CATONSVILLE, Md. — At 1:11 a.m. Saturday, a tweet and a photo appeared under the Twitter handle @UMBCAthletics, the official account of the University of Maryland Baltimore County athletics department — which, at that very moment, was adding followers at a rate of several thousand per hour. In the photo, an unidentified alumnus of the University of Maryland College Park — otherwise known simply as the “University of Maryland” — was holding up a sign reading, “University of Maryland Backup College.”
The tweet that accompanied that photo was a distillation of the very soul of UMBC in the hours after the school’s men’s basketball team pulled off arguably the greatest upset in the history of its sport: a little defensive, a little superior and a whole lot of sassy.
“Ahh we remember this game at Maryland in December,” the tweet read, referring to UMBC’s 66-45 loss at College Park on Dec. 29. “[H]opefully you enjoyed our game from your couch dude!”
In those wee hours of Saturday morning, when UMBC’s monumental 74-54 victory over top-ranked Virginia — the first win by a No. 16 seed over a No. 1 seed in the history of the NCAA men’s tournament — was still fresh, many people were introduced for the first time to the 13,600-student school that sits just outside Baltimore and that had made only one other NCAA tournament appearance in its history.
On television and online, they could hear or read about UMBC’s founding in 1966; about its vaunted chess team, one of the most successful in the country; about the origins of the Chesapeake Bay retriever that would make UMBC a clear top seed in any objective “best mascot” NCAA bracket; and about longtime university President Freeman A. Hrabowski III, an academia visionary whose TED Talk on the “Four Pillars of College Success in Science” is closing in on 1 million views.
Some might have been startled to learn the school doesn’t even field a football team. Others might have been surprised to learn U.S. News and World Report ranked UMBC 13th in the nation in undergraduate teaching — its dedication to instructing undergraduate students, as opposed to conducting graduate-level research — three spots behind Yale and four ahead of Virginia.
“People have been Googling to see, ‘Who is UMBC?’ ” Hrabowski said Saturday. “Athletics bring a light to the campus that you couldn’t get any other way. People won’t just talk about how good we are at chess and cybersecurity now. They’ll talk about this basketball upset, and then when their curiosity about it increases, they’ll see the substance and the quality.”
But to understand the soul of UMBC as Friday night wore on, then bled into Saturday morning, people only needed to open Twitter and click “Follow” on the @UMBCAthletics account — something tens of thousands of people did. An account that had about 5,400 followers at Friday night’s tip-off at Charlotte’s Spectrum Center was up to more than 82,000 by Saturday evening.
And to understand the soul of UMBC, it might have also helped to get to know Zach Seidel, a 27-year-old alumnus of the school, the son of two other alumni, its current director of multimedia communications and the person who had been manning the @UMBCAthletics account — with an expert mix of humanity and snark that proved irresistible — during and after the school’s historic victory.
And many people got to do that. Seidel, who holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the school, did interview after interview almost until sunrise. He finally got to sleep, he said, sometime around 6:30 a.m. Saturday.
“Tired,” he said early Saturday afternoon to the question: “How are you feeling?”
In his roles as both a former student and a current employee of the school, Seidel, a native of Pikesville, Md., has heard all the put-downs and slights — not only “University of Maryland Backup College” but also “commuter school” and “satellite campus.” At a soccer game during his junior year, Seidel said, William & Mary fans taunted UMBC with chants of “College Park rejects.”
None of the characterizations are true. And when Seidel was asked Saturday whether UMBC has an inferiority complex because of those taunts and mischaracterizations, he shot back: “The chip on our shoulder is that people think there’s an inferiority complex.”
“We don’t feel inferior to College Park or Towson [University] or [Johns] Hopkins,” he said in a telephone interview. “We know how good our school is. We know we have the best college president in the country. We get a chip on our shoulder when people say, ‘You’re just UMBC.’ Well, who are you?”
As Hrabowski said: “We are the 21st-century model of inclusive excellence and innovation. We’re constantly saying to students, ‘You can be the best.’ The public is not accustomed to hearing about public institutions that are not well endowed but reaching the heights we have and still striving. People who know us well — from the Ivys to distinguished West Coast institutions — they understand that we are among the best. . . . To know about us, it explodes the myth of what public institutions can do.”
Seidel, who often spends game nights in a broadcast truck, wasn’t expecting to man the department’s social-media accounts when he showed up for work Friday, but his boss said he needed him to do it. And perhaps it was to his benefit that he didn’t have too much time to overthink the job.
Somewhat like the UMBC players on the floor, had Seidel taken a step back and considered the magnitude of what was happening Friday night — with millions of people watching — he might have lost his focus and made a terrible mistake that would haunt him the rest of his life. Instead, he tried to relax, be himself and rely on instinct.
“The weird part was, I wasn’t nervous at all,” he said. “I was having a good time, laughing and smiling. My colleague sitting next to me was going, ‘Oh, my God. Oh, my God.’ I said, ‘Just relax.’ ”
It was Seidel’s relaxed, snarky humor — helped, of course, by UMBC’s almost unimaginable upset — that propelled his tweets into viral territory.
He used Seth Davis as a foil, pinging the CBS analyst multiple times over a dismissive tweet Davis sent just minutes into the game (“Virginia. Sharpie,” meaning he already had advanced Virginia’s name as the winner in his bracket). When the game was over, Seidel dredged up a pregame analysis from ESPN showing UMBC with a 1.5 percent chance of winning, and added, “Sup.” And, of course, he tweeted out the picture of the Terrapins fan with the disparaging sign, along with his own stinging reply.
The @UMBCAthletics account was adding so many followers so fast Friday night, the TweetDeck program Seidel uses to manage his Twitter accounts crashed at least eight times, he said.
Seidel’s tweet at the moment the victory was official, at 11:34 p.m., was the only one he had even semi-planned in advance, deciding on it midway through the second half. “PUT SOME RESPECK ON IT!” he wrote, leaning — naturally — on a popular Internet meme.
And at that moment — and well into the next morning and the rest of Saturday and at least until the Retrievers play again vs. Kansas State on Sunday night — that phrase served and will continue to serve as the perfect distillation of the soul of UMBC — a school upon which everyone, even those who never heard of it until Friday night, must finally put some respeck.
Jerry Brewer in Charlotte and Nick Anderson in Washington contributed to this report.
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