While discussing his 10-minute meeting with UMBC men's lacrosse players Monday afternoon, when he informed them of his decision to retire, Don Zimmerman's voice grew a little husky.
"It was tough," he said. "We recruited every one of these young men. We -- and when I say we, I mean Andy Gallagher and Steve Settembrino, two wonderful assistants -- felt an obligation, a commitment to these young men. So it was tough. It was tough to tell them we would no longer be their coaching staff. But I did remind them that we still hold them dearly to our hearts and hopefully can assist them in any way, shape or form moving forward."
Zimmerman, one of the longest-tenured coaches in Division I lacrosse and the architect of three NCAA championships, announced he will retire as Retrievers head coach effective July 1, 2016.
Zimmerman, 63, recently completed his 30th year as a college head coach -- the last 23 at UMBC. He entered 2016 ranked eighth among active Division I coaches in victories with 233 victories and 17th with an all-time winning percentage of .591.
"It was a difficult decision," Zimmerman said. "I love to coach. I've been doing it ever since I got out of college [Johns Hopkins in 1976]. I love being out there working with the young men and teaching them the game and working with my assistants. It was a difficult decision, but I feel like the timing was right. I'm excited to move on."
Athletic director Tim Hall announced that Zimmerman will remain at the school to work with the administration in mentoring students and contributing to the university's athletic department.
"Don Zimmerman is a great person, a great coach," Hall said. "His reputation speaks for itself. When we look at what our vision will be for UMBC athletics comprehensively, because of the skill set and talent that Don has in a number of ways, we talked about a role serving UMBC now working with special projects and alumni relations and those types of things. Don retiring and working here with us is really a celebration of who Don is and the comprehensive, collective success that Don has had and being able to utilize his talents in this new role to help us achieve our objective."
Zimmerman became the first man to coach a team to a national title in his first year at the helm when he guided the Blue Jays to the 1984 championship and also led them to crowns in 1985 and 1987.
After leaving Johns Hopkins after the 1990 campaign and spending three years as an assistant at Loyola Maryland, Zimmerman succeeded Dick Watts with the Retrievers in the fall of 1993. The program qualified for six NCAA tournament, including a string of four consecutive appearances from 2006 to 2009, and Zimmerman was named America East Coach of the Year by his colleagues in 2006, 2008 and 2009.
But UMBC has missed the America East tournament in each of the past two seasons after qualifying for the first 11. Zimmerman acknowledged that the disappointment of the past two campaigns had intensified.
"We haven't had a lot of success the past two seasons, and I talked to Tim Hall and I talked to [university] president [Freeman A.] Hrabowski [III], and we just came to an agreement that it would be a good time to start a new chapter not only for me serving in another capacity here at UMBC, but also for the program," Zimmerman said. "There's a good group, a good foundation to work with."
News of Zimmerman's decision stunned and saddened a pair of his former players who are Division I coaches.
"I think Don Zimmerman has been a guy that has not gotten enough credit for what he's done," said current Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala, who was a three-time first-team All-American defenseman for Zimmerman from 1987 to 1990. "I think unfortunately that people have maybe forgotten the great successes he had here as a championship coach. I've gotten to know him quite differently since graduation, and I owe the man a great deal. He brought me to Johns Hopkins, kept every promise that he made, competed for championships, and they were instrumental in my development as a player and more importantly, as a young man."
"I think we're losing a great coach," said Albany coach Scott Marr, an attackman for Zimmerman from 1987 to 1990. "He's done so many wonderful things for our sport from the time he was an assistant at [North] Carolina all the way to his time as head coach at UMBC. I'd like to thank him for the opportunity he gave me to play at Hopkins and get into the coaching ranks. He's always been a mentor to me for a long time. It's sad to see him go, but he's certainly accomplished a lot in this game and has helped a lot of people along the way."
ESPNU and Big Ten Network analyst Mark Dixon, a former Johns Hopkins midfielder who did not play for Zimmerman but was recruited by him, pointed out that Zimmerman reshaped a Retrievers program that had played at the Division II level until 1981.
"He made them a bona fide Division I contender, producing numerous All-Americans and guys who have played or are still playing in the MLL," Dixon said. "More importantly, he's been an ambassador of the game, a steward of the game serving on the NCAA rules committee as the secretary. He's a gentleman to the officials and just his knowledge of the game. I don't know if there's a coach over the last 15 years who has gotten more from his teams with the talent that he's had than Don Zimmerman. He's a tremendous teacher of the game, great on X's and O's, stresses the fundamentals."
Hall said the school will begin a national search for Zimmerman's successor. Hall said he would like to install a new coach within five weeks.
Zimmerman won't have input in his successor, but he said his most important wish is a coach who will care for the players.
"I want what's best for these young men in the program," he said. "I just feel like UMBC has been good to me, and I just feel like the timing is right. … I feel like I've been so blessed to have the opportunity to work with so many outstanding young men as players and as coaches. So I look back fondly."