By nearly every measure, UMBC is a world-class university.
In Freeman Hrabowski III, it has a world-renowned president who is equally as comfortable giving inspiring speeches to huge audiences that include national and international thought leaders as he is sitting down with a small group of students for lunch in the cafeteria.
UMBC has been recognized as one of the most "innovative" schools in the nation (ranked fourth, actually, behind Arizona State, Stanford and MIT) by U.S. News & World Report. The Catonsville, Md., school, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary in September, was featured in the Princeton Review's "2015 Best Colleges" guide.
Freshman applications have more than doubled during the past 10 years, according to the school.
The Retrievers athletic teams, though, not so much. But that may be about to change.
UMBC was scheduled to break ground this month on the $85 million, 162,000-square-foot UMBC Event Center that will be home to the Retrievers' men's and women's basketball team, as well as the volleyball team. It will also house a state-of-the-art weight room that will benefit all athletes.
The new building will replace the Retriever Athletic Center, which was opened in 1973. The RAC seats about 4,000 fans, about 1,000 fewer than the new arena will seat.
"This will be transformational for our campus," said UMBC athletic director Tim Hall, who has been at the school since July 2013. "This will be one of the best arenas in the America East [Conference], and in the top third of all of the ‘mid-major' institutions."
Even Hall admitted UMBC athletics are "nowhere near where we can be."
The men's basketball team hasn't had a winning season since 2007-08; the women's team had two in 2010-11 and 2011-12; the volleyball team has fared better, with multiple .500 or better seasons since 2001. But the only team sport at UMBC that has had long-term sustained success has been Pete Caringi's men's soccer program, which made the NCAA semifinal in 2014.
Hall said the new arena, which he hopes will open in October or November of 2017, will put the Retrievers in a better position to win.
"It will help all of our sports," he said. "It will allow us to host events that will bring even more individuals to UMBC to show what a great institution it is."
Hall cited Gonzaga, George Mason and Kent State as examples of "mid-major" colleges that have used successful men's basketball programs to help build their schools' reputations.
"We have a president who has spent 25 years building this university, and now he wants to build athletics," Hall said.
For his part, the president said he agreed with his athletic director.
"The addition of this state-of-the-art facility will help us become a national model for how an athletic program can remain focused on educating the whole student, while showcasing great athletic talent," Hrabowski said in a statement to PressBox. "The event center will rival the best arenas in the America East Conference, enhancing the experiences of our scholar athletes and those who come out to support them."
The arena will also help UMBC keep pace with other Baltimore-area mid-majors. Towson opened the 117,000-square-foot, 5,200-seat SECU Arena in 2013; Loyola's Reitz Arena was renovated in 2008; Coppin State opened its Physical Education Complex in 2010.
Two of the coaches who will most directly benefit from the new arena, volleyball's Ian Blanchard and women's basketball's Phil Stern, said they can't wait for their new home.
"For me, who has been here for 14 years, we already had lots to recruit with," Stern said. "From our academics to Dr. Hrabowski. The new facility is the last piece of the puzzle."
Said Blanchard: "I'm really excited about it. It's something that we've needed. It will probably give us the best facility in the conference when it's all said and done. It's a really an exciting time."
Blanchard said that from a game perspective, there isn't anything wrong with the RAC. In fact, he said he enjoys the atmosphere there.
But all three teams have to share the one wood floor for practices, and the arena is always open for students to run on the track or for physical education classes.
"One of the nice things about the new facility is that we're going to have a practice court in there," said Blanchard, who has been the volleyball coach at UMBC since 2005. "So that automatically allows us to spread around some of that practice time into two separate courts.
"It will also allow us to have more privacy when we practice. … And while it's good for our athletes to have to play through a little bit of distraction at times, it's also good to have some privacy to be able to work on things and to have our athletes' full undivided attention -- as well as the coaches for that matter."
Stern said the new arena -- even though it exists only on paper at the moment -- already has helped his recruiting.
"For me, it's just about having the new facility to sell," he said. "From a basketball perspective, we're already getting in with some kids who we might not have because we have some renderings to show. It's more about generating the excitement within the recruiting base."
The other base that the new arena will generate excitement within is the community. The RAC is used for graduation ceremonies not only for UMBC but for neighboring Lansdowne and Catonsville high schools as well.
Hall said he envisions the arena playing host to 12-20 events a year, from concerts to speakers series. He mentioned George Mason's 10,000-seat Patriot Center (which actually is now called the EagleBank Arena) as a venue that's "a very robust business."
"We don't want it to go away from serving our students and campus," Hall said.
"Some people have said Maroon 5, others have said James Taylor," he added. "We have heard that there is a need for a venue of 5,000 seats or so, which is what we are building."