When Tom Sullivan was applying for the job of men's basketball coach at UMBC four years ago, an impressive group of callers phoned in their recommendations to UMBC athletic director Charles Brown.
"Phil Jackson, P. J. Carlesimo, Digger Phelps, Len Elmore, Bobby Cremins," Brown recalled recently with a smile. "And there were others."
Brown was already pretty sure he'd hire Sullivan, whom he'd known since both worked in New York years earlier. The phone calls helped him finalize a decision that has effected a major upheaval in the local college basketball order.
Long stuck near the bottom of the class that includes Coppin State, Towson, Loyola and Morgan State, UMBC has shot to the top under Sullivan. And with a lineup dominated by sophomores, the Retrievers look like a team that's only going to keep rising.
"A lot of programs win for a year and fade," Brown said. "We'd like to stay good, period."
The signs are encouraging. After going 5-22 in each of Sullivan's first two seasons and 14-14 with four freshman starters last year, the Retrievers are 13-5 this season and 12-0 in the Northeast Conference. They have won eight straight games and 13 of their past 14 after an 0-4 start.
That's heady stuff for a program that has never come close to sending a team to the NCAA tournament since moving to Division I in the '80s. Other than a few good years in Division II in the late '70s, the Retrievers have no basketball tradition.
To build a lasting winner in such daunting conditions is one of the toughest tasks in college sports. Fang Mitchell did it at Coppin State against overwhelming odds. Sullivan is almost there.
"In my mind, we turned the corner last year," he said. "Your program is of age when you can take a team into a building and tell your kids, `If we do X and Y, we can win.' When I first came here, I didn't have that. But we're there now."
It's a New York story unfolding in Catonsville, of all places.
Sullivan, 48, grew up in the Bronx, living in a housing authority project as the son of a city bus driver. He was a gym rat who admired Red Holzman's Knicks and excelled at the pass-and-cut, Catholic League style of play. He made all-city as a center and went on to star at Fordham University.
"Basketball was a religion in New York in those days," he said. "It was a golden age. Excellence on the court and excellence in the classroom was demanded of me. That's why I demand it today of my players."
Drafted by the Knicks, he played professionally in Europe before turning to coaching. He turned an NAIA program into an NCAA Division II power at New Hampshire College, then spent eight seasons as Carlesimo's assistant and chief recruiter at Seton Hall.
Brown, a Brooklyn native who'd come to UMBC from Hunter College in New York, had followed Sullivan's rise and knew him as a well-connected coaching community insider.
"Tom is one of those guys who always knows the maitre d'," Brown said. "I never ceased to be amazed by who and what he knows."
Sullivan replaced Earl Hawkins, whose tenure at UMBC finished with six straight losing seasons. And just as Mitchell has mined his Philadelphia-area roots for players to hasten Coppin's rise, Sullivan has stocked his roster with players from New York. Nine of UMBC's 15 players are from New Jersey or New York.
"When I signed here, people at home said, `What is UMBC, a junior college?' " said Isaac Green, a junior forward from Newark, N.J. "We're getting a lot more respect now. It would really help if we got a bid [to the NCAA tournament]. That's our goal, for sure."
Things didn't look good when the Retrievers started 0-4, with the fourth loss to Morgan State in the consolation game of the Battle of Baltimore tournament. That was a wake-up call.
"We were having an internal conflict," Sullivan said. "The players had come off a pretty good year and thought we were just going to go outscore everyone. I expected our defense to lead us. After the Morgan game, we looked at some film and started working harder on defense."
Sullivan also shook up his lineup after the Morgan game, moving two of his top players, Rich Giddens and Kennedy Okafor, to the bench. The Retrievers have lost only once since, in overtime to Navy.
They're a portrait of balance and fundamentals, with nine players averaging at least 19 minutes a game but only Terence Ward (14.6) and Okafor (9.9) averaging near double figures in points. Their defense is what sets them apart. Opponents are shooting only 39 percent from the field, and a mere 26 percent from behind the three-point line.
"I like it when other coaches say, `They play like a team,' " Sullivan said. "It's a good situation. They don't envy each other's talent so much as respect it."
Things are going to keep getting better, too, with this year's top eight scorers set to return next season and the top six back for two more years.
"The system is established," said Sullivan, who has signed a five-year contract extension. "We have a lot more talent than we did, and we hope to keep bringing in more."
It's a seismic event in the local college basketball world, a change unthinkable for years, but it's as real as those phone calls that helped Sullivan get the job: UMBC is the top dog in town now. Believe it.
Pub Date: 1/25/99