Winning UMBC teams winning few fans

Despite boost in school's sports profile, many students slow to rally around athletics


The school's gaining notice for its chess team, its math and science programs and a growing technology park. And just this week, a businessman baker from the Class of 1997 appeared on The Tonight Show, presenting Jay Leno with a cake.

Now, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County is making strides on the athletic stage, as the men's lacrosse team plays today in its first NCAA tournament in years. But at the school's Catonsville campus -- where thousands of students come and then go after the day's classes -- undergraduates still seem more likely to crack a book than shake a pompom.

"I don't think we're a bonfire kind of school yet, with pep rallies and that kind of thing," said Mike Lurie, the university's director of public relations. "It takes a while when there has been a transition."

UMBC officials shake their heads at the term "commuter school," and are quick to point out that three out of four freshmen now live on campus, a big increase from even five years ago.

Still, barely 1,200 people attended the lacrosse team's conference title game, played Sunday on the school's new artificial turf field at UMBC Stadium. The school offered free passes to the first 150 students to show up for the game.

Dozens went unused.

"There's a complete de-emphasis on sports in this school," senior Ike Opara, a biochemistry major from Baltimore County, said at a table inside The Commons, the campus' student union. "Because the chess team is more of an intellectual type of sport, you're going to get more advertising on chess than basketball."

Don't bring up chess around Athletic Director Charles Brown, who started to shake his head before a reporter could finish a question about the university's chess team, which in December won the Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship for a record-breaking seventh time.

"We don't like to talk about chess," said Brown, who has a doctorate in physical education. "We're very proud of them, but it's not a sport."

Sitting in his office this week, Brown had laid out that day's sports page, which had a big picture of UMBC softball star Melanie Denischuk. Denischuk was leading the nation in runs batted in and was tied for second in home runs.

To lift the school's profile, UMBC moved out of a lesser-known conference three years ago and began competing in the America East Conference, which includes schools like the University of Albany and Boston University.

The lacrosse team beat Albany in the conference championship game to earn its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1999, and third overall. The team, which won a Division II national title in 1981, is led by a Hall of Fame coach, Don Zimmerman, who coached Johns Hopkins to three national titles in the 1980s.

But an average of only 1,000 fans attended the team's home games this year, and most of them were players' relatives or other student-athletes, an athletic department spokesman said.

"To ask a UMBC student who works 20 to 30 hours a week and commutes 20 miles to come back to the game, that's a hard sell," said George LaNoue, a political science professor who served as an assistant coach of the men's lacrosse team in the 1970s. "Students don't come here because they're seeking the excitement of big-name sports."

Of the school's 11,650 students, more than 1,000 are from out of state, and an additional 800 are from other countries.

The school has received recognition for its 41-acre research and technology park, the first university-based research park in the state. Last month, a developer announced it will add a $22 million building to the park, which is expected to be completed in three or four years.

The university has also added two on-campus dorms, totaling more than 1,000 beds, in the past several years to give the campus more of a community feel.

Jordan Hadfield, president of the Student Government Association, said students have taken a bigger interest in sports since his freshman year in 2003, partly because of the increasing number of students who live on campus.

He said that when he was a freshman, only a handful of students showed up to basketball games. This year, he said, the student section of the arena was consistently "jam-packed."

Last year, he and a group of students, calling themselves the Soccer Hooligans, began showing up at women's soccer games with cowbells, drums and masks to cheer on friends on the team.

"UMBC is finally past the part where it's in an identity crisis, where people confuse us with College Park," said Hadfield, a 21-year-old junior from Dundalk.

He didn't know of any busloads of students heading to Princeton for today's game, but he knows about 20 students who are driving up.

Other students, like junior Tiffany Winterling, said they were only vaguely aware of the lacrosse team's success.

Asked about the lacrosse team, Winterling, who lives with her parents in Howard County, first thought the questioner was asking about the rape allegations surrounding the Duke University lacrosse team. She said she didn't even know where the UMBC lacrosse team played on campus.

"A lot of us," she said, "are just into going into the library all the time and studying."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.