Coppin's Mitchell finds even success can sometimes be pain in the neck


Fang Mitchell leave Coppin State? Maybe someday, but right now he's in so much pain he can't even leave his own bench. This is a guy who once raced out of a gym rather than risk a technical. Now he's so attached to his chair, it's as if he's wearing a seat belt.

In truth, his problem is no laughing matter, but it should be corrected Wednesday, when he undergoes surgery to have a tumor removed from the base of his neck. The growth is benign, but it's in a tricky spot, pressing on his spine. He can't sleep with the pain, can't walk without a cane.

Even so, Fang hemmed and hawed about surgery -- until his doctor told him, "We're talking life-and-death," until his wife Yvonne said enough was enough. His decision made, Fang crawled back to the Coppin Center last night, then directed his team's 97-71 victory over Delaware State.

He's sitting still now, but how long can it last? Fang expects to miss only one game following surgery, against South Carolina State. He'll return in time for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament, in time for Coppin to compete for its second straight trip to the NCAAs.

Last night's victory was the Eagles' 22nd straight at home, 10th straight overall. Their only conference loss is to South Carolina State, on the road, by three points. No longer is there any doubt. This is the best college basketball team in the state.

Such a development seemed unthinkable five years ago, when Fang left Gloucester County (N.J.) College to take over a program in its second Division I season. By big-time standards, Coppin's sudden emergence seems modest. But it's the type of turnaround people notice.

Mitchell, 42, isn't receiving job offers from bigger schools yet, but it figures to happen. He says he's happy at Coppin, where athletic director Ron DeSouza rewarded him with a five-year rollover contract at the end of last season. Yet, there's always room to dream.

For now, Mitchell prefers others do it for him. "I'm very ambitious," he says. "But I understand the game. There's no need for me to look at the next level, the big schools, when in reality my job is to win here. You do good things, good things happen to you."

To be sure, Coppin (14-8 overall, 10-1 MEAC) has treated Mitchell well. Two other area coaches, UMBC's Earl Hawkins and Morgan State's Mike Holmes, are required to teach class. Mitchell is not, and he has two full-time assistants (Derek Brown and Curtis Chance) to boot.

Since his arrival, the school has completed the 3,000-seat Coppin Center -- the House that Fang Built -- hired a full-time trainer, a full-time sports information director and a part-time academic adviser. The schedule (New Mexico State, Oklahoma and New Orleans this year) is improving as well.

On the other hand, his recruiting budget is limited -- most of Coppin's players are from his native Philadelphia area -- and his team won't play on television any time soon. Area recruiting? "They listen now," Mitchell says, forcing a smile. "We get in the door."

All told, it's a situation not unlike the one Mitchell's friend John Chaney confronted before leaving Division II Cheney State for Temple in 1982. Chaney says the basic problems for historically black institutions haven't changed, even for those now in Division I.

"What you face, more than anything else, is the constant fact that you must do more with less," Chaney says. "Believe me, there's no magic word for Coppin State. There's no magic word for black schools, regardless of their level."

Chaney recalls Mitchell wearing out cars at Gloucester, then adds, "I know in programs like Coppin's coaches sometimes lose a lot of money." That's probably overstating the case. "If I'm living, and living decently, I'm not worried about money," Mitchell says.

Then again, he doesn't benefit from a shoe contract, and he doesn't operate a summer camp. What's more, he concedes his team will face a "major overhaul" next season after losing three senior starters (Larry Stewart, Reggie Isaac and Larry McCollum). No doubt, a big-time offer would be tempting. And DeSouza, the AD, would understand.

"My whole attitude is, 'Whatever's good for Fang,' " DeSouza says. "If he were to receive an offer and move on, he'll do what he has to do. And we'd do what we have to do. He's such a class guy, you wish him the best."

DeSouza, however, seems confident of keeping Mitchell, at least for now -- "What's he saying?" DeSouza asks, smiling. "That he's unhappy?" And Mitchell, to be sure, has other concerns. Surgery Wednesday. South Carolina State Thursday. Pardon Fang if he's still sitting down.

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