The N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. The U.M.B.C.-Virginia matchup was the 136th between a No. 16 and a No. 1. U.M.B.C. pulled off the gargantuan feat with laserlike shooting and near mistake-free play.
To be sure, there were a few visible markers of the massive victory, like a banner that proclaimed: “Number one seeds: 135-1. We’re the 1.”
A few alumni and nearby residents came by. Some wanted to buy gear at the bookstore. It was closed. Others made a pilgrimage to rub the shiny nose of True Grit, the campus’s centrally located statue of the school mascot, the Chesapeake Bay retriever.
U.M.B.C.’s best intercollegiate activity, without question, is chess. It is a six-time national champion.
Alan T. Sherman, a computer science professor and longtime director of the U.M.B.C. chess program, said in a phone interview that he had not watched the basketball game.
“I mainly follow the intellectual sports,” he said. In addition to chess, U.M.B.C. excels in the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition, Baja racing (engineers designing cars, for those who are wondering) and Model U.N.
“I’m happy to see U.M.B.C. had some success,” Sherman added.
In an interview from Charlotte, where he attended Friday’s game and is sticking around for Sunday’s versus Kansas State, Freeman A. Hrabowski III, the university’s president since 1992, was candid when asked about his basketball fandom.
“I’m a mathematician,” he said. “I am a fan of my students.”
As much as the college sports experience is supposed to be about education through athletics, here the university president has received an education in athletics from his students.
“We had talked about it before, but I really got it this time: the strength of their defense, them trying to prevent the other team from scoring in that time frame,” Hrabowski said, referring to what basketball fans know as the shot clock, which gives each team 30 seconds to shoot the basketball at the goal before the other team automatically gets a turn.
“They teach me about basketball all the time,” he added.
After the victory, Hrabowski hugged the team’s star, Jairus Lyles, who had transferred from Virginia Commonwealth to Robert Morris, and from Robert Morris to U.M.B.C. Lyles has credited not only his coach, Ryan Odom, but also Hrabowski, with persuading him to stay for his final season despite offers from other, higher-rated programs.
The U.M.B.C. basketball team had made one previous N.C.A.A. tournament, in 2008. As a No. 16 seed then, U.M.B.C lost to Georgetown, 66-47. That team was built on sand: a couple of transfers, no real program. Coaching changes followed.
“There were never any expectations of U.M.B.C. for basketball because they’re an academic school,” said Paul Mittermeier, who does play-by-play for U.M.B.C. athletics. “If you went 7-and-whatever but your kids graduated, it was good.”
That all changed two years ago when the athletic director, Tim Hall, hired Odom. Formerly an assistant at North Carolina-Charlotte before a staff overhaul there led him briefly to a Division II job, Odom is the son of Dave Odom. College basketball fans in the Old Line State know Dave Odom as the former coach of the University of Maryland’s old rival Wake Forest. A U.M.B.C. fund-raiser last year featured the elder Odom kibitzing with the former Maryland coach Gary Williams.
Last year, in Ryan Odom’s first season, the Retrievers were 21-13, compared with 7-25 the previous season. It was their first winning season since 2008.
Though it was spring break, there was a smattering of students around watching the game, said Naomi Mburu, a senior who has been honored at home games this year as the university’s first Rhodes scholar. Mburu lost a bet; at a campus concert, she will have to wear a black and gold wig to pay up.
Speaking with reporters on Saturday in Charlotte, forward Joe Sherburne felt compelled to offer a clarification. “We’re the Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, not Golden Retrievers,” Sherburne said. “I saw that on ‘SportsCenter.’ They had that. That’s the state dog of Maryland. That’s what you should know.”
Gina Downin, a regional director for the American Chesapeake Club, had noticed the owners of golden retrievers tweeting pictures of their pups on Friday night in solidarity, and similarly felt compelled to offer a qualification. Chesapeakes are “a different kind of retriever than the other retrievers,” she said.
“They’re very happy dogs, but they’re not as social with other dogs as other breeds like the Labrador retriever or the golden retriever,” she said. “They’re more connected to their owner and their own pack. They can be a little more aloof.”
“But,” she added, “they are fierce in the field.”
So what happens now at U.M.B.C.? Hrabowski and other university officials spoke frankly and enthusiastically about the incredible exposure Friday’s win would bring. The “Flutie factor,” in which a prominent college sports win brings tangible upsides to an entire campus (named for Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie, whose desperation pass beat Miami in 1984), is a real thing, according to many reports and accounts.
“It is probably going to open us up — might get a bit more of an athletic base,” said Adam Reddan, an undergraduate alumnus and current grad student who was studying in the library on Saturday.
But looking out from the beige Retriever Learning Center onto the hilltop campus, with its hodgepodge of older brick buildings and newer, glassier ones, it seemed extremely difficult to conceive of U.M.B.C. turning into a jock school.
“I think it’s going to increase the social life of the school,” said Ramses Long, who graduated last year and hopes to get his master’s degree in applied molecular biology here before attending medical school. “People will want to hang out more.”
There is free pie every March 14, after all.