Now at UMBC, Zimmerman has different focus

March 03, 1994|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Sun Staff Writer

After nearly three decades of lacrosse with the haves, Don Zimmerman is learning about life among the have-nots.

When Zimmerman was a third-grader at St. Paul's, he learned his fundamentals from George Mitchell. At Johns Hopkins, Henry Ciccarone was Zimmerman's coach. He worked for Willie

Scroggs at North Carolina, and when athletic director Bob Scott hired him to coach Hopkins, Zimmerman brought home NCAA titles in three of his first four seasons.

Zimmerman is on the outside now, trying to turn UMBC into a player in Division I. The Retrievers have a Division II championship in their trophy case, but their Division I legacy is hardly the same: three winning seasons in 13 years and zero NCAA tournament appearances.

Does his new boss, UMBC athletic director Charlie Brown, know what Zimmerman is up against?

"I think he [Brown] does," Zimmerman said. "The question is, do I realize what we're up against?

"We have to work harder here. When I was at Hopkins, my job was to maintain the tradition. At UMBC, the challenge is different. I've got to build it. Expectations aren't nearly as high, and the pressure isn't as great, but I want to win. I firmly believe this program can rise in Division I lacrosse."

More days than not last fall, Zimmerman sought counsel from Dick Watts, who coached UMBC the past 23 years.

Recruiting was a frequent topic. When Watts stepped down as UMBC athletic director in 1985, he also had a full-time assistant's position cut from the budget. He did most of the recruiting, which he admittedly "wasn't gung-ho about." There isn't a single New Yorker on the Retrievers roster this fall, but Zimmerman has received oral commitments from three Long Island high school players.

"There are three hotbeds for lacrosse: the Baltimore-Annapolis corridor, Long Island and upstate New York," Zimmerman said. "If you're a Division I coach, you have to tap into all three areas."

It helps to have a foot in the Maryland Scholastic Association A Conference, probably the nation's premier prep league. UMBC has one player from the A Conference. No offense to the public schools, but Zimmerman wants to zero in on the same caliber of recruit he sought at Hopkins.

Zimmerman got assurances from the UMBC administration that the program would be upgraded, but it's telling that he hired former MountSt. Joseph coach Rocco Vicchio as his second assistant because "he's always done a lot with a little." First assistant Terry Mangan should be a full-timer next year, artificial turf is in the works and more scholarship money is supposed to be coming.

Like UMBC, Loyola and Towson State weren't in the scholarship business two decades ago, and athletic director Brown has seen both of those programs climb to the NCAA final in the past four years. Of the 53 Division I programs, few have the NCAA maximum of 12.6 scholarships. UMBC has worked recently with the equivalent of a little more than eight scholarships.

"Zim's case is similar to ours," Towson State coach Carl Runk said. "If UMBC is in the position to support the program and Don, he'll be OK."

Zimmerman's Retrievers debut comes against Michigan State on Sunday, nearly 10 years to the day after his first game as a head coach, against UMBC. In the last meeting between Hopkins and UMBC, the Blue Jays began a perfect 1984 season with a 10-8 victory.

Zimmerman was on a fast track at Hopkins, where his 1985 team repeated as NCAA champions. It won again in 1987, and lost the NCAA final to Syracuse by a goal in 1989.

It all soured in 1990, however, when a first-round tournament loss Princeton left Hopkins with a 6-5 record, its worst since 1971. Zimmerman resigned, but his annual contract with the Blue Jays wasn't going to be renewed.

"I wasn't doing a good job as the head coach," Zimmerman said. "I wasn't being the leader I should have been. I had the job I had always dreamed about, and it was gone."

L Zimmerman, 41, stayed in the game as an assistant at Loyola.

"There had been four or five openings for head coaches that he [Zimmerman] didn't get," Loyola coach Dave Cottle said. "He couldn't be anassistant for the rest of his life. He was ready to be a head coach again, but he made an honest appraisal of his situation. If he hadn't gotten this one [the UMBC job], I'm not sure he would still be in coaching."

At first, Zimmerman was lukewarm to the UMBC position.

"Part of me felt that maybe it was time to get into another field, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I wanted to come here," Zimmerman said. "The environment and the situation lend itself to where I don't have to wake up in the morning and say, 'I've got to win the national championship.'

"Still, I've got to believe that can happen here, eventually," said Zimmerman, who knows the lacrosse world is watching the Retrievers. "I'm still in a fishbowl. I'm living my life feeling I've got something to prove."

ZIMMERMAN AT HOPKINS

Year.. .. ..Rec.. .. .. .. .. Finish

1984 .. ....14-0 .. .. .. ... Champions

.. .. .13-1 .. .. .. .. Champions

1986 .. .. .10-2 .. .. .. .. Lost in semis

1987 .. .. .10-3 .. .. .. ... Champions

1988 .. .. . 9-2 .. .. .. .. Lost in quarters

1989 .. .. .11-2 .. .. .. .. Lost in final

1990 .. .. ..6-5 .. .. .. .. Lost in 1st round

Totals .. ..73-15

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