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UMBC president Freeman Hrabowski basks in the glow of upending Virginia

The HBCU grad commends his team for playing with a tenacity, grit representative of a diverse campus

Freeman Hrabowski spent the past 24 hours fielding piles of interview requests, clearing up misconceptions about the university over which he presides. On Friday, the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) pulled off one of the greatest upsets in NCAA tournament history when it became the first 16th seed to beat a No. 1 seed in the men’s NCAA tournament. The Retrievers routed Virginia 74-54.

“I keep using the word ‘surreal,’ ” Hrabowski said Saturday from Charlotte, North Carolina, during a phone interview. “When people asked were we expecting this, we felt that our team would do their very best, that they would give it all they had.”

In the immediate aftermath of the victory, some fans tweeted out that UMBC is a historically black college or university (HBCU). It is not; the school, located outside of Baltimore, was established in 1966.

“What happens is, when they know there’s a black president, people assume it’s a black college,” said Hrabowski, a mathematician who became the school’s president in 1992. “We like to say we’re an HDI — a historically diverse institution,” said Hrabowski, who graduated from Hampton University, which is an HBCU. “We have 100 countries represented on our campus. It looks like the plaza of nations at the U.N.”

Nearly 50 percent of the UMBC student body is made up of students of color. Nearly 2,000 of the university’s 14,000 students are African-American.

“On the basketball team, you saw a Puerto Rican kid, black kids and white kids. Look at our band, look at our dancers, look at the fans in the stands,” Hrabowski said. “We’re one of those places where it’s not just some diversity on the court, there’s diversity in every part of the university. We look like what America is going to look like more and more.

“The message we’re sending is that you do not have to be the richest to be the best. You can come from working class, middle class, and have that grit.”

Hrabowski recalled that he was recently on a panel alongside Teresa A. Sullivan, the University of Virginia’s president, not realizing that UMBC would be the David that would slay Goliath — and, in the process, destroy thousands of brackets. “We salute them,” he said of his vanquished opponent, repeating his comments during the panel. “They’ve got $9 billion in their endowment [and] have 200 years more in the world than us, and they’ve got Mr. [Thomas] Jefferson. So they’ve got the height of prestige in our country.”

What Virginia did not have on Friday were answers. No answer for 5-foot-8 point guard K.J. Maura, who consistently broke the Virginia press; no answer for Jairus Lyles, who scored 28 points on 9-of-11 shooting; and no answer for a team that was a 20.5-point underdog.

With Friday’s upset victory over top-ranked, top-seeded Virginia, UMBC’s men’s basketball team has done more than any marketing campaign to promote the university. Freeman and his staff have exploited the moment while it lasts. The Retrievers are scheduled to face yet another Power Five giant, Kansas State, on Sunday. “This is a powerful message for anybody, any group, that has not been given a lot of respect, or any group that feels people do not expect you to do well,” Hrabowski said.

For two days at least, the Retrievers have become walking billboards for the university, darlings of the NCAA tournament. UMBC’s victory comes at a time when critics of commercialized intercollegiate athletics are calling for athletes to receive a share of the profits they generate. The NCAA revealed last month that it passed the $1 billion mark last year.

While Hrabowski revels in the attention his university is receiving, he understands the dilemma. “Student athletes should be compensated,” he explained. “I think it’s most appropriate that we support the students financially because the students are representing us. We profit from them by the student life that’s developed; we profit from them by having the opportunity to be engaged in constructive activities for our students.”

But Hrabowski does not believe the compensation should take the form of direct pay for play. “Absolutely not,” he said. “That takes it to another level. We pay them by making sure they get a solid education: teaching them how to think, how to work in groups, how to achieve goals and prepare them for life, and have them as students.”

The president continued: “As soon as you start paying them, they’re no longer simply students; they become contractors working for you. When you get into that business arrangement, it’s a very different game. If they don’t meet whatever they’re supposed to do, what’s the next thing? Just kick them out because they’re not winning?”

It’s a legitimate question — but enough of that. Hrabowski was eager to return to the celebration and bask in the glow of national attention. “The reason we are getting incredible comments from alumni to the media is that people need hope,” he explained. “This is hope for our children, children of all backgrounds. People don’t have confidence in kids who are not from advantaged families in our country. They bet against them in so many ways, and here we are, a place that 98 percent of experts said didn’t have a chance.”

Another giant, Kansas State, looms on Sunday, and Hrabowski said his thought process going in to that contest will be the same as when he watched the Retrievers defeat Virginia: As long as effort and heart are on display, everything else is gravy.

“We knew that whether we lost or won, we would have won,” he said, “because this team is made up of some hardworking, gritty guys.”

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.