The smartphone cameras were everywhere. So were the sweat, the smiles, and quite likely the disbelief. And the celebrations, of course, were still ongoing when UMBC’s locker room opened to the media shortly after the most stunning upset in NCAA tournament history. Reporters flooded in, hoping to hear from the engineers of that upset; from college basketball’s latest darlings; from March’s instantly immortal heroes; and from … the social media guy?
Yep, the social media guy.
His name is Zach Seidel, and his fingers spent Friday night spitting fire through a laptop keyboard in Charlotte. All night, he elicited laughter and grins, helped gain national acclaim for his alma mater, and turned a Twitter account that previously boasted some 5,000 followers into an inescapable facet of the biggest story in sports.
“And I’m not a lick tired,” he told Yahoo Sports over the phone at 2:49 a.m., sleep still hours away, his phone still buzzing incessantly.
By the time his night finally wound down, @UMBCAthletics had gained 40,000 followers. It had trended throughout the United States. It had been featured on SportsCenter, and by several major media outlets.
None of this, of course, would have been possible if eight college kids hadn’t played the game of their lives. They’re getting the vast majority of the attention, and rightfully so. But in publicizing their feat and the school they represent, Seidel inadvertently snuck into the spotlight as well.
“Tonight’s kind of been not just a dream come true for the school, but for me,” he said, still audibly giddy, and almost amazed by his newfound popularity, especially because none of this – not the upset, and not even the rambunctious tweeting – was part of any plan.
Seidel is something of a UMBC lifer. His parents were both Retrievers, and met at the college of around 14,000 students. “Which is why, for the first 17 years of my life, I had no intention of going to UMBC,” he jokes.
But as a senior in high school in 2008 – the last time UMBC’s men’s basketball program made the NCAA tournament – Seidel interned with the school’s athletics communications department, filming video for its website. He enrolled the following year, and moved to filming live broadcasts. As an upperclassman, he was promoted to video production coordinator, then eventually moved on to graphics. Meanwhile, he graduated in 2012 with a degree in media and communication studies, then earned a master’s from UMBC three years later.
Finally, he moved on to social media. And that’s where, on Friday night, he became a star.
In-game tweeting actually isn’t one of his typical gameday responsibilities. But as he and his colleagues prepared for Friday’s battle with top-seeded Virginia, his boss asked him, “Hey, can you tweet during the game?”
And it wasn’t until shortly after tip-off that he decided to take that responsibility and run like crazy with it.
“I was gonna tweet some basic stuff,” Seidel explains. “I had notes, records. And then the game started, and Seth Davis immediately tweets, ‘Virginia. Sharpie.’
“And I’m like … Alright … that is it. Ten years here, [we’ve] always been treated like little brother. The game just started. Give us a chance, Seth Davis.”
Seidel humorously went at Davis, then transformed the account into a sassy joke-making machine. “This is my normal personality,” he thought. “I’m sarcastic, I’m just going to keep tweeting my personality.”
“I’m ADHD,” he adds. “I’m very ADHD. I type stuff out, and I think, Should I tweet it? Or should I not tweet it?” He admits to deleting one ill-advised tweet immediately after sending it.
As the game progressed, and as UMBC’s ballooning lead drew more and more eyeballs, Seidel’s phone began to blow up. But not just with @UMBCAthletics notifications; with text messages. Texts from old college friends he hadn’t spoken with in years; who had no idea he was behind the Twitter wheel, but could tell by the account’s tone.
We haven’t talked in a while, but I know that’s you tweeting, the texts read. I know for a fact that’s you.
Seidel’s bosses, he says, were “too engrossed in the game” to either approve or disapprove of his online antics. But late on, Seidel says, around the final media timeout, UMBC athletic director Tim Hall was made aware. He was sitting two seats away from Seidel, behind the scorer’s table. He had received a text with a screenshot of one of Seidel’s @UMBCAthletics tweets. So he turned to Seidel and spoke up.
“I love it,” Hall said, laughing, before revealing that the text had jokingly urged Hall to give Seidel a raise.
Seidel, though, after acing most of the second half, describes a frantic final few minutes. Because he, like so many others, hadn’t planned for the remote possibility of victory. “I was so nervous,” he says. “I didn’t have a ‘what to do if we won’ tweet ready to go. I finally realized, Holy crap, we’re going to win this, with about a minute-and-a-half left.”
Amid the whirlwind, he also almost forgot that he was on locker room duty after the game. So he bolted from his chair, sprinted back down the tunnel, and only then did he compose his best performing tweet of the night.
In between his own interviews with national reporters, he continued the act, mostly with funny, personable replies to fans who refused to “put some respeck on it.” He again called out Davis, and a Maryland fan, but mostly engaged with new followers as if @UMBCAthletics were his own personal account.
The account, hilariously, didn’t go dormant until almost 6 a.m. It fired off 168 tweets between tipoff and the end of a glorious night.
Amidst the craziness, Seidel also had to find time to reschedule a flight. He had planned to be back in Baltimore this weekend for a UMBC men’s lacrosse game against Stony Brook.
Now, of course, he not only has other plans. He has a nation expecting a second act.
“Well, great,” he said to friends in between the interviews and savage tweets. “Now I gotta live up to this on Sunday.”
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More March Madness coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• UMBC shocks Virginia, first 16-seed ever to beat a No. 1
• What is UMBC? Everything you need to know about the university
• UMBC’s upset eliminated last perfect bracket in Yahoo Sports Tourney Pick’em
• Where UMBC’s upset of Virginia ranks among all-time greatest upsets
• Meet UMBC’s other hero, the man behind its famous Twitter account