COLUMBIA – Every time Matt Zimmerman looks at his computer screen, he’s reminded of how miserable his job can be. And how much he loves it.
“Check out this picture right here,” he says excitedly.
The picture is the wallpaper on his computer screen. In it, Zimmerman – the Missouri men’s basketball team’s resident workaholic – is sitting on the sideline, bent forward, his face hidden in his hands. Fellow assistant coach T.J. Cleveland is wearing a similar look, rubbing his shut eyelids, his fingers about to pinch his nose.
“That’s a great photo, ain’t it?” Zimmerman says. He’s grinning wide with his tongue pressed against the inside of his lower lip. “That’s it, right there.”
Although Zimmerman and Cleveland look as if they are mourning, 20 minutes after the picture was taken they were in the locker room jumping around as if Missouri had won the National Championship. Missouri beat second-ranked Memphis that day in the 2009 NCAA Tournament.
“That doesn’t look like that game turned out to be a positive thing, but it did,” Zimmerman said. “There’s going to be some good, too. I look at that photo, and I see good.”
Zimmerman doesn’t always see the good. Somehow, he sees it in that photo.
24-7 — basketball on the brain
Matt Zimmerman, 42, grew up in a 100-family community with 100 Catholic families in St. Vincent, Ark. He was an altar boy until he was 17. Like his dad, he carries a rosary every day, in a black pouch he tucks in his left pocket. Every Sunday, he sits in Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He says oftentimes he finds himself during Mass thinking about the Missouri basketball team.
His neighbors tell him, on the odd chance they run into him, that they never see him at home. He usually leaves his south Columbia house around 6 a.m. and returns at 7 or 8 p.m. Then he keeps working. He calls coaches of recruits or watches film or does something else for the Missouri basketball program. Sometimes he’ll watch another game he’s just interested in, but not if a team on Missouri’s schedule – or even a team it could play – is on TV.
“I’m really cheating the University of Missouri if I’m watching that (irrelevant) game very much,” he said.
He saw a movie once. It was five years ago, at least. Missouri coach Mike Anderson, then Zimmerman’s boss at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, took his team to see “Glory Road.” A movie about basketball.
He reads. Books written by coaches.
He gets dinner with friends. Basketball friends.
He watches a lot of other MU sporting events. Football, baseball, softball.
Usually, though, he’s at work. Anderson wants Zimmerman to go home earlier, to get the hell out of the arena. He tries to kick him out.
“He gives you an opportunity to have another life,” Zimmerman said. “I don’t really take advantage of it very much.”
Personal life takes back seat to work
He has a girlfriend.
He’s had a lot of girlfriends. He almost got married once or twice.
One girlfriend, who Zimmerman insists was being facetious, said: “Thanks for the 10 seconds you give me every day.”
He’s been with his current girlfriend for about six months. She grew up in Missouri, went to MU, loves the Tigers, which is good thing for her right now, Zimmerman says, because she likes being around Missouri athletics. She goes with him to some basketball functions.
“She’s been good,” Zimmerman said. “She’s got a great attitude about things. But that’s so far. So far.”
He has a theory about when college coaches have to get married. Young. That’s what Mike Anderson did. That’s what all of Missouri’s other coaches did. When each of their wives said, “I do,” she committed to the man and his job.
Trent Tipton is Zimmerman’s best friend. Like many of Zimmerman’s friends, Tipton stayed in Arkansas and coached. Now he’s the athletics director at Morrilton High School.
Tipton says he has no doubt his best friend will get married. Zimmerman is a devout Catholic, he says.
“I think he feels like he needs to find someone and get married,” Tipton said.
That someone, though, who is that someone?
“Anybody that marries Matt Zimmerman has got to be a special person,” Tipton said.
Never enough, even if coach says stop now
Zimmerman has trouble sleeping the night before games. He worries. Is the team prepared? Did he do enough? What else could he have done?
After a tough loss, he doesn’t notice anything good about the world for several days, he says.
“You feel like a failure,” he said. “You don’t want to eat, you don’t want to sleep, you don’t feel like you can do anything right. Food don’t taste good. No one looks good.”
He says he’s been trying to get better. Head coach Mike Anderson has a “midnight rule.” Missouri’s players and coaches are supposed to forget about games – wins or losses – at midnight.
Genetically inclined to work
Otto Zimmerman is retired but won’t stop working. At 80, he still works every day on the family farm in St. Vincent, Ark. He served 22 years of active duty in the Army and retired as a First Sergeant. Matt Zimmerman served five years himself after completing the Army ROTC program at the University of Arkansas.
Matt Zimmerman was also a dedicated student, in a fraternity and the student manager of the Razorback basketball team. That was his highest priority. At 6 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday of his college career, he was up and going through ROTC physical training, but by late afternoon, he was rebounding basketballs, collecting towels and washing sweaty uniforms.
Patricia Zimmerman, 73, has been a secretary at Petit Jean State Bank in Morrilton, a 10-mile drive down Arkansas 95, since 1974. That was her dream, to be a secretary, and she wants to keep being one. Matt Zimmerman’s parents don’t need the money. They need the work.
Like all their relatives, Otto and Patricia Zimmerman’s three other children stayed in Arkansas. They don’t mind that Matt Zimmerman didn’t. They don’t mind because they know he’s their son. They understand why he loves his work, why he chose to follow his career, even if it meant saying goodbye to home and any hope of a normal life.
Forming friendships and keeping them
When Tammy Armentrout stops by Zimmerman’s office one day, they talk about the piece of homemade banana nut bread she gave to him a few weeks ago.
“When we first got here, she was cooking for us a lot more,” Zimmerman says.
“He’s starting to gain some weight,” Armentrout, the team’s administrative assistant, says with a smirk. When he’s on the road recruiting, Zimmerman relies on late-night spicy chicken sandwiches from Wendy’s. Cooking means heating soup or ravioli in the microwave, so he eats out a lot. He often takes advantage of the baked goods people bring to work.
Armentrout starts to walk out of the office. “We need to … .” She stops mid-sentence and pats her stomach. She wants him to lose a little weight.
Odd as it seems, Zimmerman actually cares about relationships. He gets attached to the people he works with. He doesn’t have a wife and kids, so the people he works with – coaches, secretaries, custodians – are his family.
He’s family to them, too. They all seem to think he’s a hoot. They love his energy, his charm, his stories. They think he’s crazy for how much he works, but they love him for it at the same time.
“Nobody that ever met him ... didn’t like him,” said Judy Nichols, the UAB basketball team’s administrative assistant.
At UAB, the team’s staff held an auction every year around Christmas time. They never hired an auctioneer.
“I think that’s why we raised several thousand dollars every year because he was such an entertaining auctioneer,” Nichols said.
Every job he’s ever left, he’s cried. He cried in 2006 when he left UAB with Mike Anderson to come to Missouri. Anderson brought his wife and kids. Matt Zimmerman brought boxes.
Nichols remembers him crying. Did she have to give him a tissue?
“No, I think he had to give us one,” she said, laughing. “None of us wanted him to leave.”
Zimmerman keeps in touch with the people at UAB. He keeps in touch with a lot of people. He makes around 50 phone calls a day. Thirty are related to Missouri basketball. Twenty are him catching up with old coaches and co-workers, friends, family. He makes it a point to talk to at least one person in his family – a parent, sibling, uncle, aunt, niece, nephew – every day.
“Even if I’m never married with no kids, I don’t want to be sitting there when I’m 75 and I don’t have anybody. I always tell my niece she’s gonna be the one taking care of me when I pass. I’m not gonna live in a home,” he says with confidence. “Somebody’s gonna have to move in with me or something.”
Because he has to, and because he likes to, he has held onto all the relationships he has – all but the romantic ones, at least. He doesn’t seem to mind answering more and more questions time after time.
He apologizes when he can’t return calls right away, and when he leaves a message, he ends it by saying he hopes everything is going well. He means it.
At the end of every interview, he asks, “Does that help?”
He talks in a Southern accent, and he’s a storyteller. He breaks into a story any chance he gets. They’re about basketball coaches and games and old friends. Just when he’s finishing up one story, another comes to mind. He starts telling it. It’s kind of like his job, his life: go, go, go. Every one of his stories is enjoyable. He could go on all day. But at some point he’ll have to slow down and think about how his life became what it is, how it could be different. So how about now, just for a second?
“I think everybody at times looks at their life and says, ‘Man, did I do the right thing?’” he says.
“You can’t look back,” he says, then quickly changes course, because you can look back, even if you’re Matt Zimmerman. “You can’t go back. If you’re that unhappy, then you’ve got to try to do something else. I’ve never been to the point where I really considered doing anything else seriously.”
There have been times, usually after losses, when he’s wondered what it’d be like to be a car salesman or an insurance broker or a banker, like Mike Jacimore, an old friend from college, and have a family and be settled.
Zimmerman wondered aloud to Jacimore one time that maybe he should have become a banker, too, “because you’re life’s so much more settled.”
Jacimore wondered back: “‘Yeah, there’s a lot of times I think back maybe I should’ve coached,” he told Zimmerman. “‘I’m happy with my decision, but you know what … .’”
When the conversation took place, Zimmerman had just finished his second season at UAB with Anderson. In the NCAA Tournament that year, 2004, the Blazers shocked the nation by beating Kentucky, the No. 1 team in the country.
“You know what, my life’s very good and I’m very blessed, but I’ll never feel like you felt in that locker room after you beat Kentucky," Jacimore said. "I’ll never feel that.”
Basketball first and foremost
That feeling lasts about as long as Zimmerman can sit still in his chair. There’s no time to enjoy that feeling. Next game’s right around the corner. Film. Game plan. Worry. Toss and turn. Worry. Game time.
That feeling can’t possibly make up for having to miss his grandmother’s funeral for an NCAA Tournament game. Or going a decade without spending Thanksgiving with his family.
Working so hard for that feeling, or for whatever it is he works for, means Zimmerman can only “muster” three or four days of vacation with his family on their yearly trip to Destin, Fla. It means he always goes home for three or four days when he’s determined, every year, to go home for eight or nine.
“It’s hard to be gone that long,” he said. From work, that is.
Assessing worth of devotion to sport
Whenever he gets a chance, Zimmerman asks older coaches the same question: Would they do it again?
Most of them weren’t exactly like him. They got married, had a family. But it still makes him feel better when they say yes. Almost all of them say yes.
Zimmerman says he thinks it will have all been worth it. Well, he’s not sure. He hopes.
He won’t spend too much time thinking about it now. He’ll decide later if he should have stayed home in Arkansas or married young, if he should have spent Thanksgivings with his family and July afternoons with the sun and the pool, not Wendy’s drive-throughs and airport terminals.
He will stop and look at that picture on his computer screen. That perfect picture. He smiles and admires it.
That smile, so full, makes you confident Zimmerman will wind up like the older man he met a few years ago while recruiting in Dallas. The man had coached forever and was now retired, but he still came to the gym to watch practice. Zimmerman asked him the question he always asks: Would you do it again?
He looked at Zimmerman as if he were crazy and said:
“What else would I do?”