i no longer have to explain 'umbc'


America collectively asked a question Friday night while watching college basketball history unfold: What does UMBC stand for?

It’s a query I’ve received my entire adult life. Typically, it comes when small-talk conversations turn to colleges attended and it’s my turn to chime in.

Forget the general public. Many in the basketball community were unaware of the largely commuter school with around 14,000 students, no football team and perhaps the nation’s least intimidating mascot, a Chesapeake Bay retriever.

“Nothing; I didn’t even know it was a D-1 school,” Wizards guard Bradley Beal said Saturday morning.

Even when parties learn the answer, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, questions continue. No, it is not the sprawling mega-campus in College Park, it is the smaller commuter school on the same I-95 exit ramp as BWI airport. No, it’s not a community college, but the only Div. I school with “county” in its formal name.

Explanations don’t clear confused faces. Alums are used to this. We, at least those of us who attended the 500-acre campus located 10 minutes from downtown Baltimore a generation or so ago, understand. We also have jokes.

UMBC? U Must Be Crazy.

With a nod toward the two sleepy towns that surround the campus, some went with a different acronym: UCLA: University of Catonsville, left of Arbutus.

UMBC, where the most famous alum may or may not have attended the school. UMBC, where the starting center on the men’s basketball team once missed most of a season after breaking his arm in a snowball fight. UMBC, where before Friday, the powerhouse chess team produced the most famous “sports” achievements. UMBC, where the men’s team averaged over 24 losses during a seven-year span before super-coach Ryan Odom arrived in 2016.

UMBC, the program that arrived nationally Friday night.

They didn’t just beat top-seeded Virginia. They thrashed the 31-2 ACC champions by 20 points. “CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS!?!?!” texts poured in from friends and folks I didn’t know had my number.

College basketball history now forever resides at UMBC. Another No. 16 seed will win. They just won’t be the first. The Retrievers will always have that honor. UMBC now stands for U Must Be Cinderella.

I won’t pretend I consumed Retrievers hoops day and night before Friday, though I covered the men’s team during my junior and senior seasons for the school paper, The Retriever. Then, the head coach was better known for his time coaching Terps legend and future NBA player Walt Williams in high school.

The Retrievers finished 17-41 during those two seasons while playing in the now-defunct East Coast Conference. The most memorable story I wrote was for the April fool’s edition about how the team rallied together to win the national championship after their starting center broke his arm during a snowball fight.

The injury was not a joke. The starting center actually broke his arm during a snowball fight that broke out among the Greek community the previous year.

This detail wasn’t for public consumption. It wasn’t available on the then non-existent Internet. That’s why we didn’t know whether the rumor about actress Kathleen Turner attending UMBC was fact or fiction. She wasn’t from the area. The school started in the mid-1960s. There was no history. It didn’t make sense. The “Romancing the Stone” star might have hung out with her friends on the C-steps by the campus bookstore. Maybe she partied at The Rat, a dingy beer joint on campus. But, truth or urban legend, we believed.

I attended the America East championship game in 2008 at the RAC. Home-court advantage was not a concept during my college years. The RAC fans roared this game. The Retrievers thumped Hartford for their first NCAA Tournament berth. We all thought it can’t be better than this. Losing by 19 to Georgetown in the opening round didn’t matter. We danced.

Dancing shoes were nearly required the following season when the Retrievers reached the conference tournament final as a six seed before losing. Losing became the norm over the next seven seasons. The Retrievers didn’t even deliver a 10-win season in that span.

The school gained enough notoriety in this stretch for its science and technology departments to draw the attention of 60 Minutes. My mediocre grades and SAT scores wouldn’t get past the UMBC admission boards these days. That’s great stuff and education is good and blah blah blah, but as someone into hoops, I could only wish the alma mater reached mediocre status.

Regardless, I’d keep tabs on the program. My friend Dave Carroll, the No. 1 UMBC super-fan, would excitedly inform me about incoming recruits or specifically that the starting wing improved from the previous season.

Dave remained hopeful even as losses piled up. I always wondered why a Baltimore-based school could not turn into a mini-dynamo considering the hoops talent in the area. One former Div. I coach told me UMBC was a sleeping giant. Dave certainly believed.

In 2015, he really liked this DeMatha grad transferring in from VCU, Jairus Lyles. The dynamic guard savaged Virginia’s vaunted defense for 28 points on 9-of-11 shooting three years later.

“Back in high school, he was a young boy,” said Indiana Pacers star Victor Oladipo, who was a senior at DeMatha during Lyles’ freshman year. “He always had a lot of joy in his heart. Just a great person to be around. It’s great to see great things happen to great people.”

In 2016, Dave excitedly discussed 5-foot-nothing point guard K.J. Maura and gave a thumbs-up for the program hiring Odom, the son of former coaching great Dave Odom who was making the jump from D-II. Sure, Dave, that’s the spirit.

Two years later, and just a week ago, the Retrievers snapped a 23-game losing streak to Vermont in the America East championship for the program’s second NCAA Tournament berth. Lyles drained the game-winning 3-pointer. Dance party on deck. UMBC was sent to Charlotte. Dave went with them.

History and headlines followed. It’s possible Dave’s head exploded from joy. My friends swapped electronic high fives. We shared tweets from the amazing UMBC Athletics twitter feed. We couldn’t believe it. Some 48 hours later, we still don’t, even as every news outlet in the country tried to figure out who we are.

The 2018 NCAA Tournament magic carpet ride ended Sunday night. Those cold-hearted dream-busters from Kansas State ultimately pulled away in the final three minutes to win, 50-43. Beating a Big 12 school, one Vegas oddsmakers pegged as a 10-point favorite, seemed implausible. The kids who stomped Virginia as a 16-seed paid no mind. They dove for loose balls. They nearly pulled off another shocker. They just didn’t sink enough shots.

They certainly won lots of hearts. The entire nation — outside of the Wildcats’ campus — rooted for the Retrievers. They know what UMBC means now. Those weren’t dancing shoes, but glass slippers. No need to remove them. Make history and they stay on forever.

I’m grateful for these basketball kids saving me from again having to explain where I went to college. Those small-talk conversations will be different since everyone likes a good fairy tale. Now, they know. And that can’t be taken away.

Photo courtesy Dave Carroll

2 thoughts on “I no longer have to explain what ‘UMBC’ stands for”

  1. As a fellow alum and supporter of the program I too have heard the jokes etc.

    Such as UMBC stands for “u made a bad choice”

    Watching on friday I was numb throughout.

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