In 1994, Dave Ford left his home in Lutherville for UMBC. It's a 20-mile spin around the Beltway, but to his lacrosse buddies, Ford might as well have been an 1840s adventurer who packed his belongings in a covered wagon, had his wife ride shotgun and headed off for the wilderness.
"All of my friends said, 'Why would you want to go there?' when I made my college decision," said Ford, who had attended Loyola High. "I couldn't pinpoint the exact reason. Something told me to come here, but this wasn't supposed to happen."
What has happened in Catonsville? The Retrievers are in the NCAA Division I tournament for the first time.
UMBC plays Georgetown in a first-round game Sunday at Johns Hopkins, and it will be a poignant homecoming for coach Don Zimmerman. He began with one player from the area's premier high school league, the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association's A Conference. This year at UMBC, the pioneering Ford and seven other front-liners are from that league. Zimmerman pumped up a deflated program with his energy and some substantial funding.
Now, an institution that 32 years ago didn't exist is in a tournament field that includes the traditional local powers, Princeton and Virginia. UMBC's president said that making the NCAA tournament means more than just an extension of this season.
"For years, I've seen how people in the Baltimore business community talk a great deal about lacrosse," said Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski III. "This clearly builds spirit on our campus. For a young campus, this is very special."
UMBC opened in 1966, and athletic director and lacrosse coach Dick Watts sculpted a Division II power from scratch. UMBC won the Division II championship in 1980, and moved up to Division I the next season.
From 1982 to 1990, Watts was unable to field a winning team. The schedule wasn't the best; ditto for the budget and facilities. From 1985 on, Watts worked without a full-time assistant. The university had increased its academic budget, and it had to do the same for athletics if it was ever going to contend in Division I in general and lacrosse in particular.
Charlie Brown, hired as the athletic director in 1989, pushed to get UMBC Stadium upgraded. Two years ago, $2.3 million was spent to build a top-notch track and field facility and lay artificial turf, a must for lacrosse teams in late winter. After Watts resigned in 1993, the scholarship budget was expanded from the equivalent of eight to 12.6, the maximum allowed by the NCAA.
Something was still missing: a coach who had been where UMBC wanted to go.
Zimmerman was a 40-year-old assistant at Loyola College, ready to change careers when he applied for the UMBC opening.
His lacrosse resume had the right stops. He prepped at St. Paul's, was an All-American at Hopkins and became the Blue Jays' head coach in 1984. Hopkins won the NCAA tournament in three of his first four seasons, but the team began to decline and Zimmerman departed after the 1990 season. He resigned, but his contract wasn't going to be renewed.
"I'm excited about going back," said Zimmerman, whose five-year record at UMBC is 32-32, 18-7 the past two seasons. "Homewood Field is the mecca of lacrosse. I've got a lot of fond memories there, and I want my players to experience playing a game there. The fact that this game is at Homewood Field adds to the drama."
Zimmerman had inherited a Hopkins program from Henry Ciccarone that was at the peak of its powers, but at UMBC, he took over one with little identity at the major-college level. He said he hadn't been the most patient or understanding leader with the Blue Jays.
"I was the head coach at Hopkins when I was 30 years old," Zimmerman said. "I was seven years older than some of my players. I've always been a disciplinarian, but there's a limit to that. Early on, I didn't give guys room to grow. It was probably a defense mechanism. I felt I had to command their respect; now I understand that you earn it."
Zimmerman endured a rocky start at UMBC. His first team started 7-3, before it was shelled in April 1994: losing 15-9 to Loyola, 21-9 to Towson, 20-3 to Virginia and 23-8 to Maryland.
Help wasn't immediately on the way, because Zimmerman's first recruiting class was a disaster. Assistant coach Terry Mangan was from New York, and that's where they went for talent. But the class of nine that came on board in 1994 has dwindled to two -- starting defensemen Ford and Al Hernandez, who's from Long Island.
"Mangan came to my high school, and I expected to meet a coach in Terrapin red," Hernandez said. "I had never heard of UMBC, but I knew of Zimmerman. They said they wanted to win a national championship and that they needed my help. Most of the guys that came in got discouraged and left, because we were getting killed."
Leaps of faith