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However it's pronounced, Coppin enjoys limelight


It happens so often that people on the Coppin State College campus are almost amused: Reporters from other cities call asking for information on "Cope-in State College," or "Choppin State College."

At Coppin, eyes roll. Please. Get it right.

This is Cop-pin State, a 2,500-student liberal art campus right on West North Avenue in Baltimore that believes it deserves a little respect here. And if reporters and sports announcers around the country can't pronounce it correctly now, perhaps they'll do better after tonight.

Coppin State is in the NCAA college basketball tournament, right there with the big guys from the powerhouses of Duke and St. John's and North Carolina. And though the national press seems to find a quaint charm in the story of an obscure college making it to the big time, the Coppin community just smiles indulgently at the reporters' patronizing questions.

The tournament is great, they say. It's very exciting, they say. But there's no hysteria. No fear of mighty Cincinnati, whom they meet in tonight's first round in Syracuse.

"It's just plain, simple little Coppin trying to do things right," says Coppin junior Rhonda Ragin.

"Cincinnati. They have them on a pedestal," says Solomon Omo-Osagie, president of the student senate. "But that's OK. This is a challenge to us. We like challenges. We have been underestimated."

"You're not expected to be in the Show," says Earl H. Jenkins, associate dean of student development. "We're just pleased to be there."

In the college's public relations office, Arthur Bugg says a Cincinnati reporter called yesterday to ask: "What is this place called Cope-in? We're a giant. Who are you?"

Mr. Bugg took no offense. "It's a mouse-that-roared situation," he says.

Founded 93 years ago as a black teaching college, the school was named for Fanny Jackson Coppin, a former slave who became a pioneer in black higher education.

In January, the first dormitory opened on the West Baltimore campus, which means that commuters no longer make up the entire student body.

In 1990, the basketball team made its first appearance in the NCAA tournament. It lost in the first round.

"It doesn't matter," says Sidney Krome, vice president for academic affairs. "We were there."

In his office, where classical music drifts from the radio, Mr. Krome is sitting in his gray suit -- and holding a blue souvenir cap from the 1990 NCAA tournament. "Coppin State/NCAA Championship/Eagles/1990," it reads.

"I'm going to get more this weekend," says Mr. Krome, who has been on the Coppin staff for 23 years.

"I'm bringing back a cap for the [Coppin] president and the chancellor" of the University of Maryland system.

Tucked in an inside suit pocket -- close to his heart, as if he fears letting go of them -- are his tournament tickets, with "NCAA" printed boldly on the envelope. In another inside pocket is an autographed basketball card of Washington Bullet Larry Stewart, former Coppin student. It is a card Mr. Krome, a Ph.D., shows off proudly to a visitor.

"To me, the point of winning at basketball is it sends a message to the community: You study hard. You practice hard. You learn what you have to learn and you can beat the big boys," Mr. Krome says. And that applies to academics, too.

The tournament means money for the college, a share of the tournament pool earned just by getting there. "And we get a nice boost to our pride," Mr. Krome says. "It's a nice thing, in the face of program cuts" forced by state budget problems. "It doesn't make up for them, but it's nice."

In the student center, freshman Thomas Buckson says Coppin's tournament invitation "gets everybody into the game. We're waiting to get into the Big Dance. People have been talking about it all week."

Bryant Newmuis, a senior, says a bus load of students, plus others in cars, are headed for Syracuse, "so there will be some support for the team. We're not that big a sports school. We're not Morgan. This is great."

Even if Coppin loses tonight, Mr. Newmuis says, "the guys will come away with national exposure. The name recognition is important."

"It makes us feel better about Coppin State," says Dawn Jones, a senior. "We're a small school. But we're not North Avenue University. We're a serious academic school. After this, people will know more about us. It puts us out there."

So, for tonight at least, little, unglamorous Coppin State will be out there, for sports fans all over the country to see.

"Hopefully," says Bryant Newmuis, "they'll pronounce our name right."

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