Coach Zim's Hall of Fame Career Resonates Among Former Players

Don Zimmerman, just eight years removed from his own college career when he took over at Johns Hopkins in 1984, led the Blue Jays to three NCAA championships in seven years at the helm.

As Dave Pietramala was getting started in his coaching career as an assistant at Penn, he met with a player about an academic issue.

Shortly after the player walked out, Pietramala — the former star Johns Hopkins defenseman and future steward of the Blue Jays’ program — called his old college coach.

“Darned if I didn’t sound just like you,” Pietramala told Don Zimmeman.

“I look at it as I’m proud that I have some of those qualities from him,” Pietramala said. “He’s a good man, he’s an honest guy and he’s true to the sport. Coach Zim loves lacrosse.”

It’s easy enough to measure Zimmerman’s impact on paper. The 13 NCAA tournament appearances between his stints at Hopkins and UMBC. More than 200 victories as a head coach. The three national titles in four years when he first took over the Blue Jays.

Yet his greatest influence as he enters the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame as part of its 2017 class is his work in his instruction — and how it echoes into the present day.

“I was amazed at how much I learned,” said Quint Kessenich, a two-time Kelly Award winner as the top goalie in the country and now a mainstay on ESPN’s lacrosse broadcasts. “You think you know a lot, but you really know about 20 percent of what you need to. I was amazed at how much teaching he did on a daily basis. A lot of that is carried into my broadcast work. I hear myself sounding a lot like Coach.”

Anyone can amass knowledge, but presentation is a vital part of separating great coaches from average ones. Kessenich pointed to Zimmerman’s ability to break down the game and make it seem simple.

That was one strength. A zeal for the basics was another. Zimmerman’s teams didn’t always dominate, but it was nearly unthinkable he could coach a team that wasn’t fundamentally sound.

“He never overlooked the little stuff,” said Denver coach Bill Tierney, who was an assistant to Zimmerman for three years in the 1980s. “With him, you had to pick up the ball correctly, throw it correctly, catch it correctly. He was a stickler for perfect skills, and he was a great teacher. He loved making guys better at the important things in the game, which were the basic things.”

It was a formula that worked exceptionally well when Zimmerman took over at Hopkins in 1984, just eight years after completing a playing career that included an honorable mention All-American nod with the Blue Jays.

From the start, preparation was always a priority. Practice schedules would be posted in the locker room before practice, and there was a clear and distinct vision of what he wanted on and off the field.

“He was a serious coach,” Kessenich said. “When he called you into the office, it was either really good or really bad. It was nothing in between. When he said, ‘Do it this way,’ you did it that way. You had to trust him. If you didn’t do it that way, you found yourself on the bench. It was black and white.”

In Zimmerman’s first season, Hopkins went undefeated and earned its first NCAA title in four years. Additional championships followed in 1985 and 1987, and he is one of nine men’s lacrosse coaches to lead three teams to NCAA championships.

“Everybody forgets how young he was when he took over,” Pietramala said. “That was not an easy thing to do, and he took over for two legends in Bob Scott and Henry Ciccarone. That was a heck of a lot of pressure for a young guy in what was his first head coaching position.”

After going 73-15 and winning three NCAA titles at Johns Hopkins, Zimmerman elevated UMBC to national prominence, spending more than two decades with the Retrievers before retiring after the 2016 season.

Zimmerman was 73-15 in seven years at Hopkins, and later crafted an exceptional second act during more than two decades at UMBC. The Retrievers had largely hovered around .500 and never reached the NCAA tournament before Zimmerman arrived.

His tenure in Catonsville included six NCAA bids, including a trip to the 2007 quarterfinals after an upset of Maryland, as well as a continued knack for developing talent.

“Look at what he did at UMBC, and it was impressive,” Kessenich said. “Those Brendan Mundorf and Drew Westervelt teams won NCAA tournament games, and UMBC was contending for the tournament for almost a decade there. He produced so many top-notch players, guys that played in the pro league for a decade. When he had UMBC rolling, they were something else in that league. That team was in the top 20 perennially.”

At his core, Zimmerman was a teacher, perhaps most at ease crafting Xs and Os and figuring out how to coax more out of his players leading up to a game.

On Sunday, Zimmerman enters the Hall of Fame exactly 30 years after his last championship run at Hopkins. He didn’t pile up trips to Memorial Day weekend in the 1990s and 2000s as contemporaries such as Tierney and Dom Starsia, but his instructional legacy lived on — both through former players and his own work in growing the game at the international level.

“You play for a man and you’re a young guy, you’re undisciplined and he’s doing exactly what he’s supposed to,” Pietramala said. “He taught you to be disciplined, do the right things, and he loved practice. He loved teaching. I find myself, interestingly, being much like he was. I love practice. I love putting something in, teaching it and developing it. He’s really stuck with me quite a bit.”

Zimmerman, who retired at UMBC after the 2016 season. brings a 237-171 career record into the Hall of Fame. It’s an honor his peers and former players laud as well-earned, if perhaps a bit belated.

“This next generation doesn’t really know Zim,” Tierney said. “He should’ve been in the Hall of Fame a long time ago.”

Doug Knight, Leslie Blankin Lane, Jim McDonald, Laurette Payette, Casey Powell, Jill Johnson Redfern, Brooks Sweet, Robyn Nye Wood and Don Zimmerman will be inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame in a black tie-optional ceremony Sept. 23 at The Grand Lodge in Hunt Valley, Md.  For more information, visit

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