At Coppin, hard work rebuilt into system


There is the part about the coaches in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference saying they would gang up on Fang Mitchell and his young Coppin State team this season, and Mitchell saying, "Yeah, we're rebuilding, but listen: You better not go setting up any parties for after the game."

There is the part about Mitchell suspending two of his best players and dismissing a senior, changing his team captain every week and his starting lineup every other game -- a season-long huff intended to make his players understand that, though they live in a democracy, they don't play in one.

You almost have to laugh about it. You really do. Because right now Coppin is a first-place team with a 12-6 record in a season that had been set up for a catastrophe. Because Mitchell himself couldn't help laughing about it after his team had wiped out Delaware State the other night.

"I'm 12-6 in a rebuilding year," he said with a smile and a hint of disbelief in his voice, and then he cackled that uproarious cackle that stops traffic out on North Avenue. "I honestly thought that maybe we would win 10 games."

He will win more, many more -- maybe enough to make the NCAA tournament, which would be the biggest laugh of all.

See, the other MEAC coaches have been waiting for this season since Coppin started pounding them three years ago with Larry Stewart and Reggie Isaac, who led the team to 45 wins and two postseason berths (one NCAA, one NIT) in their last two years.

At this year's MEAC preseason news conference, the other coaches made obvious their delight that Stewart and Isaac finally were dribbling elsewhere. Delaware State coach Jeff Jones said he didn't know what would happen, but did know everyone was eager to clobber Coppin.

You have to laugh, which Mitchell did the other night as he recalled the moment. "They challenged me," he said, "and I always rally when someone challenges me. I am not a loser. And when I rally, the people under me have to rally with me."

That's when the trouble started. Mitchell is working mostly with new faces this year, freshmen and sophomores unfamiliar with his demanding style. He asks that players practice hard, play hard and go to class. If they don't, they're in trouble.

They've been in a lot of trouble this season. "We're dealing with people who didn't know how to go about winning [in Division I]," Mitchell said. "I'm just not going to allow an 18- or 19-year-old to dictate to me after my 14 years of coaching. No matter what it means about winning."

Many coaches sound such bluster and back off if it means they'll lose instead of win. Mitchell means it. In December he suspended Larry Yarbray, his starting point guard since 1989. In January he suspended James Mazyck, his rising star and team captain. Both were guilty of the same crime: not working hard enough.

"This generation of young people has been spoiled more than any since the beginning of time," Mitchell said. "They don't have to get up to change the TV. We're wearing $150 sneakers. They'd rather drive a mile to a job than walk. These kids I have now, they're good kids, but they need to understand some things."

Mostly, he said, they need to understand he is a) the boss, and b) right.

"This is all about fighting what their peers tell them," he said. "You know, 'You should have a say in how things are run, this is America, freedom of choice, all that.' I tell them when you leave here and go to work for someone, you'll do what he says. And no one's going to hand it to you. So you better learn those lessons."

Of course, this is also about winning and losing. Most of these players will be around for three seasons, so Mitchell is setting a longstanding foundation. "I hope we don't have to go through this again," Mitchell said. "There have been some very tough moments. Some real lows."

Enough that Mitchell's faithful assistant, Derek Brown, had to tell him to cool it. "He was worried about my health," Mitchell said. "My staff is trying to come up with a hobby for me. They can't do it."

Anyway, it appears the worst is over. Yarbray and Mazyck are back and the team has won seven of eight games, mostly on the strength of nose-in-the-shirt defense.

"I really think they've turned a corner," he said. "I think the message is getting through. I know they've been shocked a couple of times."

Now the rest of the conference is getting shocked. Coppin may be the best team, and with a collection of young talent led by Tariq Saunders and Mazyck, should get only better.

"I tell the kids that maybe no one in town pays any attention to us," Mitchell said, "but we have built a tradition here. We have championship banners up on the wall. We're going to beat people. I don't care who is playing."

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