The Maryland-Johns Hopkins rivalry is one of the greatest in the game, but in the 1980s, the Terps inadvertently led the Jays to three national championships.
The story begins in 1982 in the North Carolina locker room as the Tar Heels celebrated their victory over Hopkins, 7-5, in the national championship game. Bob Scott, the Johns Hopkins Athletics Director, came into the locker room and congratulated Willie Scroggs, the North Carolina head coach, on his success. He then turned to UNC assistant coach Don Zimmerman and made a proposal.
“Zim, we want you to come back to Hopkins,” Scott told the former Hopkins player. “I’d like to have you come up next week to interview.”
It was a difficult decision, Zimmerman said, after spending four years in Chapel Hill and building a network of people in the area. But ultimately, his hometown was calling.
“I wasn’t full-time at North Carolina, so I was doing a bunch of stuff – I was coaching, I was tending bars, I was painting houses, I was working at football and basketball games,” Zimmerman explained. “Those are the things you had to do back then to survive financially. Hopkins came to me with a full-time position. It was my alma mater. I just felt like it was time for me to return to Baltimore.”
And so he did. Zimmerman joined Henry Ciccarone’s staff at Hopkins and served as an assistant on the 1983 team that went to its seventh-straight national championship game, falling to Syracuse, 17-16, in the final contest.
Not long after the season ended, Scott called Zimmerman into his office and told him that Maryland had called with interest in the young coach. The Terps needed a new head coach, and they had their eye on the Hopkins assistant.
Initially, Zimmerman wasn’t interested. He was a Hopkins guy, growing up not far from the campus, going to games as a kid, playing there, and now serving as coach. He couldn’t see himself in College Park.
But after putting more thought into it, the Hopkins assistant realized he should at the very least hear Maryland out. It was quite the opportunity, after all – he had never been a head coach at that point, and to pass up on a shot at one of the most prestigious jobs in the sport without even considering it would have been foolish.
One great interview with Maryland and a second invitation for Zimmerman to come down for a lunch at Towson with several Maryland alumni later, and Scott was concerned he might lose someone valuable. He reminded Zimmerman he was a Hopkins guy through and through and should think about this more.
At the same time, it was an open secret that Ciccarone was considering moving on from coaching to go into business. He had four sons, all enrolled in private school in Baltimore, and coaching didn’t pay then what it does now. Ciccarone even told Zimmerman it was something he was contemplating, the then-assistant said. So, Zimmerman thought he could potentially use this situation to his advantage.
“I said, I’ll tell you what: I will call Maryland and say I’m not interested if you guarantee me that when Ciccarone steps down, I’ll be the next head coach,” Zimmerman said he told Scott. “I saw an opportunity to leverage this a little bit, and Scotty said okay. So, I called Maryland and said I wasn’t interested.”
Fast forward only a handful of months to October 1983. It was a normal day when Zimmerman woke up and headed over to the office, but he could immediately tell something was up once he arrived at work.
“One day, I come into the office, and boy, I walk in and the secretary’s looking at me with this look,” Zimmerman recalled. “Scotty’s door is closed, and Chic’s door is closed. So, I walked back down the hall to my office and said to myself, ‘Something’s going on.’
“All of a sudden, Chic appears at my door and closes it behind him, then goes, ‘I just want you to know that I’ve just stepped down as the head coach, and I told Scotty that I think you should be the guy,” Zimmerman continued. “My first reaction was, ‘Chic, you know, boy, I’m sorry to see you go but I know this is something you’ve been thinking about doing, and I just want to thank you for everything you’ve done for me and the program, and good luck.’ He went, ‘Yep,’ turned around, and walked out.”
Now Zimmerman was alone, trying to process what was happening.
“Oh my lord, this is all happening in a hurry,” he remembered thinking to himself.
Not long after, Scott came to Zimmerman’s office. He told Zimmerman that all that was left was confirmation from the Dean of Students.
“So now I’m sitting in my office, Scotty leaves my office, and my head is spinning,” Zimmerman said.
Five minutes later, Scott took Zimmerman to talk with the Dean of Students, and the coach’s emotions ran wild as the pair traversed campus for their destination. It was there that the job was officially offered to him and where he immediately accepted, setting in motion what would become three more national championships in the Hopkins trophy cabinet.
It’s impossible to know if Zimmerman would have achieved the last level of success had Scott not promised him the Hopkins job and he’d taken his talents south to College Park. But without the Terps pursuing the coach, it’s also impossible to know if the position would have been given to Zimmerman with such ease and haste – the job was never posted publicly, and it’s possible that Chic’s decision to step down when he did was influenced by trust in Zimmerman taking over for him.
But what we do know is that Don Zimmerman turned down the Maryland job for a promise of the Hopkins one, and that altered the futures of both storied programs – Hopkins won titles in 1984, 1985, and 1987 under Zimmerman’s watch, while Maryland failed to reach a title game in that span and didn’t win the ultimate prize at all between 1975 and 2017.
“I have all the respect for Maryland as a lacrosse program,” Zimmerman clarified, explaining that there was never any rubbing it in. “They had to do what they had to do, and I had to do what I had to do. I was flattered by and will always appreciate the interest that Maryland showed me at that time.”