team didn't return to the school's downtown Pittsburgh campus on a bluff overlooking the Monongahela River until just before dawn on Monday, Dambrot just shook his head when asked if his team's inspired run led to second thoughts.

“My personality type is not good to coach into the 70s,” he said. “I'm too involved in it. I’m still worried about where the guys are on time for the bus, you know? It’s just it’s hard to explain, right? Maybe. Maybe a little neurotic.”

If he's being honest, Dambrot is stunned he made it this long.

Blessed with his mother Faye's work ethic and omnipresent chip on his shoulder that never seemed to nudge, Dambrot has spent 40-plus years around the game. Not bad for a former college third baseman who still holds Akron's all-time record for being hit by a pitch.

Dambrot heads to the East Region's first round 516-301 in collegiate stops at Duquesne, Tiffin, Ashland, Central Michigan and Akron. He also went 69-10 while at St. Vincent-St. Mary Catholic High School in Akron, Ohio, from 1998-2001, a stay that included a few seasons coaching future NBA star Lebron James.

“The Best!!!!!” James posted on X Monday after Dambrot's retirement became public.

Dambrot has repeatedly downplayed his role in James' development. Maybe, but his direct, no-nonsense approach found a way to cut through the noise and consistently turn a roster filled with players of varying abilities into a team.

He led Akron to three Mid-American Conference titles between 2004 and 2017 before joining the program his father Sid helped turn into a national power in the early 1950s.

The Dukes had approached Dambrot before, only for him to say no. Harper took a different approach in 2017, stressing to Dambrot that the school was finally ready to make the financial commitment needed for Duquesne to compete in one of the better mid-major conferences in the country.

Harper wasn't kidding. The sparkling UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse opened in February 2021, though the momentum Dambrot felt he was building slowed during a miserable 6-24 season in 2021-22 that left him wondering if it was time to move on.

Instead, he stayed. The Dukes bounced back to go 20-13 last year. Their triumph over VCU on Sunday — a game in which Duquesne won despite a stretch in the second half in which it missed 17 of 18 shots — boosted the Dukes' win total this season to 24, their highest since Sid Dambrot was knocking down set shots from the outside in 1954.

Sid Dambrot died in October 2021 at age 90 and was buried in his Duquesne sweater. Over the weekend, Sid Dambrot's son did just as he pledged when he took over a team whose brilliant and progressive glory days of the 1940s-50s had been lost amid decades of losing and anonymity.

“Folks, these are the new glory days of Duquesne,” president Ken Gormley said.

Sometime over the next few weeks, Keith Dambrot will head into retirement, confident he is leaving the Dukes in far better shape than he found them, potentially with associate head coach Dru Joyce III — who played for Dambrot alongside James in high school — taking over.

“It’s a good feeling,” Dambrot said. “It’s a good place. It’s got good resources. And we just have to keep believing that it can get back to what it used to be.”


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