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Laura Harper already taking reins as Coppin State’s new women’s basketball head coach

Laura Harper, pictured as a Florida assistant during a game against Florida A&M in December 2018, was named head coach at Coppin State on July 20. Harper was named Most Outstanding Player of the 2006 NCAA tournament after leading Maryland to the championship. UAA Communications photo by Paige Santiago
Laura Harper, pictured as a Florida assistant during a game against Florida A&M in December 2018, was named head coach at Coppin State on July 20. Harper was named Most Outstanding Player of the 2006 NCAA tournament after leading Maryland to the championship. UAA Communications photo by Paige Santiago (Handout / HANDOUT)

Shortly after the head coaching position for the Coppin State women’s basketball program became vacant in March, Laura Harper called her former coach at the University of Maryland, Brenda Frese, and asked whether she should apply for the opening.

“When this job first presented itself, I just knew that I really had to process it,” recalled Harper, who was announced as the successor to DeWayne Burroughs on July 20. “Is this the best decision? Can I be successful there? I just got to Montverde [Academy in Montverde, Florida], and my team at Montverde is going to be very successful. I put in so much work to build those connections with those kids. I had this conversation with Brenda, and she was like, ‘Are you crazy? What are you thinking about? This is a Division I head coaching job. You go do it and win.’”

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Frese laughed when asked to recount the conversation.

“I think my exact words were, ‘It’s a no-brainer.’ And then I followed up with, ‘You’d be crazy not to go after it,’” she said. “I don’t think she realized at the time what an incredible opportunity it was. The timing probably threw her for a little bit of a loop when it came about, but she’s worked so hard. I think moving over to Montverde and being a head coach for a season has helped prepare her to be ready for this moment.”

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Harper said she intends to lean on her background as a player and a coach in her debut as a Division I head coach. She was a 6-foot-4 starting power forward for the Terps’ NCAA championship-winning team in 2006, the 2006 Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, and the 10th overall selection in the 2008 WNBA draft. She had college coaching stops at Loyola Maryland, High Point, George Washington and Florida, and had an 18-6 record at Montverde in 2019-20.

In less than two weeks, Harper has already begun to make some changes within the Eagles. Since July 20, she has coordinated a team-wide competition to see who can be the first player or coach to complete a 30-minute run and 50 pushups and then post a selfie in a group chat.

Harper led the way the first day, but Rebecca Wilson, a 6-4 sophomore center transfer from Independence Community College in Kansas, was first the next day at 7:30 a.m. What delighted Harper as much was a text from sophomore guard Alexandria Hamilton informing her that she could not participate in the informal challenge because she had her tonsils removed the day before.

“Now she’s feeling some sort of accountability that she wants to do something,” Harper said from her home in the Orlando area of Florida as she prepared to move to Hanover. “I said, ‘This is perfect.’ We can figure out a way to speak their language, and I think that’s the biggest thing that I’ve learned in the past couple of years. What we are doing as coaches and adults is that we try to get them to understand our language, but for us to be successful in the future, we need to learn how to speak their language.”

Harper also is requiring players to reply to every text message promptly and to appear on-screen in every videoconference. While those measures may not sound basketball-related, she said the point is to prepare the players for life after basketball.

Maryland coach Brenda Frese, right, talks with Laura Harper during practice in March 2008 before an NCAA tournament game against Vanderbilt. Frese encouraged Harper to take the Coppin State job. “I think my exact words were, ‘It’s a no-brainer,'" the Terps coach said.
Maryland coach Brenda Frese, right, talks with Laura Harper during practice in March 2008 before an NCAA tournament game against Vanderbilt. Frese encouraged Harper to take the Coppin State job. “I think my exact words were, ‘It’s a no-brainer,'" the Terps coach said. (John Froschauer / Associated Press)

“Every day is an interview,” she said. “This is what is expected. You are very much giving a picture that you would for your first employer. There’s little ideas that I get every day.”

Harper takes over a program that did not win a single nonconference game last winter, went 3-26 overall and 3-13 in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and was bounced from the first round of the league tournament. In each of the past four seasons, the Eagles won fewer than nine games overall and exited the conference tournament in the first round three times.

“They’ve been through a lot,” she conceded. “Any team that goes 3-26, that’s a challenge mentally, emotionally, physically. So my job now is to build them up, but also humble them enough to know that you can’t just flip around to 26-3 after going 3-26 without any work being put in.”

Jalynda Salley, a 6-3 junior center who said she watched Maryland’s 78-75 overtime win against Duke in the 2006 NCAA title game to understand Harper, declined to put the onus on the new coach.

“I just want her to coach,” Salley said. “She just needs to show us the way. It’s up to us to be successful on the court because she cannot play for us. So I’m not holding a big burden on her because she is coming to a situation that is very new to her, and she doesn’t know what happened in the past and she doesn’t know what she has to rebuild or fix. So for her, I just want somebody that’s here for us.”

Harper said she has added a pair of transfers in Wilson and ToniRenee Blanford, a 6-foot sophomore shooting guard/power forward from Monroe College in New York.

But that means Coppin State has only 10 players for the coming season, and the coronavirus pandemic has hampered further recruiting efforts.

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“I never thought my first Division I head coaching job would be during a global pandemic,” Harper said wryly. “But you either embrace the change or you make excuses and you crumble. I’m at the point where there are a lot of people out there that want to play basketball or are dying to play basketball. So my job is to find those kids.”

Frese joked that she told Harper “that there’s nowhere else to go but up.” But Frese emphasized that high expectations are premature.

“You obviously have to be able to give her time to get her own recruits, and unfortunately right now, you couldn’t be walking into a worse time because you can’t get out on the road for recruiting,” she said. “Most people say it’s a four-to-five-year cycle, and it could take her a little bit longer given the pandemic.”

Frese said she has pledged to help Harper any way she can and said she has “a ton” of confidence in Harper.

Laura Harper takes over a Coppin State team that went 3-26 overall and 3-13 in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference last season. "My job now is to build them up, but also humble them enough to know that you can’t just flip around to 26-3 after going 3-26 without any work being put in,” the new coach said.
Laura Harper takes over a Coppin State team that went 3-26 overall and 3-13 in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference last season. "My job now is to build them up, but also humble them enough to know that you can’t just flip around to 26-3 after going 3-26 without any work being put in,” the new coach said. (Handout / HANDOUT)

“She’s ready,” Frese said. “She’s prepared for this moment. She knows how to work. When you surround yourself with great people and work hard, I know she’s going to do all the things that she’s been taught and that she has learned up to this point.”

At the age of 34, Harper is only five years older than Frese when Frese was named head coach at Ball State in 1999. Harper said her youth can be a blessing with her players, but does have its limits.

“Does that mean that I’m going to get on TikTok? No,” Harper quipped. “Well, I say no now, but maybe.”

Salley said she doesn’t know how to use TikTok either.

“So that’s totally fine with me,” she said. “Maybe we can learn together.”

Challenging times for Coppin State

As the newest head coach for the Eagles women’s basketball program, Laura Harper takes the helm of a school that has not enjoyed much on-court success recently. Here is a look at how Coppin State has fared in the past decade:

Year; Overall record; MEAC record; MEAC tournament finish

2019-20; 3-26; 3-13; First round

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2018-19; 5-25; 4-12; Quarterfinal

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2017-18; 6-23; 5-11; First round

2016-17; 8-21; 8-8; First round

2015-16; 16-16; 10-6; Final

2014-15; 7-22; 5-11; Quarterfinal

2013-14; 17-14; 12-4; Final

2012-13; 16-16; 10-6; Semifinal

2011-12; 20-12; 13-3; Quarterfinal

2010-11; 13-17; 9-7; Semifinal

Laura Harper (15) celebrates with teammates Jade Perry (center foreground) and Aurelie Noirez on the bench as the Terps pad their lead against North Carolina in the second half of the NCAA women's basketball semifinals in April 2006. Maryland won, 81-70, then beat Duke, 78-75, in overtime to claim the championship.
Laura Harper (15) celebrates with teammates Jade Perry (center foreground) and Aurelie Noirez on the bench as the Terps pad their lead against North Carolina in the second half of the NCAA women's basketball semifinals in April 2006. Maryland won, 81-70, then beat Duke, 78-75, in overtime to claim the championship. (KARL MERTON FERRON/Baltimore Sun)

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