It was nearly three years ago when Coppin State College men's basketball coach Ronald L. "Fang" Mitchell was faced with what appeared to be an easy decision. Florida International University had offered a contract worth $150,000 -- a 50 percent salary increase -- as well as a job for his wife, Yvonne.
From Coppin President Calvin W. Burnett came an offer to retain his current position at basically the same pay, asking the popular coach to choose the tiny West North Avenue school over a spacious campus and the sunshine of South Florida.
"I remember it was a very emotional moment," Mitchell said yesterday, recalling that conversation in Burnett's office in March 1995. "He told me that he didn't want to come in the way of me bettering myself and my family and that I wouldn't get the money [from Coppin] that I was being offered.
"But he also told me that he wanted me to stay. I had so much
respect for the man. And at that moment, I knew I wasn't finished here. I couldn't leave."
And that loyalty continues to this day. Mitchell, in a bid to save Burnett's job, has offered $33,500 of his own money to repay Coppin State for consulting fees paid to former state Sen. Larry Young. Burnett has come under fire for giving consulting work to Young that paid him at rates as high as $300 an hour.
That loyalty to Burnett, the man who gave him his first Division I coaching opportunity, paid off last year, when Mitchell led Coppin to national acclaim with a first-round upset of South Carolina in the NCAA tournament -- the first time that a team from the lightly regarded Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference was victorious in an NCAA tournament game.
On the Coppin State campus yesterday, there were few who seemed surprised by the gesture made by Mitchell, who on Jan. 21 enclosed an $8,500 personal check in a letter to Donald N. Langenberg, chancellor of the University System of Maryland. That check was a first installment payment of the fee from Mitchell, who earns $102,000 annually.
"He's a generous person who is always willing to help someone out, and he's devoted to Coppin," said Desney Byrd, associate athletic director at Coppin. "The kind of people that would offer to pay that much money are far and few. I thought it was a great gesture."
Burnett said yesterday that he was "humbled" by the offer.
"I don't want people to raise money or do anything in my behalf," Burnett said. "I told [Mitchell] I wish he wouldn't do it, and he said that's his business. I said [the problem] wouldn't go away with the money, and that's kind of where we left the conversation."
For Mitchell, the respect for Burnett was immediate from the day he interviewed for the Coppin job in 1986.
"He was so down-to-earth, and made me feel so relaxed," Mitchell said. "There was never a question in my mind that, if offered the job, I would take it."
And over the years, Mitchell began to develop an even greater respect for a school president whose community involvement and open-door policy among students is unique.
"Any student can set up an appointment to talk to the president and, even in our recruiting process, he has always wanted to be involved in meeting the students," Mitchell said. "That's not common, where parents and student-athletes get to meet the president of the school. For him, the students always came first."
Mitchell calls Burnett "one of my few, true friends." And Burnett's respect for his coach was evident two years ago, when he named Mitchell athletic director.
"Fang has more to do with the tone of the campus than anyone else, including me," Burnett said. "He's the one who keeps a family atmosphere here. It's not just the athletes who revere and respect him. It's the whole student body."
Given their relationship, Mitchell said he is surprised by the amount of attention the gesture has received.
"When you think about the amount of money, you say, 'What would a true friend do?' " Mitchell said. "The fact is that I'm a friend of his, and money should not be a factor. I probably would have done the same thing if the [amount] was double. It's all about loyalty, and when you have loyalty, you get a lot accomplished."
Loyalty and the importance of family are what Mitchell, 50, has preached to his teams since his arrival at Coppin in 1986 to oversee the school's transition to Division I basketball, the NCAA's top level. To an outsider, the way Mitchell gets that message across to his teams could be considered abrasive. But his tough-love teaching has also proven effective.
"No one wants to be yelled at, and I think that bothered me the most because, at times, it took the fun out of the game," said Kyle Locke, a basketball coordinator for Fila who was a member of the 1993 NCAA tournament team. "But he was teaching discipline and the fact that you have to have discipline to make it in the real world. I've learned that."
That lesson was also learned by Phil Booth, who was the captain of the 1989-90 team -- Coppin's first to reach the NCAA tournament.
"He's very tough to play for, and his style is hard to understand when you're 17 or 18," said Booth, a marketing representative for Pepsi. "But one thing I learned in my professional career is that he prepares you for life after basketball, in terms of education and being mentally tough.
"My toughest time with Fang was in my junior year, after leading the league in scoring and finishing runner-up as Player of the Year the previous year. He told me, 'You have all these accolades, but now you have to stop scoring because we have others who can do that.' It was tough for me to swallow. He taught me to be unselfish."
So Booth is not surprised that Mitchell would make a sacrifice to aid a friend. Mitchell said his offer could also be a lesson.
"I think young people get the wrong message that everything is about money, and when you look at it, we live in a self-centered society," Mitchell said. "I want our young people to look at the big picture and to see that we should help someone else in a time of need.
"I'm a Christian, and reaching out and helping is a part of that. You always say, 'What would the Lord have done in this situation?' And that's how I look at a lot of things. Dr. Burnett is a good human being and a man of great integrity. And if I can help him, I will."
Pub Date: 2/03/98