Sullivan aims to make Retrievers the team to watch Ex-Seton Hall assistant envisions UMBC revival

November 26, 1995|By Roch Eric Kubatko | Roch Eric Kubatko,SUN STAFF

His high school basketball team in New York once played against Lew Alcindor. And as a college coach in New Hampshire, he had to prepare his squad for 7-foot-6 Manute Bol, who stood at least 13 inches taller than anyone on his bench.

He recruited athletes that few others wanted and moved them hundreds of miles from home, teaching them the nuances of the sport, and of life.

Tom Sullivan always has loved a challenge, and he has found one at UMBC.

Transforming the Retrievers into winners? That's only scratching the surface. Listen to what really matters to Sullivan, 44, who was selected from more than 100 applicants in April to replace Earl Hawkins as coach.

"I would like to see our home games be sellouts," he said. "I would like to see the local community support us. I would like to see our 2,500 on-campus student population fill this building, along with our faculty and staff, and understand that UMBC's team is the university's team."

He's on a roll now, and the thumping of basketballs against the hardwood floor inside the UMBC Fieldhouse can't drown out his passion.

"I want to be able to, through this team, and through its trials and tribulations, spread that sort of esprit de corps that a university of this size and academic acclaim deserves," he said. "I look at, in the future, this being a tough ticket in this town. You can fit 4,500 people in this building, and when we start packing it consistently like that, we'll know we're giving the fans in this neighborhood a good product and the kids at this school a good product, and people will be able to identify with that."

Does Sullivan's name ring a bell? He was P. J. Carlesimo's top assistant when Seton Hall rose to national prominence in the late 1980s. Before that, he compiled a 152-99 record in nine seasons at Division II New Hampshire College, twice earning New England Coach of the Year honors. He coached for six summers in Puerto Rico and has done clinics around the world, including Greece, Italy, Great Britain and Japan.

With offers pouring in, he could have gone just about anywhere. He ended up in the Big South Conference at UMBC, the school's sixth coach in 28 years.

"I just thought it was a great opportunity to come in and do things that I like to do," he said. "This is a beautiful campus, it's a great academic institution, we play in a good conference that has an NCAA bid. I want to bring some youngsters in here and get this thing cranked."

So did the five men who held the job before Sullivan, and each left with losing records. The Retrievers haven't finished above .500 since the 1988-89 season, Hawkins' first at UMBC, and have done so only six times since the program's inception.

And yet, mainly because of what transpired at Seton Hall, where Sullivan helped design a basketball revival, a great deal is expected of him. His players know where he has been, and they want to walk the same turf.

"He's been to the national championship game," said junior guard Eric Hayes. "He certainly knows what it takes and what demands he can put on student-athletes, on the basketball court as well as in the classroom. Everybody looks at that and says, 'Hey, he knows what he's talking about. If we go out and work hard, maybe one day we'll be at that point.' "

Said Sullivan: "When P. J. first got there, there was a lot of restructuring that went on administratively. And they've done the same things here. My offices have been moved, my budget's been increased, things of that nature that will help us accomplish some of the goals that the program has set for itself.

"People don't understand that, when I first joined P. J. in the Meadowlands, people could yell over to us and tell us where they were going to dinner. It came a long way to where, all of a sudden, we became one of the top 20 attendance programs in the country. You have to understand that this is a mountain you're climbing, and you want to climb that mountain."

It could get pretty steep. Eight of UMBC's first 10 games are away from home, including stops at Texas A&M, Boston College and Florida State.

"What the early schedule's going to do is test our mettle," he said. "It's going to see if we can hang together as a group and accomplish some of the goals we have for ourselves."

Hayes, for one, sounds ready. He likes the new regime, which brings what he calls "a more structured offense" than the one under Hawkins. The Retrievers appeared ready to turn the corner last season, going 13-14 overall and 10-6 in the Big South, and Hayes doesn't see the team moving backward under the direction of a man he became better acquainted with over the summer.

"He's a nice individual, a caring individual," Hayes said. "He works us very hard, but we understand that in order for us to be a good team and get the program at a higher level, we have to come out and work hard every day."

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