Longtime college basketball coach inspiring even rival teams with his fight against cancer

Akron director of basketball operations Dan Peters, right, is battling pancreatic cancer.

Before his Akron team played Toledo last Saturday, Keith Dambrot felt the tears coming during the "Star Spangled Banner."

There was no holding them back.

For this one game, director of basketball operations Dan "Pete" Peters was back with the Zips. He'd been on leave since mid-December, battling pancreatic cancer after receiving an exceedingly bleak diagnosis – a 5 percent chance of recovery.

But the 59-year-old was on the bench for that game, serving as a profound reminder of what really matters.

"I kind of lost it a little bit during the national anthem," Dambrot said. "Normally these games are so important to us, but it changes your whole perspective on things. It was hard."

Next Wednesday, Akron will help spread perspective to its fans and beyond – through much of the state of Ohio and around the Mid-American Conference. Akron's colors are blue and gold, but when the Zips host Ball State the arena will be awash in purple – the color associated with pancreatic cancer awareness.

There will be 3,000 purple "4 Pete's Sake" T-shirts in the arena for fans. Players will have a patch on their jerseys. Coaches will wear pins.

But that's only part of the show of support. Every school at which Peters has worked in a 30-year career, as well as every member of the Mid-American Conference, is joining in. The annual Coaches vs. Cancer Suits and Sneakers Weekend, which starts Friday, will be especially poignant for those who know Pete.

Programs showing their support for Peters through lapel pins or patches include Arizona (where his son, Danny, is an assistant director of operations), Ball State, Bowling Green, Buffalo, Central Michigan, Cincinnati, Delta State, Eastern Michigan (men and women), Houghton College, Kent State, Miami (Ohio), Northern Illinois, Ohio, Ohio State, St. Joseph's (Ind.) College, Toledo, Walsh College, Western Carolina, Western Michigan and Youngstown State (men and women).

"I do know this from coaching with Dan and against him, he is one tough individual," said Ohio State's Thad Matta, who was Peters' boss for five years in Columbus. "He will put up a tremendous fight and we will support him any way we can."

In his ops role at Akron, Pete has often been the good cop – the paternal staffer who massaged player egos bruised by Dambrot and the assistants. When they had off-court struggles with school, family or girlfriends, he was a willing listener. And when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in December, he met with each player individually to tell them and talk it out.

Surgery was not a success – the tumor could not be removed. Hearing that was “very hard,” Peters told the Akron Beacon-Journal. The alternative approach is chemotherapy, which he started this week. A port was inserted Wednesday, and Dambrot said the plan is for two weeks on and 12 days off chemo, over a period of six months.

"His courage is amazing," Dambrot said. "His attitude is amazing."

As word of Pete's illness has spread, so did the willingness of others to help out in any way they could. Amid dire, potentially tragic circumstances, beauty can arise. A man can find out how many friends he has, how many lives he's touched in a career spanning more than three decades of working with young people.

Said Dambrot: "He's coached with a lot of good people. He was a head coach three times [at Walsh, St. Joseph's and Youngstown State] and worked with a lot of other great coaches. We just thought it was something to create awareness, and all those schools really got behind it. This can happen to anyone."

West Virginia coach Bob Huggins will be wearing the 4 Pete's Sake pin. Of course he will. Nobody in the profession goes back farther with Pete than Huggs.

They played against each other coming up in Ohio. Then later, when Peters was in his first coaching job at Guernsey Catholic High, he helped work the summer camps put on by Huggins' father, Charles, a legendary high school coach.

"We would spend four-five weeks together every summer, working camp," Huggins said.

When Huggs got his first head-coaching job, at age 27 at NAIA Walsh College, he hired Pete as an assistant. Pete eventually succeeded Huggins there, and it was Huggs who recommended him for the head-coaching job at Youngstown State.

After six years there, Pete hooked up with Huggs again as his assistant at Cincinnati. He was the bookish, laid-back yin to Huggins' hyper-competitive yang.

"You know people who pick up murder novels?" Huggins asked. "That's how he read basketball books. He was always picking up a new basketball book. If you ask him what Hank Iba or Clair Bee ran, he could tell you.

"When we were at Walsh, we'd be at halftime and he'd say, 'You ever think about running what Ed Jucker ran at Cincinnati?' I'd say, 'Pete, I don't give a [expletive] what Ed Jucker ran. I'm trying to win a game here.' "

When the two were on the road recruiting together, Huggs knew to allot extra time to get somewhere. Because if they picked up coffee along the way, it was going to be a production.

"The sugar and the cream had to be perfect," Huggins said. "Drove me absolutely crazy."

But the bond runs deep between the men. When Peters was allowed visitors after his surgery, Huggins was there. He'd left Morgantown, W.Va., and hustled to Ohio to see his old friend. So did former Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel – one of many friends the affable Peters made outside the basketball office.

Huggs spent the afternoon with Peters in his hospital room, talking about everything. Peters had planned to retire in August, at age 60. To travel with his wife and go see Danny in Arizona. Now those plans are all on hold.

When the conversation was over and it was time to go, Huggins knew the situation was serious. Peters had told him what he was going to do as soon as he left the hospital: go get a cheeseburger and a milk shake.

For a guy who was always health-conscious and careful with his diet, that was a sign.

And for everyone who knows Dan Peters, his diagnosis is a call to action. Time to support the man in his hour of greatest need, and to appreciate how fragile and fleeting life and can be.

"He told the players, 'Try to enjoy every day,' " Dambrot said. " 'Enjoy your moments, because you just don't know.' "