FANG'S FINEST OUR Under Mitchell, star-less Coppin has worked magic

THE BALTIMORE SUN

He's had 13 winning seasons in 15 years of coaching, so Coppin State coach Ron "Fang" Mitchell expects his teams to succeed. Which is why it was surprising to find Mitchell in his office with a dazed look on his face after an 18-point win over Delaware State last month.

"Can you believe this? Can you believe this?" said Mitchell, shaking his head, after that win on Feb. 10. "I really don't understand how they keep doing this."

No one could have predicted success for Coppin, which started the season with players that had eight total years of college experience. Not the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference coaches, who picked Coppin to finish seventh in the nine-team league. Not the numerous basketball publications that picked the Eagles to finish in the middle of the pack.

But in what Delaware State coach Jeff Jones calls "Fang's finest coaching job of his career," Mitchell has led a team that has no seniors and practically no size to a 19-0 record against MEAC teams and into the NCAA tournament. Coppin will play No. 7 Cincinnati Friday in a first-round game in Syracuse, N.Y.

In seven seasons at the 3,000-student West Baltimore school, Mitchell -- a stern disciplinarian, a teacher and a father figure -- time after time has taken groups of unwanted kids out of schools in Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey and molded them into winners.

This will be Mitchell's third postseason appearance in four years at Coppin -- an accomplishment he takes in stride because "that's what I'm paid to do." Still, on the eve of this year's NCAA tournament, Mitchell has a special feeling for a team that has done so much with what was perceived to be so little.

"We don't get any respect -- even in the last games during our conference tournament, everybody thought that they could beat Mitchell said of his team, which starts two freshmen and three sophomores.

"So this has been a great season to accomplish what we have, through a tough situation. Eight years of experience is eight years of experience, and that's not supposed to allow you to go through any conference undefeated. That's just a tribute to the young men who played for me this season."

Campus pride

Ever since the Eagles returned home from their 27-point win over Delaware State in the MEAC championship game earlier this month, there's been an increased sense of pride on Coppin's campus.

By the time Mitchell returned to his office, someone had hung a "Congratulations Fang" balloon and blue and gold party streamers on his door. On the nearby office of assistant coaches Derek Brown and Nate Blackwell, there's a "Class of 64" poster, honoring the team for being one of 64 in the NCAA tournament.

"Everybody here is so proud and they're happy in getting the attention they felt they've deserved for so long," Mitchell said. "The students are extremely happy. We've gone [to the NCAA tournament] before, but a lot of these students weren't here the last time. So they're really proud."

Coppin made a complete turnaround from a 2-6 start. Though the losses came against opponents such as Boston College, Kansas State and James Madison, Mitchell said many had written off the Eagles.

"There were a lot of people jumping off the bandwagon early," Mitchell said. "I heard one comment on TV after we lost to UMBC [76-68 on Dec. 9] that our season was over. People just gave up on us not realizing we were a youthful team. Things were not going to get done overnight."

But Mitchell's method is one that's designed to get the most out of his players. "The one thing they do at Coppin is play good defense," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "His team's very disciplined. Ron has proven he can coach."

Check egos at the gym door

Sensitive or egotistical players need not enroll at Coppin. Mitchell's style is demanding, and players must deal with a coach not afraid to show them -- face-to-face -- just how loud he can get.

"I'm a no-nonsense person," Mitchell said. "When you're in a basketball game, it's like war. And, in a war, I'm not going to say, 'Johnnie, will you please come here, pretty please?'

"If it comes to a point where I have to talk to student-athletes to a degree of their being momma's boys, then I'm going to have to send them home to their mommas. My job is to bring up men who will be positive contributors to society, and that's what mothers give me their sons for. Either they want me to get the job done, or they don't."

Mitchell was getting the job done during the MEAC semifinal against Florida A&M; when he yanked freshman guard Melvin Roberts following an ill-advised pass at the end of the game. After Mitchell finished his lecture, Roberts was left on the bench for several minutes with his face buried in a towel. Some might have considered Mitchell's style harsh, but not Roberts' parents, who witnessed the incident.

"Strong discipline is good for any kid," said Roberts' father, Melvin Roberts Sr. "Too many coaches baby their kids, and when they get further in life, they can't handle it on their own. My son has to realize that a part of life is growing up and being disciplined."

Where are local players?

You'd figure, with as much success as Coppin State has had over the past four years, that local high school players wouldn't hesitate to give the Eagles a look.

But that hasn't been the case.

Just like Coppin's previous NCAA tournament team, this season's Eagles are loaded with players from Philadelphia and South Jersey. According to Mitchell, local players don't even consider the West Baltimore school.

"It's no secret -- everybody knows what's going on here, and everybody knows what type of job we're doing," Mitchell said. "So isn't it strange that we don't get any players from Baltimore? I think I have a dilemma because I'm from another state. Baltimore's tight-knit, and I'm considered an outsider."

Dunbar High School coach Pete Pompey disagrees.

"My feeling is if you want to recruit Baltimore kids, you have to work hard," Pompey said. "I don't think the kids look at him as an outsider. To me, there's no excuse why, during the recruiting period, not to see all the local coaches in this gym all the time because it's a car ride.

"Towson State [which has been successful in signing Baltimore players] comes to watch practice," Pompey said. "I don't see UMBC anymore, I don't see Loyola, I don't see Coppin and I don't see Morgan. . . . For whatever reason, these other schools are not in the gym looking at these kids."

Mitchell said he and his staff send letters and, during periods in which they're allowed, attend high school and summer league games. But he has come up empty-handed -- Clemson forward Devin Gray is the only Baltimore player to make an official visit during Mitchell's seven years.

"I get tired of hearing the excuse that we don't recruit or we're never around, because we are out and we're trying to meet these kids," said Mitchell, who has one Baltimore player, little-used Lennox Brown, on his team. "I don't think Baltimore coaches really care about opening up.

"Coppin State is Baltimore, regardless of the way people look at it," Mitchell said. "Either the local coaches are going to let me in, or they're not going to let me in. Right now, I'm not in the game. Hopefully, in the future I will be. But the way I look at it, I don't think so. I just think right now that since Baltimore is not sending us any players, it's Baltimore's loss."

Getting known

When Larry Stewart and Reggie Isaac led Coppin to its first NCAA appearance three years ago, few could properly spell or pronounce the school's name. Now, with two NCAA appearances and one NIT appearance during the past four years, more and more people are getting it right.

"People in New York have heard of Coppin State, and it surprises me," said Ron DeSouza, the former Coppin athletic director who is supervisor of officials for the NFL. "Fang has done an outstanding job, and faster than anybody could have ever thought. He got us to the NCAA tournament in four years. But, obviously, this is the best coaching job he's done. People are noticing."

You'll get recognition when you carry the longest winning streak (16 games) in Division I into the tournament. And you get recognition when you become the first team from the MEAC -- long considered one of the weakest leagues in the nation -- to earn a No. 15 seed.

But the big recognition would come from beating a top 10 team in the Big Show.

Mitchell definitely does not lack that winning attitude. Four days before the seedings were announced, Mitchell was accepting congratulations as he walked through the halls of the Coppin Center. One fan asked what day the Eagles would play.

"We'll play either Thursday or Friday," responded Mitchell, who added without hesitation, "then we'll play either Saturday or Sunday."

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