AKRON For the first time since 2003, the University of Akron will begin a basketball season without either its winningest men’s or women’s basketball coach on the bench.
The men’s team underwent its change prior to last season, when longtime head coach Keith Dambrot resigned to take the same position at Duquesne and was replaced by John Groce. The changeover reached its final stage this summer, when the women’s program made the transition from former head coach Jodi Kest to her longtime assistant Melissa Jackson, who was chosen earlier this month to helm the program.
The man presiding over the change, UA athletic director Larry Williams, just completed his third season in charge of the university’s athletic department and admitted that seeing neither Dambrot nor Kest coaching this coming season will take some getting used to.
"It will be really interesting … I was watching the men work out the other day and I looked up in the rafters … there’s a big, color picture of Keith and there’s another picture of Jodi and I had that same realization. It’s funny … when you go through it, you don’t really think about it in that context, you just think about what’s the right move at this time," Williams said. "What I think this does is give us an opportunity … with change comes a new energy. I’ve felt that with both folks. Melissa hasn’t had the controls for too long, but boy, you could certainly feel that with John and I know Melissa’s program will feel that pretty quickly. John’s been able to take a group and remake it. The roster turnover has been more than I’ve ever seen, but John’s really managed it and the whole staff has managed it really well."
Because the men’s team has gone through a season with its new coaching staff, there is more known about the direction of the program going forward. As Williams noted, the program added several transfers last season to help fill out the roster in the wake of mass transfers out by former UA players following Dambrot’s departure. Five more transfers were added this season and based on what he’s seen, the veteran athletic director believes the men’s team will have elite athleticism and rebound from a losing season one year ago.
As for the women’s program, there are more questions than answers at present. Jackson is a known commodity in the sense that she spent several years on Kest’s staff and is known by the returning players, but she’s also a first-time head coach at the college level and will have to find a way to turn the program back in the right direction after a pair of down years. Still, according to Williams, the response from many directions was positive when Jackson was named the coach.
"Based on the excitement that the girls showed when I announced to them that Melissa was going to be our new head coach, I’m pleased and that excitement extended not just to the team, but we also picked up a number of really significant commitments from kids in the recruiting circles and I think the recruiting looks really nice going forward," Williams said. "During the course of the search, I was contacted by multiple folks in the recruiting circles (who) encouraged me to consider Melissa and we’re starting to see that bear fruit, but the local basketball community in Ohio is excited to see Melissa in that chair."
He cited Jackson’s strong organizational skills and recruiting contacts as pluses early in the process and believes that the transition from the old staff to the new one is going smoothly.
Any time a coach leaves a school, the process of their legacy slowly being whittled down begins. As much as a college or university honors them with banners or by placing their name on buildings or courts, the simple truth is that colleges are largely transient places where the population on campus is always changing as students cycle through, staff members do the same and few stay for decades.
When it comes to the topic of Dambrot and Kest being remembered at UA, Williams pointed to a tangible impact their success with the Zips had on who filled their chair once they departed.
"For me, the most practical aspect of that is the quality of candidates that wanted the jobs. Last year, when we did the transition with Keith, Keith made his announcement kind of late in the process, and we were shocked by how many really high-quality coaches demonstrated strong, strong interest in our job," Williams said. "Their legacy will be moved to the history books, but the immediate impact on that change was the quality of candidate that we got. On the women’s side, the same thing happened when Jodi announced her retirement … I was receive calls from the best … (Notre Dame head coach) Muffet McGraw, (Connecticut head coach) Geno Auriemma … they were advising me that there were some candidates out there that were really good and really interested."
One item Dambrot mentioned during media day of his final season with Akron - and numerous other times during his decade-plus tenure - was the idea of a new arena, or at least a massively upgraded James A. Rhodes Arena. He may be gone from campus, but the administration still has an eye on that and other facilities improvements. For now, the process is one Williams likens to a baseball team hitting singles, trying to put runners on base and start a rally, rather than swing for home runs.
Those "singles" have included a massive new video scoreboard installed prior to last season, costing more than $1 million. This offseason, the renovation of the coaches’ offices was completed and before summer is over, the plan is to begin renovating the weight rooms for the basketball and volleyball teams. There is already a plush players’ lounge near the locker rooms with a kitchen, massive, multi-panned TV on the wall and couches on which to relax.
"We’re in the mode right now of loading the basis, hitting singles … our longer term plan is to hit the home runs, which will include a practice facility and a renovation of the inside of Rhodes Arena," Williams said. "I’m just finishing my third year and it’s apparent to me that we are in real, strong need of a new look at the basketball facilities, so as we tick the things off and the teams start to succeed, I think you’re going to see the generous participation of more benefactors (donors) so that we can we get a practice facility and a renovation of the arena. The reason we think about a practice facility very seriously is the utility that such a facility can provide."
Such facilities are vital, Williams theorizes, because mid-major schools like Akron rarely get elite, five-star recruits who are finished products destined for professional stardom. Especially in basketball, those prospects tend to go to the sport’s blue bloods, or at least those with an established track record of putting future pros on a fast track to the next level. That means schools such as Akron get players who may have great potential, but could be late bloomers or overlooked for various reasons by bigger schools. Having top-end practice facilities is one way UA believes it can maximize the growth of such athletes.
As for why basketball hasn’t gotten the same new facilities and infrastructure that other UA programs have received - both football and soccer have gotten either massively upgraded or new on-campus stadiums in the past 15 years, Williams pointed in an unusual direction.
"Part of it may have been a comfort level with the levels of success that Keith and Jodi - especially earlier in her tenure here - had achieved. There probably was a natural human tendency to say, ’They’ve got what they need, they don’t need another facility, they’re already there,’ and attention went to some of the other programs," he said.
Right now, work toward that new practice facility and a new or overhauled arena is limited to conversations with the university’s capital planning staff. There are sites worth considering, Williams said, but sometimes those sites aren’t feasible because of existing infrastructure in place. He wants to see success from both the men’s and women’s programs to build excitement among donors so that when the time comes for a new building or renovation, there will be a wave of support to propel it forward. Getting renderings and drawings of new buildings or changes to Rhodes Arena is another logical next step, though Williams also holds out hope that the city will revisit previous discussions about a downtown, multipurpose arena that UA could use for men’s basketball, possibly women’s basketball and other events while it would also serve as a general use arena for concerts and other purposes.
"Maybe it’s my background at Marquette, but there’s something intriguing about it. We played in a municipally owned arena down the street from campus. I’ve got to tell you, it was really invigorating to see the sea of students walking down the street in their school colors to the games and once the games were over, they were in all of the establishments downtown and it was a really vibrant situation. I would hope that in the long term, the city of Akron thinks about the impact that such a facility could have on the economic climate," Williams said. "I saw it in Milwaukee - of course, we had a pro team that was playing there and the scale was bigger - but the reality was that the city was invigorated by everything that happened downtown and many of the same dynamics are still at play here in Akron. No matter what happens, we’re always going to need this Rhodes Arena to be a quality competition venue because if we do get to the point where we have an off-campus facility, it’s likely that volleyball will still play in Rhodes Arena … perhaps women’s basketball will still play in Rhodes Arena. Men’s basketball, on occasion, could be playing in Rhodes Arena."
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