About two years ago, Tom Sullivan purchased a boat.
Pardon the rough analogy, but just as he is the captain of that vessel, Coach Sullivan is firmly entrenched as the skipper of UMBC Men’s Basketball. He has taken the program to heights that were thought of as impossible, and envisions an even brighter future for the burgeoning university.
“We have established that UMBC is an entity in college athletics,” said Sullivan. “Others look at our program and they see it as a program they would like to emulate.”
Over the summer, as he prepared to enter his eighth season in Baltimore, Coach Sullivan signed a two-year contract extension through the 2006-07 season.
“I am the type of person who enjoys being in one place and building something that will last,” said Coach Sullivan. “I enjoy the environment and I think the people here espouse the same philosophy of putting the student-athlete first.”
Coach Sullivan, 52, was selected as UMBC’s sixth head coach from a field of more than 100 applicants in April of 1995. He was the assistant basketball coach at Seton Hall University from 1987-1994. In 1988, the Pirates received their first-ever NCAA Tournament bid, and the following season, they advanced to the national championship game. In Sullivan’s tenure, Seton Hall earned six NCAA Tournament bids in seven years, and Sullivan recruited such NBA-bound players as Terry Dehere, Anthony Avent, and Luther Wright.
After a pair of difficult seasons at UMBC, college basketball fans began to see the efforts of Coach Sullivan and his staff pay off as the Retrievers improved by 8.5 games to 14-14 in 1997-98. Then in 1998-99, UMBC took to the Northeast Conference like a Chesapeake Bay Retriever to water, winning the regular season title with a record 17 league wins. The Bronx, New York, native was named Big South Conference Coach of the Year and NEC Coach of the Year in those two years.
The last two seasons have produced more combined wins (38) than any back-to-back years in the program’s 16 years of Division I competition. Coach Sullivan has the highest winning percentage (52-26, .667) of any current coach in the NEC and his career total of 246 victories ranks fourth in the league behind legendary Jim Phelan (819) of Mt. St. Mary’s, Sacred Heart’s Dave Bike (392) and FDU’s Tom Green (307). He needs four wins to hit the 250 mark in his career and eight to become the second UMBC coach to record 100 coaching victories.
“What we have established is that if you are going to beat us, you’re going to have to play a good game,” said Sullivan. “That’s always been my goal since I came here; that we would be a force in Division I basketball and I think we’ve accomplished that now.”
The UMBC mentor was a great playground player growing up in the Bronx, New York, but struggled to make his freshman team in high school. “That was a real wake-up call. I started to realize that the game requires not only talent, but the ability to play within certain systems and structures.”
Coach Sullivan went on to a distinguished high school and collegiate career. He was a four-year letterwinner at Fordham, and was the squad’s MVP and co-captain as a senior, leading the Rams to the NIT Tourament that season. He captured the prestigious Haggerty Award, presented by the Metropolitan Basketball Writers to the area’s outstanding player, in that senior season of 1972. He was drafted by the New York Knicks in 1972, and played professionally in Italy (1972-73) and Switzerland (1974-75). He earned a B.A. degree in Psychology from Fordham in 1972.
It was at Fordham that Coach Sullivan began his long-time association with P.J. Carlesimo. Carlesimo was his host during Sullivan’s initial visit to Fordham, and when Sullivan’s parents moved to Miami, he spent many holidays with the Carlesimos.
Between his stints in Europe, “Sully” spent a year as an assistant at Hunter College (1973-74), and after his time in Switzerland, returned to the states to assist Carlesimo for a year at New Hampshire College, before taking the reigns the following season.
He was the head coach at New Hampshire College from 1976-1985. In nine seasons, he compiled a record of 152-99 (.606). He was named New England Coach of the Year in 1979-80 and 1980-81, when NHC went 22-8 and 23-7 respectively and won two consecutive NCAA New England Championships. Coach Sullivan was also the Director of Athletics at New Hampshire College. He served as head coach at Manhattan College for the 1985-86 campaign, before rejoining P.J. Carlesimo at Seton Hall.
“My experience at Seton Hall taught me it is not always the most talented team that wins, but the one with the most cohesion and focus,” said Sullivan. “It is something that is developing here where the players have a greater understanding of how to win through the intangibles of the game, like defense and will power.”
Coach Sullivan is a member of the Hall of Fame at both Fordham University (1986) and New Hampshire College (1989). He coached for six summers in the Superior League in Puerto Rico and has done clinics around the world, including Greece, Italy, Great Britain, and Japan.
He credits many of his own coaches, some dating back to grammar school, such as Digger Phelps, P.J. Carlesimo and Lou Carneseca, as those who shaped his coaching philsophy. “Cumulatively, the coaches that have had the greatest influence on me all approached the game with a fierceness to win and approached it without any excuses.”
Tom married his wife, Juliana, shortly after taking the position at UMBC and the couple resides in Catonsville, Maryland. He is proud to call Baltimore his home.