Sticking it out

The Baltimore Sun

The first time I met Don Zimmerman was in 1987 when he was the coach at Johns Hopkins. He was as intense then as he is now. He would leave a trail after the game from pacing the sideline. He would run a fast break with his team going down the field.

Like most young coaches, his top priority was winning. Twenty-one years later, winning is still a priority of Zimmerman's, but it's not No. 1.

If it were, Zimmerman would still be a candidate for the coaching job at North Carolina. Instead, he withdrew his name recently and decided to stay at UMBC, where he has been the head coach the past 15 years.

Mentoring and tutoring young players has become just as important as winning to Zimmerman.

"The people at UMBC have been good to me, and this is my home," said Zimmerman, who has an overall record of 186-110 in 22 seasons, including three national championships. "We have things going really well here, and these are my kids and I recruited them. I just didn't think this was the right time to move. It wasn't right for me or my family. To move is not who I am, not what I'm about at this time in my life."

Zimmerman was clearly a favorite, if not the front-runner, to become the Tar Heels' new coach. Even before the 2008 season started, there were rumors that if Tar Heels coach John Haus didn't take his team deep into the NCAA tournament, Zimmerman would replace him.

Being the coach at North Carolina, Maryland, Hopkins, Syracuse or Virginia is extremely prestigious. You can build national champions at North Carolina much easier than you can at UMBC.

The Tars Heels have top facilities and a great tradition. They are located in the South, a nice attraction for recruits. The campus is gorgeous, and the Tar Heels play in the esteemed Atlantic Coast Conference.

In comparison with UMBC, it's no contest, unless you're looking through Zimmerman's eyes.

"Earlier in the season, I said, 'We are who we are,' and I'm still very comfortable with who we are," Zimmerman said.

It's almost certain that Zimmerman has gotten an extension and a pay increase for staying, but it's much more than that, and more than being on the brink of turning the Retrievers into a regular top-10 program.

Instead of being a top dog, Zimmerman likes being an underdog. It's a natural connection to his players. He isn't going to get the blue-chip players whom he once got at Hopkins, or whom Dom Starsia gets at Virginia, but he'll get blue-collar players with strong work ethics.

Their desire, combined with Zimmerman's ability to build great offenses, has been a good formula. Just ask big brother Maryland, which has lost two straight to UMBC.

Zimmerman has turned UMBC around. Unlike North Carolina, the Retrievers don't have a great tradition. They don't have a big stadium or even a football team. Most of the students on campus have to travel into Towson or downtown Baltimore for a social life off campus.

But they do have one of the sport's best coaches.

As an offensive assistant at North Carolina under coach Willie Scroggs, Zimmerman won national championships in 1981 and 1982. During seven years as Hopkins' head coach, Zimmerman won three national championships and had only one season in which he lost more than three games.

"Don Zimmerman is one of the nation's top collegiate lacrosse coaches," UMBC president Freeman A. Hrabowski III said. "He is a gifted teacher and mentor, and we are delighted he will remain at UMBC, keeping our lacrosse program nationally competitive."

It wasn't an easy decision to stay. According to Zimmerman, he was contacted shortly after Haus was fired. He almost instantly reconnected with North Carolina friends and alumni who wrote letters on his behalf to school officials for him to become the Tar Heels' new coach.

But on June 1, Zimmerman had an end-of-the-year party for the UMBC players. He presented the seniors with their jerseys and then took the team aside to tell them he was applying for the North Carolina job.

"I wanted to put an end to the speculation and make sure that what they heard was accurate," Zimmerman said. "I told them I had submitted my resume.

"It was a tough meeting for everyone, and there was some silence," he said. "But on the way home, it just didn't feel right. My wife, Dorothy, and I talked, and I told her I wanted to do what was right for me and my family, and then I realized the me was capitalized."

Shortly afterward, Zimmerman called North Carolina to withdraw his name, and then UMBC officials to tell them he was staying.

"You talk to your family about the situation, and the team had become part of my family," he said. "Sometimes you really don't realize how special, how good you have it until you take a hard look at it.

"North Carolina is a great school, and this opportunity allowed me to reconnect with some good friends," Zimmerman said. "It is the dream job. But it kind of reminds me of the movie about Indiana Jones and the Holy Grail. At the end, the ground is shaking and Indiana Jones is fumbling around the grail. And then finally he is told, 'Indiana, you have to let it go.' Well, it looked good, and it is good, but it wasn't the right time for me. I had to let it go."

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