UMBC won a national spotlight for its basketball heroics. But the school has had a hero for years.

I was enjoying a late dinner with friends at Peter Luger Steak House in Brooklyn, N.Y. — the sizzling plates of porterhouse in full command of my attention — when the familiar name began bubbling out of lips at surrounding tables.

UMBC, UMBC, UMBC.

“What does UMBC stand for?”

“Where is it?”

“How the heck are they beating Virginia?”

And I found myself answering the questions for guys at my table, telling them about this remarkable president named Freeman Hrabowski, whom I covered during three years on the higher education beat. Freeman has spent much of his adult life spreading the word about UMBC — its diverse international population, its work steering African-American students into successful science and technology careers, its charming devotion to all things nerdy.

I’ve never met a powerful person with a more deft personal touch. You could normally walk the UMBC campus in 15 minutes, but if you were with Freeman, it took an hour, because he stopped to talk with everybody. So often, he knew not just their names but the stories of their hopes, fears and ambitions.

There’s a sweet irony in the fact UMBC’s name is ringing out because of a sports achievement; Freeman has always been a touch skeptical about college athletics. Don’t get me wrong — he always loved UMBC’s athletes and coaches. He spoke proudly of plans for the new $85 million UMBC Event Center that opened this year with a men’s basketball game.

But he wanted UMBC to be known as a brain factory first.

In fact, I remember the skepticism in his voice when I told him I was going back to writing sports. “Childs, you need to go and get a Ph.D.,” he always told me. And as long as he was the one saying it, I actually wanted to do it.

So my mind was on Freeman last night as the world awoke to UMBC and the grand experiment that has unfolded in Catonsville.

I’m as skeptical of big-time college athletics as anyone — the schools that grow fat on the toils of unpaid athletes, the hypocrisy of NCAA rules enforcement, the farcical one-and-done system. My love of March Madness has faded over the years.

But this — what happened Friday night — is why it still might be worth it. As Twitter exploded with Retriever love and bemusement, my thoughts were not on Chaminade or the Princeton-Georgetown near-miss or any other upset for the ages. They were with Freeman Hrabowski.

He loves UMBC as much as anyone loves anything. And if thousands more people hear his message because of a basketball victory, that’s a good thing.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

twitter.com/ChildsWalker

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