Road of hard knocks

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MARYLAND-PENNSYLVANIA LINE - It is a few minutes past 2 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 19, and the men's basketball team from Coppin State is making its way to Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Fifteen players, four coaches, a trainer, a manager and a publicist are five hours removed from a whipping in Pittsburgh, and 43 away from another in Salt Lake City. They are heading from a shot-and-a-beer town to America's driest big city, but at the moment night life has a different meaning.

This is the third season in four that the Eagles will not play a nonconference game at home, but this slate is more masochistic than normal. There are no tournaments or neutral sites, as all nine tests are on the opponents' floor.

This particular stretch will cover an infinity of bacon cheeseburgers, six days, five airports and a pair of what the late Al McGuire called aircraft carriers, big men for whom Coppin State has no counter. The bottom line will read two losses, an $82,000 boost to the athletic program and a wealth of experience for a young team whose second-leading scorer is all of 17.

Welcome to the other side of Division I basketball, the one Billy Packer and SportsCenter avoid.

Enormous state universities like Maryland occupy the more visible end of that 330-team spectrum, where athletic department budgets approach $70 million and administrative assistants detail the itinerary.

The other end includes a small, historically black institution where there is little revenue from ticket sales, none from TV and radio, and the coach doesn't complain to the athletic director, since they are one and the same.

Spider-Man 2 loses some of its effect on a 9-inch screen, but the sound system is working fine, and the damsel in distress howls of Kirsten Dunst overwhelm the whine of a 54-passenger bus as it skirts Frederick and then Hagerstown. It is a week ago this morning, after the stress of semester exams, and slumbering young men don't stir until Dodgeball is plopped into the DVD player.

Rip Torn, a great character actor, is whipping a bunch of misfits into a team. On cue, Fang Mitchell, one of the great characters in college basketball, responds to a question about Coppin State's schedule with a riff that laments the sorry state of America's soft youth.

"Are you saying something about adversity?" Mitchell answers, in mock horror. "I say that's good, especially in days of a pampered society."

Mitchell is in his 19th season at Coppin State. No other coach in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference is a holdover from the 1990s.

"As the coach, I would prefer to be in a different situation, but I'm also the athletic director, and this is our revenue sport," Mitchell said. "We have to take the brunt of this, for the school. Egos prevent some people from doing this, because winning becomes the most important thing. I can go into a challenging situation and not be hurt, as opposed to coaches who aren't secure in their job."

The endowment at the average Baltimore prep school dwarfs Coppin State's. Its athletic budget is $3 million, and the biggest credit line item is the athletic fees paid by its 3,900 students. The second-biggest is guarantees that the men's basketball team will be paid, which total $415,000 this season.

Pittsburgh and Utah paid Coppin State a combined $100,000 to come to them. The Eagles will watch their expenses, and airfare, four nights lodging, this bus, vans in Salt Lake City and meals will run a little over $18,000.

"It's not just about the money," Mitchell says. "We want our players to get accustomed to this kind of competition. We won't be intimidated later, because we'll be used to playing in a tough atmosphere. We're not going for the paycheck. It might seem that way, with the whippings we took, but that's not the purpose."

Did we eat?

A 60ish doorman at the Pittsburgh Marriott City Center recognizes the name on the blue warm-ups, and a light bulb comes on: "Didn't you beat Arizona here?"

His memory is shaded by the Wildcats' many March flameouts, but he knows the Eagles' lore. Up the hill stands the Mellon Center, where in 1997 they became only the third No. 15 seed to win a game in the NCAA tournament. Coppin State pounded South Carolina, and fell one point shy of beating Texas and going to the Sweet 16.

Reminiscences fill time but not bellies, and the Eagles who had breakfast did so six hours ago. Across the street, Epiphany Catholic Church advertises its Friday Fish Fry, $4 for fried or baked, cabbage, string beans, macaroni and cheese, and sheet cake. It is an economical, healthy use of per diem, especially since dinner will consist of a stop at Wendy's after practice.

"If you eat at Coppin, fast food might be healthy," Henry Colter says. "Nobody wants to eat at the school cafeteria."

Colter, a senior center, will give up 50 pounds to Pittsburgh's Chris Taft and Utah's Andrew Bogut on this trip. He's lean and his teammates are green, as Coppin State has played six freshmen. Next week's game at Marquette will be its fifth against a team whose recent resume includes the Final Four. The rookies began their college careers at Kentucky's Rupp Arena, in front of more than 22,000.

"That was a nervous breakdown on one side, and a dream come true on the other," guard Darryl Roberts said. "It was my first college game, and I probably would have had the jitters at Coppin, too. It was tough having that many people boo you, but they were nice after the game. That's the first time I was ever asked for my autograph."

The Eagles will face teams from the Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Conference USA and Southeastern Conferences, as well as the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West, one reason Mitchell has a vote in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll.

Mitchell has said Merry Christmas in Hawaii, marked the New Year in New Mexico, lost his cool and been ejected at Southwest Missouri State, and lost a manager in the Pittsburgh airport en route to Michigan State. He will not go back to Kansas State or Maine, where the main attraction "is the black bear in the gym lobby."

He doesn't get games in Philadelphia, because his counterparts won't allow him a showcase in his traditional recruiting area. He is also not wanted in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Coppin State was the last nonconference team to win at Cole Field House, but that was in 1989, and the Eagles don't scare the big boys these days.

Where Eagles dare

"I feel like a stepchild who stole something."

An unnecessary police escort flanks Mitchell on his way to the bus after the Pittsburgh game. At one point in the second half, the Eagles trail 65-31. Robert Pressey, a 6-7 freshman from Waldorf, has been a revelation, but little else appears to have been accomplished.

The nonconference ordeal gauntlet toughened his three NCAA teams, but Coppin State last won a guarantee game in December 1997, when Mitchell went to Missouri and denied Norm Stewart his 700th win.

Can a nonconference schedule like this - currently the third-hardest in the nation - backfire?

"No question," he says.

Colter recalls his freshman year, when the Eagles collapsed into a 6-25 record. That was the season Mitchell's wife died suddenly. Any struggles this winter will pale by comparison, but the season isn't shaping up the way he anticipated.

Coming off an 18-14 year, Mitchell beefed up the schedule, then saw his roster shrink with dismissals and defections. Another veteran went out with a shoulder injury, and the learning curve got more severe when Mitchell's doctors, exploring scarring on his lungs, found a benign tumor and removed his thymus gland. He took little more than half of the suggested six weeks' recuperation.

Mitchell, 56, should be home in bed, not suffering through wrong turns, no water at the practice in Pittsburgh, or this midnight express to BWI, where the bus pulls up at a minute past 4 a.m. Expenses for this trip could have been 50 percent higher, but instead of flying on a pricier carrier from Pittsburgh to Salt Lake City, the Eagles are backtracking to Baltimore, then making their way west on Southwest Airlines, saving nearly $9,000.

Nick King, a 6-7 junior forward, will pre-board and stretch out in an emergency exit row, not as easily done on the bus. Mitchell's team is losing a night's sleep, and it will show in the last 12 minutes at Utah, which uses a 29-4 run to blow open a five-point game.

"I have to find out who can handle the pressure and who can't," Mitchell says. "Maybe I'm a madman, but why wait?"

There is method to his madness. Coppin State will go four weeks between hotels in January. If the Eagles can steady themselves, make a run in the MEAC and survive the conference tournament, the sight of an Illinois or Kansas in the NCAAs won't be anything new.

"Do they see why this needs to be done?" Mitchell says. "There's nothing like sleeping in your own bed and playing in a familiar environment, but I need to challenge their comfort level. You can't get where we want to go by scheduling games you're supposed to win."

A long, strange trip

Friday

9:42 a.m.: Bus departs Coppin State.

1:59 p.m.: Bus arrives at Pittsburgh hotel.

6 p.m.: Practice at Petersen Events Center.

Saturday

11 a.m. to noon: Shoot-around at Petersen.

7 p.m.: Lose to Pittsburgh, 73-42.

11:58 p.m.: Bus departs Pittsburgh hotel.

Sunday

4:01 a.m.: Bus arrives at BWI.

6:05 a.m.: Flight from BWI to Chicago.

9:15 a.m.: Flight from Chicago to Kansas City.

12:05 p.m.: Flight from Kansas City to Salt Lake City.

2:30 p.m.: Arrive Salt Lake City.

8:30 p.m.: Practice at Huntsman Center.

Monday

1 p.m.: Shoot-around at Huntsman.

9 p.m.: Lose to Utah, 66-37.

Tuesday

7 p.m.: Flight from Salt Lake City to BWI, with stop in St. Louis.

11:50 p.m.: Arrive BWI.

Wednesday

12:57 a.m.: Bus returns to Coppin State.

Note: All times Eastern

Tough travel

All nine of Coppin State's non-conference games are on the opponents' home court (opponents' ratings percentage index is for 2003-04 season):

Team RPI Result

Kentucky 2 L, 77-46

Dayton 40 L, 55-42

Texas 10 L, 86-50

Oklahoma 50 L, 67-44

West Virginia 97 L, 71-47

Pittsburgh 8 L, 73-42

Utah 36 L, 66-37

Marquette 83 Dec. 29

Minnesota 156 Jan. 1

RPI source: Ken Pomeroy

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