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Coppin engenders net gain with Ready

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Gimmicks? Coppin State men's basketball coach Fang Mitchell is too old-school for gimmicks. If he hired a woman to be his assistant coach, she must be capable. And if he hired a 23-year-old woman, she must be special.

Stephanie Ready is both, and it becomes obvious about six seconds after meeting her.

Ready rises to introduce herself before a visitor can beat her to it. She extends her hand, makes direct eye contact, exudes the self-assurance of an accomplished young professional -- which, in a sense, she already is.

Then Ready starts talking, and it becomes obvious why Mitchell last month named her the second female assistant coach in Division I men's history.

The first, Bernadette Mattox, is now head coach of the Kentucky women's team, leaving Ready as the sole woman in a world populated by ego-driven coaches and chest-thumping players.

That, however, is the least of her worries.

Ready, entering her second season as Coppin's volleyball coach, said the time commitment of working two jobs is her greatest concern.

She's so intelligent, so enthusiastic, she makes the idea of joining an all-men's club sound like the chance of a lifetime -- which, in a sense, it is.

"That was the main thing that was not a reservation," said Ready, a former basketball and volleyball star at Coppin. "Being a female athlete, I definitely felt that no matter how good the women are, unless you're Tennessee [in basketball] and you're going undefeated, the men get everything.

"Even just on campus, as far as professors, other students -- the men get all the attention. There's a lot more coverage of men. When you get a list of all the best coaches, generally they're men, and they're from men's programs. So, to me, the opportunity was amazing."

Ready, a native of Takoma Park, is Mitchell's first restricted-earnings assistant. She will perform many of the same tasks as full-time assistants Derek Brown and James DuBose, but NCAA regulations prohibit her from recruiting off-campus.

This is a woman who graduated from Coppin cum laude in May 1998 with a degree in psychology and a minor in management science. A woman who three months after that became the school's volleyball coach and ended its 129-match losing streak on the final day of her first season.

Ready is her name, and her modus operandi.

She is anything but a gimmick.

"I've always believed that Coppin is a school of opportunity," said Mitchell, who also is the school's athletic director. "I didn't look at this as being anything different. You look at the situation, and you look at the person. I just thought gender shouldn't have anything to do with it.

"A good person is a good person. Right is right, and wrong is wrong. I haven't changed on that. That's the way we've been in this program. That's the way we always look at things."

A pioneer at Kentucky

Mattox was the pioneer, the woman who joined Rick Pitino's staff at Kentucky in 1990 and received national exposure while serving as an assistant for one of the nation's leading men's programs.

"Obviously, it was a great experience, a positive one," Mattox said. "Coach Pitino brought me there for the same reasons the other coaches were there -- to coach."

Mattox, then 31, had been an assistant women's coach at Georgia. Pitino, trying to revive a scandal-ridden program, made no secret of his ulterior motive.

"Let's say I hire a high school coach from Lexington to be in charge of career placement and academics as well as coaching," he said then. "It gets you no exposure for what you're trying to do.

"You hire Bernadette, she's been on every sports page, TV show, 'Good Morning America' -- you name it. She's getting the image out, the perception nationally that Kentucky really is into academics and career placement of athletes, which we are."

Ready will have much less visibility at Coppin, a member of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, traditionally the nation's lowest-rated Division I men's conference.

Still, she will confront many of the same issues, from when to enter the locker room to how to command respect.

"The locker-room situation is just the same as a man coaching a women's team," Ready said. "And there are plenty of those in this country, in almost every sport -- even in the professional ranks.

"The way you handle that is just to make sure everyone is dressed before I come in. But I will not go into the locker room just because I'm a female. I'm a coach. That's my capacity. Gender, I don't think will come into play."

Respect?

Mattox said it wasn't a problem at Kentucky -- Pitino respected her, and the players had no choice but to follow. The same figures to be true at Coppin under the no-non- sense Mitchell.

"She's going to have to gain her respect because she is a woman," Mitchell said. "But when I look at today's society, where there is so much disrespect to women from guys, I think it will benefit the players in the long run.

"We're putting them in a situation where they're going to have to respect her from the beginning. And as they work with her, they'll understand that she's not an assistant coach because I made her an assistant coach, but because she's a talented individual."

How do Ready's parents view the challenge awaiting their middle child?

Mostly with excitement, though her father, Edward, expressed some trepidation.

Ready's mother, Rhona, predicted to Edward that Stephanie would become a coach when she was still playing at Coppin. Neither of them, however, expected that she would ever coach men.

"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't worried," said Edward, a machinist. "You always wonder about things like that. It's just like the first time you let them go out driving. But I trust her. And Fang, he's a good man. I don't think it will be a problem."

Rhona is even more confident than Edward, her husband of 30 years.

"The way she carries herself, she will present a line she knows they won't be able to cross," said Rhona, an administrative assistant at a health maintenance organization. "And if they tried, I know Fang and Coach Brown would definitely lay the law down."

Too busy for future

Ready said she wants to attend graduate school to pursue an advanced degree in business and marketing. But she has no idea when that will happen, or if it will happen at all.

An assistant's job at Coppin can be a steppingstone -- Mitchell's alumni include James "Bruiser" Flint, the head coach at Massachusetts; Nate Blackwell, an assistant at Temple; and Eric Skeeters, an assistant at Youngstown State.

Ready, though, is too busy juggling her schedule to consider her future.

She is determined to keep the volleyball program moving forward after last season's 1-24 "breakthrough." Her problem is, the volleyball and basketball seasons overlap in the late fall.

During that period, a typical day for Ready will consist of administrative work beginning at 9 a.m., volleyball practice at 3 p.m., volleyball weight work at 6: 30 (on Mondays and Wednesdays) and basketball practice at 8.

"I will be here all day and all night," she said, smiling.

Where will it lead?

"I'm not going to give you a specific year, but I think she can be in a major [women's] program coaching within the future," Mitchell said.

Mattox followed that path -- she declined Pitino's offer of a promotion to associate head coach in 1994, spent a year as an assistant AD, then became head coach of the Kentucky women in 1995.

"My goal?" Ready asked. "I don't know if I've even gotten that far. This is so recent a development. And I'm so young.

"But I do know I'm getting a head start on all my counterparts. For anyone to get an opportunity at 23 to assist with a men's program, especially with one so reputable, you can't beat that."

She is smiling, almost glowing. It is her natural expression. It is the look of a winner.

"I just see this as, the sky's the limit right now," Stephanie Ready said.

Pub Date: 9/07/99

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