When Kathy Zerrlaut arrived at UMBC in 1973, the women's teams didn't play in the brand new UMBC Fieldhouse, now RAC Arena, and UMBC didn't even have a stadium. The new coach's volleyball team played in the old gym, and her lacrosse team played on a field in front of the library.
As Zerrlaut prepares to retire at the end of this month after 41 years as a coach and administrator at UMBC, including 24 as senior women's administrator, she has been a champion both for women's sports and for Retrievers athletics as a whole, playing a key role in the program's development.
"I couldn't have asked for a better right-hand person," said Charles Brown, who retired as UMBC athletic director last year after 23 years and will be among those honoring Zerrlaut at a retirement party Thursday. The open house will be held from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the Skylight Room of the Commons building on the Catonsville campus.
"I've always believed in stability and that the program flourishes when alums come back and see that you're still there, and they'll support the program," Brown said. "Kathy brought stability to our program. There are only 10 people the university ever had that lasted at least 41 years. That's a pretty big accomplishment."
Zerrlaut, 64, had planned to stay on one more year as senior associate athletic director and compliance officer, but after she was hospitalized twice last fall for a kidney ailment, she moved her retirement timetable up.
Although she has returned to full-time work, she said she's "not technically out of the woods yet." She had to give up being senior women's administrator and worked mainly on making sure the university complied with hundreds of pages of NCAA rules.
"Those kinds of things wake you up," Zerrlaut said. "I didn't realize at the time how sick I was until talking to my doctor later and he said, 'You know you were in renal failure," and I'm like, 'OK, that puts a slant on your life."
She said she was not forced out by new athletic director Tim Hall, who succeeded Brown as athletic director last July.
"Yes, we have a new AD here and there's going to be changes, but that's not the reason," Zerrlaut said. "The reason is mainly my health and a lot of what's happening in athletics these days, just the way it's become more of a big business — are we going to pay athletes above what they get in regards to a full scholarship, the rules, the media explosion and all this Twitter and social media stuff you have to worry about.
"If you look at the compliance people now, more and more of them have law degrees — with good reason. It's wearing."
During Zerrlaut's career, women's sports grew by leaps and bounds, not just in number but in support from traditionally-male administrations. The Lansdowne native arrived at UMBC a year after Title IX legislated equality in women's sports at federally-funded educational institutions, but it took a long while for that equality to to emerge.
"Kathy was able to be a voice in many regards at a time when, quite frankly, women weren't being listened to," said Nance Reed, who left Towson University in 2012 after 30 years as a coach and senior women's administrator.
"She was always the person who would be on the front lines speaking on behalf of women's athletics at UMBC and that voice as time went on … got a little bit louder and louder and louder. As the culture started to change, the voice didn't have to be as loud anymore because athletic directors were starting to step in and be more supportive of women's sports.
"I think she's had a very significant role in that history of a time when there was very little support provided to women's sports."
Zerrlaut played five sports during her three years at Lansdowne High School, but she didn't realize how far ahead of its time Baltimore County was until she went to Frostburg State College.
"At Lansdowne, we had good practice times," said Zerrlaut, who played field hockey, basketball and lacrosse in college. "I go to Frostburg and we were practicing at 6 a.m. or maybe 10 o'clock at night, because that's when the women's intercollegiate team got the gym — after the men's varsity, the men's J.V., intramurals, you name it. Then we got the gym. We had our battles."
Zerrlaut found more battles at UMBC.
Hired by then-athletic director Dick Watts to upgrade the women's volleyball and lacrosse programs at a time when there were no athletic scholarships for women, she managed to hold the lacrosse program together by convincing volleyball and basketball players to come out. Ten years later, her Retrievers won the Eastern College Athletic Conference Division II women's lacrosse national championship and she was named national Coach of the Year.
Zerrlaut later served on the NCAA Management Council and the NCAA women's lacrosse committee. She was inducted into the UMBC Athletic Hall of Fame in 2006.
"When I came to UMBC in 1989 I was looking for a strong woman, because I knew we had to work on the women's side," Brown said. "She took them through the real lean years when women's athletics was just an afterthought. She's not a complainer. She just moved ahead and was very positive.
"The thing about Kathy is that her love is women's sports, obviously, but she was just as good with the men and the young male coaches. I thought she was very evenhanded."
Today, Zerrlaut said, women's teams at UMBC are treated "exactly like" the men's teams and that's one of the things she's most proud of.
"When people talk about Title IX, you always had to be careful about the guys. I always say lots of times Title IX was a scapegoat for dropping men's sports when they needed to be creative enough to figure it out," Zerrlaut said. "Of course, it's easier at a school with no football, but I think that I cared about all the athletes. ... My job was to care about all of them and to look out for all of them, so I think I'd like to be remembered for that."