Long Road Home
FAYETTEVILLE - Twenty-one years later, Matt Zimmerman proudly wears his Final Four ring.
Zimmerman never played college basketball but his experiences as a team manager at the University of Arkansas and his love of the game have helped him defy the odds of becoming a Division-1 assistant coach.
Just 10 years ago, Zimmerman was the head boys basketball coach at Dardanelle High School in west-central Arkansas, near Russellville. He was happy - even content - there until a phone call in the spring of 2002 changed the course of his career and life.
"It was Coach Mike Anderson and he was in Birmingham, Alabama, and he said, 'I'm about to take this job in Birmingham. It's a great opportunity and I'm wondering if you'd want to come down here with me,'" Zimmerman recalled.
"At first I was kind of hesitant about going down there. Have you ever seen the movie 'Major League'? They're wanting to lose, so they want to put together a bad team so they can move the team out. They call the old guy to be manager and he's working in a tire store, and they say, 'Hey, why don't you come manage the Cleveland Indians,' and he says, 'Oh, I don't know. I've got to do some white walls.'
"I was kind of that way."
While initially resistant, Zimmerman eventually accepted Anderson's offer to become an assistant coach at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.
"He called me on a Thursday morning and on Sunday night I was leaving for Birmingham," Zimmerman said. "I had an old Camaro that we weren't sure would make it, so I drove one of my parents' cars. I was 33-years-old driving one of my parents' cars to Birmingham because I was afraid my old Camaro would break down."
Life has been good to Zimmerman since. He followed Anderson to Missouri in 2006 and back to Arkansas in the spring of this year.
"You just have to pinch yourself that it's not a dream, that you really are back, wearing the Razorback, back with the Hogs," Zimmerman said. "Really, you go through times where it hits you, like going to a football game. I would really have to work hard once a year to get back here and join friends for a Razorback football game and it would always be based on who we had coming for a visit at Missouri. A few weeks ago I went to the Little Rock football game and I really felt like I was back at home, because that's where I grew up watching Razorback football."
Zimmerman grew up in St. Vincent, just north of Morrilton. He was a standout basketball player at Wonderview High School, helping his team to a 133-19 record during his playing career and a state runner-up finish as a junior.
He enrolled at Arkansas hopeful of walking on to Nolan Richardson's squad. Instead, he was told by Anderson, then an assistant for the Razorbacks, he wouldn't make the cut.
"He and Scott Edgar told me, 'You're a good little player, but not good enough to play here,'" Zimmerman said. "They asked me to be a manager and I said, 'No, I'm not going to be a manager. I don't even know what a manager is.' But it was the best thing I ever did coming back and doing that. It was really good for me in college to do that."
Zimmerman eventually worked his way to head manager, a position he held during the Razorbacks' run to the Final Four in his senior year of 1990.
While in college, Zimmerman, the son of a Vietnam War veteran, was also part of the school's Army ROTC program, which paid for his education. Upon graduation, he was selected for active duty in the U.S. Army based upon his score at a camp the summer before.
He worked his way to second lieutenant in the military and had aspirations of becoming a general.
"You can see military in him in the way he coaches, to the way he screams, to the way he has his socks and shirt tucked in," said T.J. Cleveland, an assistant coach at Arkansas who has worked with Zimmerman since 2002. "He wants everything neat, in line, organized and nothing dirty, and that's a good thing.
"Me, being a young coach, and our managers and GAs, we pick up on that stuff and things you take for granted."
Cleveland, who played at Arkansas from 1998 to 2002, learned of Zimmerman's military ways early on.
"I can remember like yesterday I was a kid here in Coach Richardson's basketball camp and Coach Zimmerman was a counselor," Cleveland said. "He's a military guy so he would have the kids marching down the tunnel and singing a cadence."
Zimmerman was stationed in Kansas in 1995 when he was offered the head coaching job at Plainview-Rover High School, a consolidated district between Russellville and Hot Springs.
The superintendent at the school was Jimmy Cunningham, Zimmerman's high school coach at Wonderview. Cunningham told Zimmerman he wouldn't have to interview for the job, but just show up to the next school board meeting.
"He knew I was trying to figure out if I was going to stay in the Army because I had been in five years," Zimmerman said. "That was in May and you can't just walk out the door on the Army; there's a process. But they were doing a lot of cutbacks at that time and drawing down the military. I was able to get out on about three or four months notice. I was able to get out and very blessed I got out. So I moved back to Arkansas as a coach."
Zimmerman spent three years at Plainview-Rover before accepting the Dardanelle job prior to the 1998-99 season.
At Dardanelle, Zimmerman's abilities as an offensive coach shone as the Sand Lizards compiled a 74-46 record, qualifying for the state tournament each of the last three seasons.
"He has a wealth, and I mean a lot of knowledge," Cleveland said. "He always studies the game and loves it. Any time a high school coach or anybody wants to come up and talk about what we're doing, how we're doing, he's the first one to jump up and want to tell them about, teach them about it.
"To see him go from being a camp counselor, a high school coach, all the way to be an assistant coach at the university where he tried to be a walk-on, I think that's like a dream come true for him. He deserves it."
Being home has allowed Zimmerman to spend more time with family in recent months, frequently visiting his parents in Wonderview. He spent two nights with his family when Arkansas' football team played New Mexico in Little Rock in September and was able to attend his childhood church consecutive weekends at one point.
"I don't know if I've done that since college," Zimmerman said, "go to the same church where I grew up two Sundays in a row.It's been really neat, having meals at home and being around the family."
Zimmerman said he has enjoyed reliving some of his college days, such as grabbing a bite from the little-known Marlo's Taco Shack.
At the same time, Zimmerman, one of several in the basketball administration with Arkansas ties, hopes he can help revive his alma mater to the same successes he had in college. While one Final Four ring is nice, the vacant fingers leave room for more.
"I think being away from here has really helped us," Zimmerman said. "Our staff, in general, we've got to see how things can be other places and that's helping us get things going here. At the same time, we're Razorbacks and we're wanting to get back to where we can be."
Being back home is just the start.
Photo by Marc F. Henning
Position: Assistant Basketball Coach, Arkansas
Hometown: St. Vincent, Ark.
Alma Mater: University of Arkansas, 1990
Notable: Zimmerman is entering his 10th season as an assistant coach under Mike Anderson.
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