Don Zimmerman's coaching philosophy was based on a never-ending emphasis on fundamentals, players being in top-notch physical shape, competitive toughness, and a team-first mentality. He is regarded as one of the finest lacrosse teachers of his era.
I played for him at Johns Hopkins. This week, after 30 years as a head coach, Zimmerman retired from UMBC.
At his core, Zim was a tremendous teacher. The lacrosse field was his classroom. Whether it was individual skills, team strategy, clock and score management...I've never seen a better lacrosse educator. He was happiest in the sun, on the field, teaching.
Zimmerman played midfield at St Paul's and then at Johns Hopkins in an era before specialization. Midfielders were marathoners who ran up and down the field all game. So his teams ran. And then ran some more. His teams never lost because they got tired.
He refused to compromise on the fundamentals. Stick work was a big deal. The daily standard was high. Take care of the ball or have a seat on the bench. Stick work was done at game speed under his scrutiny. Passes had to be perfect.
His practice structure and professional approach mirrored former Hopkins coaches Henry Ciccarone and Bob Scott. The practice schedule was precise and timed to the second. There was never a sense of winging it. Every drill or period had a distinct purpose.
He made it competitive. Every drill required game intensity. Every rep mattered. The little things meant a lot. On Saturdays, his teams rarely beat themselves.
His practices weren't for the faint of heart. Chippy battles would frequently escalate into fights. The coaching staff wanted us on edge. Whether he was looking for toughness in a one-on-one ground ball drill or precision from a clearing unit, he brought a sense of urgency to everything. If you didn't learn to become a good practice player, you found yourself on the bench.
Zim was terrific at reminding us that today is the most important day of the season. Win today. He also tailored specific roles for marginal players focusing on a strength they possessed that could help the team win.
He lived for practice. He also enjoyed shooting on the goalies during warmups on Thursdays when the team was stretching. It was a chance for him to show off his skills. To this day, he remains the best screen shooter I've faced. He would unleash a three-quarters arm bouncer underneath a jumping screener. You never saw it coming. Turn and rake. The team would cheer his efforts.
He was a fierce competitor on game day, nervously pacing the sidelines. You never questioned his intent. He cut through the clutter and delivered clear instructions in huddles. His first possession plays, man-up and man-down strategies, full field clearing and riding tactics gave his teams an edge. He knew the opponent's plays as well as the opponent did. His halftime adjustments were on point, simple but effective. The X's and O's on the chalkboard were never overwhelming. His players did the simple things to perfection.
Opposing coaches have told me, "The key to playing his teams were to pressure them into situations he couldn't coach them out of." The man could flat-out coach.
His sportsmanship and sideline etiquette were respectful and first class. I don't remember a single incident where he drew a flag. He didn't badger officials. He respected all opponents, opposing players, and their staffs. He had zero tolerance for poor sportsmanship displayed from his players. If he didn't like what he saw from one of his players, without hesitation he would yank that player.
He had a dress and haircut code. For bus trips, a coat and tie was mandatory. No earrings, hats or sandals. As a freshman, I didn't know how to knot a tie. My roommate Dave Howland showed me how it was done. I used that same tie all freshman year without uncoiling it. A week later Coach Zim spotted Howland wearing a bandanna in the athletic center, and dragged him into the office for a lecture.
For other team functions we were allowed to dress, "casual but neat." In Zim's world this meant khakis and a polo. I had neither. On Long Island, "casual but neat" meant a pair of acid washed jeans, usually ripped and a Bon Jovi concert T-shirt. My world was changing.
He was transformational off and on the field. He taught us how to behave, how to dress, and how to play lacrosse. Those Hopkins teams in the late 1980s were a ragtag assembly of knuckleheads — 35 kids trying to balance the stress of academics at Hopkins with the pressure of winning every week on the field.
The bus rides home from big wins were epic, a chance to unwind in a more tolerant era. Defender Steve Ciccarone would emcee a talent show for the freshmen. On one ride in 1989 after a win in Chapel Hill, a team comedian praised his mates and coaching staff saying, "Isn't it great being 5-0. Oh, I mean 6-0 with Army next week." The bus went nuts. And on Monday, Zim showed up at practice with his whistle and no lacrosse balls. "You are 5-0," he said. "Maybe you don't respect Army, but I do." We did sprints for 90 minutes before he kicked us off the field. The Blue Jays routed Army 17-4 that Saturday in a game more famous for its brawl.
Getting called into his office was usually a very bad thing. You screwed up. I had more than a handful of meetings with Zim, and only one is worth mentioning here. It was a Monday, six weeks into the 1987 season. We were 3-2. I was a freshman. He sat me down and said, "If you have a good week of practice, we are going to start you this week at Carolina." My heart was pounding. "We will reevaluate every week," he said.
And that's the approach that I've tried to live with ever since. Everything is earned, and then re-earned. He would gradually refine my concentration, determination, patience and self-control, traits that remain valuable as an adult.
Zimmerman took over at Hopkins in 1984 when he was in his early thirties, going 14-0 and winning the NCAA title in his first season. That team was bolstered by the play of Brian Wood, Del Dressel, John DeTommaso and Larry Quinn — four Hall of Famers. The 1985 squad repeated.
It's fair to say that the 1987 semifinal win over Maryland was his high-water mark as a tactician and leader of young men. Hopkins had lost to Maryland during the regular season at Byrd Stadium. The Terps were 12-0 and rolling. The underdog Blue Jays had three losses on their resume.
Zim and his staff put his team through a nearly flawless week of preparation. He broke down every facet and convinced his players that if everybody improved and handled their area, the 11-7 loss to Maryland could be reversed. One player couldn't make a difference; it would take the combined efforts of everybody.
Maryland was getting all the attention, his team was being overlooked. On the bus ride north on Interstate 95 to the semifinals, coach played Aretha Franklin's "Respect" on the team boom box. The music lightened the mood and become his message.
On a humid Saturday in Rutgers Stadium his game plan was executed without a hiccup and Hopkins upset the unbeatable Terps, 13-8. The master turned a four-goal loss into a five-goal win. His Jays rode the wave of emotion to victory over Cornell on Memorial Day. Zimmerman's team took down two previously unbeaten teams in three days to capture his third NCAA trophy.
For the last 23 years Zimmerman has been head coach at UMBC. The 2006 season was one of the university's best. Scorers Brendan Mundorf (2006) and Drew Westervelt (2007) led the Retrievers to a league title. A year later in 2007 they played in the NCAA quarterfinals. Zimmerman's team won the league again in 2008 and 2009, further validation of his craft.
When you played for Coach Zim you received a master's degree in stick work, and a doctorate in clearing and riding. His protégés are current head coaches at Johns Hopkins (Dave Pietramala), Albany (Scott Marr), Hofstra (Seth Tierney), Drexel (Brian Voelker), and UMass-Lowell (Ed Stephenson). He brought Bill Tierney (Denver) to Hopkins as an assistant in the mid-80s. Tierney has won seven NCAA titles. Zim has produced countless high school and youth level coaches.
He was instrumental in the introduction of lacrosse to Japan. He's delivered demonstrations at hundreds of clinics and camps, and spent countless hours with young coaches, generously passing along his knowledge. He's served on every coaches committee imaginable and played a large role in the new rules during his stint as NCAA rules editor. His book, "Men's Lacrosse" is a must for young coaches and players.
Championships aside, Don Zimmerman's greatest legacy is his former players and assistants who have become successful in their own right. His coaching family tree is extensive and only grows larger.
For 30 years at every practice and every game, Zimmerman gave it his all.
One of the sport's greatest teachers has now left the classroom. He passed his wisdom, expertise and love of the game onto his players. Thank you, Coach.
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Quint Kessenich covers college sports for ESPN and writes weekly for The Baltimore Sun during lacrosse season.