Don Zimmerman: Lacrosse Engineer

Posted on February 15, 2010

A Lax Lifer Is Now Constructing Proud Teams At UMBC

By Kevin Heitz

You can see intensity usually saved for pre-game pep talks in his eyes as he tells the story, grabbing a framed 5x7 off the window sill of his cramped office. The photo shows dozens of college guys beaming at the top of a mountain as a world opens up around them. The storyteller holding it with pride is Don Zimmerman, coach of the UMBC lacrosse team.

(Photos: Sabina Moran/PressBox)
What does a bunch of dudes on top of a giant rock have to do with lacrosse? If you ask Zimmerman, everything. 

His life has been all about lacrosse. A star on a St. Paul's High School team that won three MSAA championships in the early 1970s before playing for coach Henry Ciccarone at Johns Hopkins, Zimmerman spent seven years as an assistant coach -- with stops at Princeton, North Carolina and Hopkins -- before taking over the storied Blue Jays program. In seven seasons, he led the Blue Jays to three national titles. From 1991-93, he was an assistant at Loyola and in 1994 took over as coach of UMBC.

He has taught lacrosse on four different continents, forged a 23-year relationship with the growing lacrosse community in Japan, and has already been inducted into the Greater Baltimore chapter of the UN Lacrosse Hall of Fame.

On the surface, it seems Zimmerman eats, sleeps and breathes nothing but lacrosse. But after talking to the 56-year-old widely considered one of the best lacrosse coaches, it’s easy to see his true passion is teaching and molding young athletes into grown men -- under the guise of sports.

Which leads back to the mountaintop photo in Zimmerman's office. 

Two years ago, on the first day of spring break, the members of the Retrievers' lacrosse team reported to Lot 17 on UMBC's campus at 7 a.m. As fellow students were heading south to celebrate a week of no classes, Zimmerman's players were expecting the normal week of brutal two-a-days. But on this Monday, they were told to bring a backpack and board a bus instead of grabbing their sticks and hitting the field. They weren't told that their gruff coach had been up all night packing sack lunches with his wife instead of mapping out practice. And they had no idea where the bus was bound -- or how much the day would impact them.

"Traditionally, I would do double sessions during spring break," Zimmerman says as he gazes at the photo in his office. "This is our work week, and we're just going to get better by playing lacrosse. But I decided to do something different. They didn't know why, but (as we boarded the bus) I told them that this is what they needed."

The bus was bound for Shenandoah National Park, more specifically Old Rag Mountain, where their coach had hiked to the summit some half-dozen times, and where the group of young players found themselves hiking to 3,291 feet.

"One of the things we did was have a five-minute moment of silence at the top," Zimmerman said. "At first, the kids were like, 'What's this?' But when they stopped talking, it was just this wonderful silence that you can't find in this world today."

They may not have understood the purpose of the trip when they boarded the bus earlier that morning, but in those silent moments at the top of Old Rag, and during the family-style dinner afterward at Grey's Mountain Lodge, the players realized how much they had bonded in one short day. They still ask "Coach Zimm" when they can return to Old Rag. 

"I try to let the kids enjoy life off the lacrosse field," Zimmerman said. "And if you get good kids, they'll understand what you're doing, and more importantly they'll appreciate what you're doing and they'll come back and play harder, for me and for each other.
"We got so much more out of that trip than we would have ever gotten playing lacrosse that day."

***
A young Coach Zimmerman would not have wasted a practice day for a team hike up a mountain. As a head coach, in fact, he started at the apex of college lacrosse.
After a one-season stint as an assistant at Princeton and four years at North Carolina, Zimmerman returned to his alma matter in 1983 to serve on Ciccarone’s staff. A year later, the 30-year-old took over the Blue Jays’ program, going 14-0 and becoming the first to win a national title in his initial year as a head coach.

Some coaches would worry after instant success the only way to go is down, but not Zimmerman, who said, “That just increased my hunger to go out and do it again.”
And he did it again the following year, and followed with a third national title in 1987. Not bad for a guy just a decade older than his players.

“I think it’s important to understand how young he was when he took over that program,” said Quint Kessenich, an announcer and analyst for ESPN who played goalie for Johns Hopkins from 1987-1990. “Coach Zimmerman is and was a great teacher of the sport of lacrosse. … He breaks it down like a great basketball coach would -- like a Coach K., and what you see with a lot of the top basketball teams.”

However, the coach who won three titles in his first four years was, in many ways, different than the coach now roaming the UMBC sidelines. 

“I used to be a very control-oriented coach, and I think a lot of young coaches are,” Zimmerman said. “They want control; they find security in that.

“When I was at Hopkins, we had great players. We were successful, but we were running a lot of plays -- not a lot of freelance stuff going on. What I’ve decided (at UMBC) is to let go of the reins a little bit and let them play and show us what they can do.”

Zimmerman has always focused on teaching fundamentals, but instead of having every game and practice scripted in advance, the coach is now what he calls a “one day at a time guy.” He has a feel for what his team needs out of every practice and when it comes to games, he gives them the basics and lets them freelance from there.

“He gets the teacher label so much because all we do in practice is learn, and when it comes to game time he kind of leaves it up to us,” said Kyle Wimer, a co-captain of this year’s UMBC squad. “We don't have many plays that we run. He just instills what we need to do in practice so we can go out and do the right thing on the field. It's so much fun to play. As an individual player, you can bring yourself out as long as you’re in the guidelines of the system.”

One of the guys who played under the young, control-oriented Zimmerman at Hopkins is still considered one of the greatest defensemen in lacrosse history -- Dave Pietramala. The current coach at Hopkins, Pietramala was a freshman on Zimmerman’s 1987 national championship team and won the Schmeisser Award as the nation’s top defenseman in 1988 and ’89.

“With Coach Zimm, we always felt that we were extremely well-prepared for every game and every opponent,” Pietramala said. “I never had a doubt that what we were doing was the right thing for that game or that team.”

And while Zimmerman’s style may have been the right thing for those Hopkins teams in the ‘80s, it isn’t necessarily a good fit these days at UMBC.

“Since his time here at Hopkins, Coach Zimm has really grown in terms of his player relationships,” Pietramala said. “I mean, he was such a young guy; he wasn’t much older than a lot of our seniors. That’s a difficult situation. His perspective as I talk to him these days is very different than when I was a player for him.”

Zimmerman wouldn’t argue with that.

When Zimmerman resigned from Hopkins in 1990 -- some report he was forced out following a 6-5 season that saw his Jays fall to Princeton in the first round of the NCAA playoffs -- the young coach with a 73-15 career record cited pressures associated with the high profile job.

Pietramala has been in that high profile job since 2001, posting a 106-30 record with six Final Four appearances and two national titles (2005, 2007), and he can see how much Zimmerman has changed since leaving the Homewood campus.

“There’s a lot more to Coach Zimm than meets the eye,” Pietramala said. “He’s grown a great deal from that experience here which has made the UMBC experience much different for him.”

***
To say Zimmerman's second head coaching experience was different would be a gross understatement. After spending three years as Dave Cottle’s assistant coach at Loyola, Zimmerman found his new home on UMBC’s campus. And it didn’t come furnished with a storied Division 1 history and instant national titles.

“I came to UMBC and at the time the program was struggling a little bit," Zimmerman said. “I came in to try to get the program back up and running at what I felt to be the Division 1 level. It was getting the better players, so what we did is we really beefed up our schedule, and we did that in order to attract better players. When you do something like that, you're going to take it on the chin because it takes a couple years to get those players to be able to compete at that level.

“It really has been a work in progress, and the support from the institution has made a big difference.”

Support from the school was important, but so was introducing recruits to UMBC, which often gets lost in a sea of elite programs. Zimmerman himself had played summer league games on UMBC fields and still didn’t know much about the school until he started playing the Retrievers while with Hopkins.

“Is it a tougher sell? I would say yes,” Zimmerman said. “In this area, you've got Hopkins, which undoubtedly has the richest lacrosse tradition of any school in the country. And you've got Loyola, Towson, Navy, Maryland -- a bunch of schools and we all compete for the players.”

While there is plenty of competition for the nation’s top players, the spread of lacrosse has led to a much deeper talent pool than when Zimmerman was at Hopkins. Now he says it’s more about finding the right fit for the type of program he has built in Catonsville.

“At UMBC we go after a certain type of kid,” the coach said. “The kids we go after not only have the ability to play the game, but also they're good kids. They come from good families, they're hard workers. We like to say we play a blue-collar game. Our kids are scrappy, and they go out and compete. There are a lot of good players out there, and I feel that there are enough good players that if you get the right players that come in and fit the system, you're going to be successful.”

“He can take some pretty average high school recruits,” Kessenich said. “He's not getting the first-tier kids, but he can mold them into a great team. I think he really teaches kids there are a lot of different ways they can contribute. When you look at his teams, there are some guys that get you thinking, ‘Wow, how is he doing that?' But he’ll give a kid a role, and that kid will take advantage of that and play hard for his team.”

Zimmerman still scours the high school ranks with a keen eye on stick skills, athleticism and lacrosse IQ, but just as important are the intangibles. His top two priorities when searching for future Retrievers is a good attitude and coachability. No matter how good a player is on the field, if he doesn’t have those two things, Zimmerman simply looks elsewhere.

“We don’t sacrifice attitude and character for ability,” he says bluntly. “We’re fortunate to have a terrific pool of young men to choose from.”

While he has yet to put a national championship trophy in RAC Arena’s display case, the Zimmerman era has been a tremendously successful one. After struggling to a 14-25 record in his first three seasons, including a 3-9 mark in 1996, the Retrievers showed signs of good things ahead, going 9-3 in 1997. The following season Zimmerman’s blue-collar boys scored a major upset over top-ranked Maryland to catapult the Retrievers to the NCAA tournament, the first of two consecutive postseason appearances.

UMBC is now a regular in the NCAAs, going to the tournament the past four seasons, and a regular on television -- five games this spring will have a national audience. Last season, the Retrievers (12-4) won their third America East title in four years before losing to North Carolina in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

“He's done an amazing job there,” Kessenich said. “One, getting the program up to a consistent level nationally; and two, the dominance they've had in their league, year in year out.”

***
If there was any question that Zimmerman, the America East Coach of the Year in 2008 and '09, was using the UMBC job as a steppingstone to get back to one of the bigger-named schools, he put those rumors to rest in 2006 when North Carolina was searching for a new coach.

The rumor mill already had Zimmerman as the Tar Heels' next coach. He had spent four years in Chapel Hill as an assistant, when UNC won two national championships, and many of the people he worked with were still there. Then there was the fact Zimmerman admits he was “very interested” in that job.  

The grizzled coach gets choked up talking about the night he decided to stay put. He was strongly considering the UNC job, if offered, when he and his wife and son piled in the car to go to the annual UMBC end-of-the-season team party. During the celebration of another successful season, awards were handed out, backs were slapped, laughs burst out as stories of on-the-field heroics and off-the-field antics were told and retold, and a coach realized what was truly important.

“What has always been important to me is people,” said Zimmerman. “As I've said numerous times, I have to attribute my success to my players. So how could I leave a bunch of kids who committed to come to UMBC and play for me? I realized that it doesn't get any better than where I am.

“I just decided then and there that I’m in a great situation. The program is growing and developing. We haven't reached our goals, but we certainly have the support. And I’m a Baltimore guy, and I'm staying.”

It’s a refreshing change in an age that sees college coaches change teams more than most lacrosse players change their lucky socks. 

“I'm big on loyalty,” said Zimmerman, who signed a contract in 2008 to stay at UMBC through the 2013-14 season. “I expect my players to be loyal. I just thought, ‘Who am I? And what is this all about?’ And I know I made the right choice to stay here. Every day I come to work I know that.”

He may not be surrounded by national titles, but Zimmerman is more than at peace at the top of his mountain.

Issue 146: February 2010

next up:

Producers Are Hoping Stick Saga Will Sell

February 15, 2010

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