In the 1990s, the route to the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference men's basketball championship almost always traveled through Baltimore.
Along West North Avenue. Directly to Coppin State College.
Six miles to the northeast, Morgan State usually didn't offer much resistance to MEAC opponents.
Coppin State had supplanted North Carolina A&T; as the dominant MEAC force, winning outright or sharing nine regular-season titles and capturing the league's postseason tournament three times.
But the power began to shift southward. Hampton and South Carolina State have combined to win the past five tournament titles, while Coppin experienced an uncommon slippage.
Now, after a renewed recruiting push in coach Fang Mitchell's home area of metropolitan Philadelphia, the Eagles are battling South Carolina State for the No. 1 tournament seed with four games remaining. The Eagles are 11-3 in the MEAC and 13-12 overall.
And while the road to the MEAC title must again wind through Baltimore, this time it may have to take a detour to, yes, Morgan State.
Morgan, mostly downtrodden since the halcyon days of Marvin "The Human Eraser" Webster and Eric "The Pencil" Evans in the 1970s, reached as high as third in the 11-team standings until a recent slump.
With no overpowering team in the league, the undersized Bears (9-12 overall, 8-6 MEAC), who often play taller than they are, must be considered in the mix to finally reach the NCAA Division I tournament.
"There is a possibility seven teams, maybe eight, could win," said Morgan's third-year coach, Butch Beard, who coached Howard to the MEAC title in 1991-92. "I think we're one of the eight. Everything has to roll just right and it takes a little luck, but we have a chance."
Coppin, of course, is a major threat, just two years after its slide reached a peak when the Eagles went 3-15 in the league, their only losing regular-season record under Mitchell.
A combination of circumstances contributed to that fall. The coach underwent two personal tragedies in little more than a year, losing his wife and brother, and recruiting for a period was entrusted to his assistants, who did not bring in the type of players who were comfortable in the system.
"That was a rough year," said Mitchell, whose record in the '90s was 202-98 overall and an astonishing 145-21 in the MEAC. "We had a lot of guys who didn't understand what was going on. Then, I started going out and seeing exactly what we were recruiting. We had gotten away from Philly, so we went back to our roots.
"I give a lot of credit to Stephen Stewart [an ex-Eagles great who later served as an assistant coach]. He helped get a lot of guys out of the Sonny Hill League, where they played similar to how we do."
The first such recruiting class brought some order back last winter as Coppin tied for fourth in the regular season and was ousted from the MEAC tournament in the quarterfinals on a last-second shot.
Now, with seven Philadelphia natives on the roster, including three starters and gifted freshman Kelvin Green, the Eagles are back.
"All his previous success came out of Philly. For him [Mitchell] not to come back there would not have been right. I'm glad he did," said Coppin point guard Raheem Scott, a sophomore from Philadelphia who was not dismayed by the team's brief dip.
"He had a little downfall, but that didn't bother me. Every good program goes through that."
"We're partners and it's become a lot harder for everybody else," Mitchell said. "It's not like everybody has to prepare for one game now; they have to be ready for two. Both of us have become tough games for opponents both here and on the road."
Morgan has received strong senior leadership from Aaron Andrews, Reggie Winkfield and Cedric Barrow, and has made an attitude adjustment, even conforming to Beard's program that includes 6 a.m. workouts because of gym availability and the solitude involved.
"Kids are not very good about wanting to be there that early," said Beard. "But this group has bought into it."
"Coach brought in guys who wanted to win," added Andrews. "We're not big enough to beat up on people, so we just run and run. And he made us be accountable. It's more of a pride thing."
Andrews said his parents attended Morgan with Webster, whose jersey No. 40 will be the first retired at the school March 1. Andrews will be the last player to wear it. "We're just trying to get back to that status," said Andrews, a previous walk-on who earned a scholarship as a senior.
One of the highlights of Morgan's season came Feb. 2 at home when the Bears blew a big lead against a physically strong Hampton team, then came back to win by one on a miracle shot by newcomer Chris Grant.
"I call it 'The Bounce,'" Beard said. With 3.5 seconds left, Grant dribbled upcourt and launched a 35-footer that hit the front of the rim, went to the top of the backboard, came down to the right side of the rim, went back up with a backward spin and then came down and straight through the basket.
"I've never seen anything like that in my life," the coach added. "We would have never won without the students chanting like they did. They erupted onto the floor. It was really a Division I game."
Coppin would have been even stronger had not Deke Thompson (who averaged 10.5 points as a freshman) transferred to a junior college with the hopes of playing in a major program.
Yet, there is no doubt that Coppin is a true title aspirant and the Eagles are warming to the mercurial Mitchell.
"The new players are going to get used to his [Mitchell's] ways," said the Eagles' lone senior, Jimmy Boykin, an all-MEAC preseason pick. "He doesn't do what he does just to yell. All he wants is for us to play hard and win. We've got a new cast of people and we're playing together better than we did when we were down."
The influx of Scott, Labeeb Muhammad and Darron Bradley last season and Green, Nicholas King, Chad Yates and West Otis this year has reversed the Eagles' slide.
"We have more threats now," said Scott. "We were very young last season and we didn't know how things would go. We're a lot more offensive-minded now."
"A lot of people felt if they could stop Boykin, they could stop us," said Mitchell. "We've seen that so many times. I don't think that's the case anymore."
Coppin ruled '90s
Coppin State was the dominant school in MEAC men's basketball in the 1990s. The Eagles' year-by-year conference record in the decade:
Year ............... Record ............... Finish
1989-90 ........... 15-1 ................. First-a
1990-91 ........... 14-2 ................. First
1991-92 ............. 9-7 ................. Fourth*
1992-93 ............ 16-0 ................ First-a
1993-94 ............ 16-0 ................ First
1994-95 ............ 15-1 ................. First
1995-96 ............ 14-2 ................. First*
1996-97 ............ 15-3 ................. First-a
1997-98 .............17-1 ................. First
1998-99 ............ 14-4 ................. First*
*-Finished in tie a-Won conference tournament