Job well done

The Baltimore Sun

The low-key coach and his unsung basketball team will huddle one more time today, roll up their sleeves and go to work.

When Coppin State meets Maryland at Comcast Center in a women's NCAA tournament game, it will be the Eagles' latest milestone on the road to prominence.

This game marks four postseason tournaments in four years for the Coppin women, three in the NCAA. It marks the end of a golden era for senior guards Rashida Suber and Shalamar Oakley.

As much as anything, it underscores the job coach Derek Brown has done since taking over the team in midseason nine years ago amid a coaching controversy. He has come a long way since working as a jail guard in Camden, N.J., but he's not above mopping the floor before the Eagles practice at 5 a.m. each day.

Coppin is the reigning power in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference with three regular-season titles and three tournament championships in the past four years. The dignified, soft-spoken Brown, 55, is the man who got them there.

"He's totally responsible," says Billie Wilson, Brown's top recruiter and assistant coach, who has been with him since he took over in December 1999.

Brown has quietly built one of the area's best women's programs, second only to Maryland, at the commuter campus off North Avenue.

His tools were a passion that came from the playgrounds of Camden and a work ethic gained from 23 years working under Fang Mitchell, at Gloucester County (N.J.) College and Coppin.

"To be able to stay here with Coach Brown as long as I have is the ultimate learning experience," Wilson said. "I've had offers [to leave], but there's more to learn, and now we're seeing the championships come around from the hard work we put in."

Brown is a demanding coach and ever-present father figure to his players. Suber calls him "Pop Brown" and lovingly likens him to a Pop Tart: "Hard on the outside, but really soft in the middle."

Chanelle Downing, a promising but inconsistent sophomore forward, knows how demanding he can be. She hears from him nearly every day in practice.

"If he's not hard on me, that's when I'll worry," Downing said. "Because I know if he's hard on me, I know he cares about me. He's like a father figure to me."

When Downing needed academic help at midseason, she went to Brown for advice. He guided her through her problem.

This bond between coach and his players has not gone unnoticed by the school's new president, Dr. Reginald Avery, on the job for 10 weeks.

"First of all, he's a great coach," Avery said. "But more important to me as president, he's a person who's dedicated to serving the students here, to making sure they graduate.

"I see him talk to the young ladies about their personal concerns and needs, and I think that's more important. It's about teaching these young ladies about character, personhood and keeping their vision."

Brown's vision of life was gleaned through the prism of basketball. He learned to drive a stick shift on Gary Williams' Volkswagen in 1970 when he played for the now-Maryland coach on a 27-0 state championship team at Camden High.

He worked as a jail guard at Camden City Hall after a career at Montclair State and joined Mitchell at Gloucester for the tidy sum of $300 a basketball season, working two jobs.

Even with all his success, he doesn't ask his assistants to do anything he doesn't do. Ego? He mops the Coppin Center gym floor every day before the 5 a.m. practices.

"I'll do whatever it takes to get the job done, and we don't have to do any more than that," Brown said. "We don't do busy work. I don't have players run suicides in practice. We'll run sprints, but I never thought you got anything out of suicides [running end line to end line, bending and touching the floor]. It's tough on your back and feet. I never liked it when I played, and I don't make them do it."

Brown was content to work under Mitchell with the Coppin men, earning three NCAA tournament bids in the 1990s. But when women's coach Jennie Hall was a no-show at a game in 1999 and soon after resigned, Mitchell, then athletic director, asked Brown to save the women's team. He didn't hesitate, and he continued to assist Mitchell through another season.

Brown brought stability to a team in disarray, promised not to take away any scholarships, fostered trust and taught a new work ethic.

"The respect he got by keeping those players already in the system and have them willing to go through a wall for him just proved he's a teacher," Wilson said. "He has patience, and he knows how to speak to a player where they're going to respect him."

The best coach nobody knows is finally reaping the rewards. His program is solid and getting better. The love he has for his players is evident. He says, for instance, that no Coppin player will wear Suber's No. 22 again, so instrumental was she in helping the Eagles turn the corner.

There was a poignant moment on Senior Night in February, when Brown was about to observe the final home game for Suber and Oakley.

"He is emotional," Suber said. "Right before the game, I told him, 'Please don't cry, Coach Brown.' There was emotion, but at the same time we had a game to play, and he handled it well."

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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