AKRON  Within the world of college basketball, the Akron Zips are a rarity.

More specifically, the Akron coaching staff is an aberration on a hoops landscape where both head coaches and assistants often operate with one eye on their next career move, their chance to move to a bigger program or become a head coach rather than remaining an assistant.

Head coach Keith Dambrot is in his 13th season with the Zips and for all 13 of those seasons, his lead assistant has been Terry Weigand, who played for Dambrot at Tiffin University and coached with him for two seasons at Ashland before they reunited in Akron. Last week, the coaching duo led the Zips to their fourth Mid-American Conference regular season championship in the past six seasons. They enter the MAC tournament in Cleveland next week as the No. 1 seed as the team, which has made the league's championship game in eight of the past 10 season, looks for its fourth NCAA tournament berth.

“Terry was the first guy I recruited at Tiffin, so I’ve known him the longest (and) obviously have tremendous respect for his toughness and knowledge. It’s just like having another head coach, really,” Dambrot said. “When you really think about it, both Terry and (assistant coach) Charles (Thomas), I’ve known as long as I’ve known my wife and maybe over the last 13 years, I’ve spent more time with them than I have my own family. I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve had unbelievable success is that we have a staff that all played for us, we have tremendous love for one another … we don’t really view it as a job, we view it as a friendship.”

Weigand, who served as head coach at Ashland for four seasons beginning with the 1991-92 campaign, noted that since he came to Akron 13 seasons ago, the staff has enjoyed remarkable consistency. There have been those who have gone on to head coaching jobs at other schools, such as Shaka Smart (Virginia Commonwealth and Texas) and Jeff Boals (Stony Brook), and longtime assistant Dan Peters passed away following a long battle with cancer, but for the most part remarkable continuity has been the program’s hallmark.

Having played for Dambrot and spent a decade and a half coaching with him, Weigand has gotten to known his former coach well, both in good times and hard ones.

“I know his mood swings. I know what he wants and it’s just for some people it might seem hectic, but you get used to what’s the norm,” Weigand said. “You’re looking at over 30 years of being around him … 33 years now and it’s going quick. Out of those 33 years, I’ve spent more time with him than anybody else. I’ve talked to him on the phone every day, it might be five seconds or 10 seconds, but every day for 33 years.”

When Dambrot thinks back on Weigand as a player, the first two words that jump to mind are toughness and knowledge and with those traits, the winningest head coach in Akron men’s basketball history isn’t surprised that Weigand has become a successful coach. After his four-year stint as Ashland, Weigand has remained an assistant and said he’s always been cautious about the idea of jumping at another opportunity just because it appears to be a better one from the outside looking in.

Having grown up in Barberton, he has roots in the area and due to his son Trevor’s ongoing battle with brain and spine cancer, the family has enjoyed the support and stability of being close to home. Trevor was diagnosed in 2008 and has been battling the illness ever since. Initially, doctors told the family that 5-10 years was a good prognosis for survival, Trevor has been able to enjoy a mostly normal childhood and Dambrot marvels at how well the family has dealt with the situation.

“I don’t know if anybody in America could have done as good a job under the circumstances … nobody ever knew the kid was sick; he worked so hard at it even with him being sick and Trevor’s a lot like Terry, just a tough kid and then (his wife) Jodi is a tremendous wife, and the other kids too, just being able to make sacrifices for the good of the family … it’s been a tough deal and it’s been hard for us really,” Dambrot said. “I just have tremendous respect for their family for not letting it affect their life and just having tremendous faith in God.”

Weigand echoed those thoughts and noted that Dambrot, assistant coaches Charles Thomas and Rick McFadden, along with other members of the program, have been a great support during the course of his son’s fight against cancer.

“They always have your back, so that’s the one thing about it, you know you might have some bad days and some ups and downs, but they’re always going to be supporting you and being behind you and that’s crucial,” Weigand said.

Having known each other for so long - McFadden played at UA and has been on staff for 12 seasons - the various members of the coaching staff have gotten to know each other well enough that their relationships are like family members who can argue, disagree and walk away without any lingering strife.

“It’s funny because we can get on each other and we don’t take any of it personally,” Dambrot said. “We care about each other … if his family was in trouble and he wasn’t there, I’d be there for them and vice versa. So, it’s unbelievable to have someone that’s more like your brother than your assistant coach.”

Having people with whom he’s close as a part of two recent milestones - his 400th career win and setting the all-time UA record with his 300th win with the Zips earlier this month - has made those achievements all the more meaningful for Dambrot. Being from Akron and having Weigand and McFadden hail from Barberton and Youngstown, respectively, the program has strong local roots. That’s a selling point Akron uses in recruiting, along with the pitch that he “can’t be that bad a guy or we wouldn’t be here for this long,” a message Dambrot jokes that his assistants use to sway potential recruits.

Akron faces archrival Kent State Friday night to cap the regular season. Then the Zips will continue the journey toward what they hope will be the fifth NCAA tournament appearance in program history and fourth under Dambrot; and accomplishing it with a coaching staff that has been together for more than a decade and helped establish Akron as the top program in the Mid-American Conference. 

Reach Andy at 330-580-8936 or andy.harris@thesuburbanite.com.
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