When Dr. Charles Brown first looked into taking the athletic director job at UMBC in 1989, the Brooklyn, N.Y., native wasn't real savvy about the school.
"I thought it was a military base when I showed up," he said with a chuckle. "It said UMBC. I didn't know what it was. I lived near USMA, the U.S. Military Academy [at West Point] when I lived in New York."
Now, after 24 years at the school, he's retiring as the longest-tenured Division I athletic director in Maryland history and the driving force behind UMBC's greatly enhanced profile in both intercollegiate and club sports.
"When I got here, I think we were at ground zero," he said Tuesday. "The [athletic] program had been neglected for a while."
Now the school offers 19 varsity sports and 24 club sports — including wrestling, ice hockey, cricket, fencing and rugby — for 400 varsity athletes and more than 1,000 club athletes.
Over the past 15 years, the Retrievers have won 46 conference championships and made 29 appearances in NCAA championship competition. The school was named the top overall program in the Northeast Conference from 1998-2003 and has consistently ranked as a top-four program since joining the America East Conference in 2003.
"He's helped take athletics to the next level, and not just in the won-loss column," said Don Zimmerman, the Retrievers' men's lacrosse coach for the past 20 years. "He's a guy who lets you do your thing. He's not a micro-manager. He gets the right people and lets them do their job."
Brown will officially retire at the end of June, and he will manage a sports management curriculum for UMBC for another year. The school will hold a retirement celebration for him Thursday at 4 p.m. in the University Ballroom.
Over the years, say those who know him, Brown advocated tirelessly to upgrade UMBC's athletic facilities and get more students involved in sports.
Brown, 67, said he feels his No. 1 accomplishment at the school was to build spirit and tradition.
"I just sensed this was a diamond in the rough," he said. "Great location, great academics, campus was getting beautiful, affordable in the Maryland system. But looking at the fields, looking at the budget ... walking into the gym, there was nothing on the walls. I couldn't find a schedule. We didn't have a department manual. Didn't have much infrastructure.
"I went to the book store, they were selling Notre Dame, Georgetown and Maryland sweatshirts!" he continued. "I went to Dr. [Michael K.] Hooker, the president, and said: 'This can't happen!' He said: 'OK.' I said: 'Why are you selling this?' He said: 'It sells!'"
"If you walk around here now," he continued, "you'll see tons of kids wearing black and gold, UMBC Retrievers [gear], whatever."
The trim, energetic Brown, who was the AD at Division III Hunter College in New York before arriving at UMBC, was also aghast that his new school had no alma mater and no fight song. He went to new school president Freeman A. Hrabowski III in the early 1990s and met with a friend who was a composer, and the situation was quickly rectified.
"What most impressed me about Charlie is that as an AD, he's also a big fan of all sports," said long-time men's soccer coach Pete Caringi. "You can walk in his office and talk sports any time. You'll talk to other coaches and they say: 'I wish our AD came to our games. I wish I could talk to our AD.' In our case, we laugh. He comes to all our games and is a big fan."
Brown, who has a Ph.D. in athletic administration, said the job description of AD has changed greatly during his years at UMBC.
"I was trained as an educator," he said. "All my degrees are in education. Nowadays the ADs are fund-raisers, marketing people, communications people. Their background is either in the business end of it or the publicity end of it."
He also noted a couple of trends in college sports that he finds unsettling.
"The No. 1 disturbing thing is recruiting kids at such an early age," he said. "... The whole business of sophomores or juniors deciding where they want to go to college before they finish high school is strange. The colleges taking a chance on them, too, is really, really strange.
"The second big thing is that it's year-round sports now. Kids don't play multiple sports now, even in high school. I think it's problematic. They're practicing year-round. In high school, kids are afraid to do multi-sports because they'll be missed in recruiting and they've got to concentrate on their [best] sport."