Results under Dambrot haven’t been grand yet, but they will be

Adam Lindner | Sports Editor

March 11, 2021

It’s a common refrain we’ve all heard: Enjoy the journey on the way to your destination. For me, I cherish literal road trips — there’s nothing like the anticipation of arrival in the midst of a long car ride. When a fun vacation ends, I often find myself wishing I could return to that initial ride.

Hip-hop megastar Drake graduated from high school at age 26 after dropping out of school as a teen to pursue professional opportunities. At his commencement speech at Toronto’s Jarvis Collegiate Institute in 2012, Drake addressed a crowd full of fellow graduates, saying: “Sometimes it’s the journey that teaches you a lot about your destination. And sometimes when you get there, you’ll look back and you’ll realize that you wish you could go there again because all the experiences are the reason that you are who you are today.”

It’s been one heck of a metaphorical trek for the Duquesne men’s basketball program over the past 44 years. It was then, in 1977, that the Dukes last played in the NCAA tournament.

The Atlantic 10 began play in 1976 as the Eastern Athletic Association, but was popularly known then as the Eastern 8. Men’s basketball was initially the Eastern 8’s only sponsored sport, and Duquesne won the first-ever league title in the spring of ‘77 behind star player Norm Nixon’s efforts.

Nixon is now 65, and Duquesne’s NCAA tournament drought is among the country’s longest active streaks.

If I was on the same car ride for 44 years I’d be aching for its merciful ending, no matter how much I claim to enjoy trips — roadside scenery and snack stops be damned.

But Duquesne fans need to enjoy this part of the journey. Why?

Because Keith Dambrot is driving this bus, and he just whipped his head around to roar, “We’re almost there,” for the 902nd time.

There might be a few more mile markers to go, but Dambrot’s not lying — Duquesne is so close. This metaphorical journey is on its last leg, and Dambrot has the pedal to the metal.

Duquesne left the A-10 for the Midwestern Collegiate Conference (now known as the Horizon League) in 1992 but returned the next year. Since the A-10’s inaugural season in ‘76, Duquesne has competed in 44 A-10 seasons; it has enjoyed just 11 .500-or-better showings. Three of those have come in the past three years.

Dambrot arrived at Duquesne in the spring of 2017 to inherit a team that went 3-15 in the A-10 in Jim Ferry’s final season. In his second year on the job, Dambrot’s Dukes posted a 10-8 A-10 mark.

At the time, it was only the second season since 1991 that saw Duquesne win double-digit conference games.

Dambrot followed it up with a historic 11-7 showing last season.

This year, Duquesne managed to post a 7-7 league record amidst a COVID-ravaged campaign and despite severe mid-season roster attrition.

Amazingly, this is the first time Duquesne has ever finished .500-or-better in three-straight conference seasons.

Duquesne’s second-round win over Richmond in the conference tourney last week was the team’s first-ever tournament victory under Dambrot. Despite all the regular season success the Dukes have enjoyed under the current regime, the win over the Spiders was a monumental step in the right direction.

The win also served as the program’s first tournament victory beyond the first round since 2009.

Duquesne fell to top-seeded St. Bonaventure the next day in the quarterfinals, ending a season that was assuredly filled with its fair share of peaks and valleys.

On one hand, star guard Sincere Carry transferred, the team spent an entire month on a COVID pause and Duquesne lost games it shouldn’t have (Jan. 3 at George Washington and Feb. 24 at La Salle).

On the other hand, the UPMC Chuck Cooper Fieldhouse is finally complete and several freshmen flashed big potential.

Most importantly, Duquesne — at long last — has the right man behind the wheel.

For at least a little while longer, just sit back and enjoy the view.