Hours before a game at Wofford on Nov. 21, Coppin State men’s basketball coach Juan Dixon took his players out of their hotel and settled in for a matinee showing of Creed II, the fictional story of an American boxer who, under the tutelage of Rocky Balboa, avenges the death of his father by defeating the son of the Russian boxer who killed him.
“Creed II was basically about him being the underdog but having the confidence and mindset to be dangerous,” senior forward Chad Andrews-Fulton recalled Thursday. “So after that movie, that really stuck with us. We were dangerous. We just had to go out there and prove it.”
That night, the Eagles lost, 99-65, their sixth in a row en route to a 0-15 start. Since then, however, they have opened their Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference schedule with back-to-back wins against Savannah State, 73-67, on Saturday and Delaware State, 64-60, on Monday.
Coppin State (2-15, 2-0 MEAC) will aim for its third straight victory when Norfolk State (7-10, 2-0) visits the Physical Education Complex on Saturday at 4 p.m. It is too early to make any grandiose statements, but redshirt sophomore point guard Dejuan Clayton is feeling emboldened about the team’s potential.
“I think we can be very dangerous,” he said Thursday. “If we just stay on track and stay focused, I think we could possibly be undefeated in the MEAC.”
Andrews-Fulton and Clayton said the Eagles’ mini-surge is reflective of the job Dixon has done in his second season as their head coach. Both players credited Dixon, a Baltimore native who led Maryland to its only NCAA championship in 2002, with instilling composure and positivity during the team’s losing skid.
“Your team takes on the personality of the head coach,” Dixon said Thursday. “Me and my staff, our confidence never wavered.”
Coppin State’s 0-15 start was two losses shy of last season’s opening, and the program’s 42 setbacks in two years already dwarf the 31 losses Dixon absorbed as a player for the Terps. Dixon acknowledged the team’s lethargic beginning was exasperating.
“As a head coach, I had to look at the mirror at times and say, ‘Coach Juan, there’s something bigger that you guys are playing for. Don’t get discouraged with the 0-15 record,’ ” he said. “There were games in our nonconference schedule that we could have and should have won. So looking back on where we are defensively today and offensively today, I think if we played those teams today, we would have success.”
If there’s one person who understands what kind of impact Dixon can have on a program, it’s his former coach at Maryland, Gary Williams, who pointed out that the Eagles are guaranteed a certain amount of money to play opponents that feature larger athletic budgets and bigger coaching staffs. According to ESPN, Coppin State was tasked with the second-toughest nonconference schedule in Division I, trailing only Texas Southern’s slate.
“The thing is, it’s not a quick turnaround because it’s not like you can get the 50th-best player to come to Coppin,” Williams said. “You’re going to have to get that player that’s going to work hard for two to three years and is gradually going to get up to that level where you can compete against some of the best players in the country, and Juan is very good at developing players. Juan developed himself. He was willing to put the time in to do what he had to do, and he knows how to do that.
“So if I’m a good high school player that is maybe not getting a lot of offers, I would certainly look at Juan’s situation because I know I would get better if I went to Coppin and played for Juan.”
The Eagles missed opportunities for victories against Navy, which turned a two-point halftime lead into a 19-point rout Nov. 14; at James Madison, which overcame a 10-point halftime deficit to win in overtime Nov. 29; and at Notre Dame, which roared back from a nine-point hole with less than 10 minutes left in the second half to win by seven Dec. 29.
They also lost five times by at least 30 points, and Clayton said Dixon was not shy about chastising the players for a less-than-full effort.
“We definitely understood because we were hurt from losing, too,” he said. “So we understood where he was coming from, and we just wanted to prove to him that we could play hard for a whole game.”
The mounting losses have generated whispers about whether Dixon, who had a 3-25 record in one season with the University of the District of Columbia’s women’s basketball program in his only other head coaching job, was out of his league. Dixon said, with the backing of the current administration, he is “not going anywhere.”
“We heard the noise, and we witnessed it. But as a coach, I don’t hear the noise,” he said. “We’re just coaching, we’re just teaching, we’re mentoring, we’re giving back. We want to help these young men and this senior class to leave a legacy at Coppin State. That’s what it’s about.”
Coppin State and Norfolk State are the only teams in the MEAC with perfect 2-0 conference records, and Williams said the winless streak has strengthened the players’ resolve.
“In a 0-15 start, there are situations when players just hang it up for the season. To Coppin’s credit, they’ve stayed together and now they can compete,” the former Terps coach said. “With the two wins, it tells you — without a coach having to tell you — that, ‘We’re good enough to play in this league. We’re going to get our share, and we’re gradually going to get to a point where we can compete for the championship in the MEAC.’ ”
The Eagles locker room is a much happier place after the two victories, but Andrews-Fulton said the players are eager to continue the run.
“It’s completely different, but at the same time, we’re still humble and we’re still hungry,” he said. “So we can’t get too ahead of ourselves. We’re back in the lab and back to work.”
Making a comeback
Since opening the season with 15 consecutive losses, the Coppin State men’s basketball team has won two straight against Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference foes in Savannah State and Delaware State. Here is a glimpse at how the Eagles have fared statistically against their conference and nonconference opponents.
PPG; FG%; 3FG%; FT%; RPG; SPG
Non-conference 57.1; 35.6; 24.9; 62.8; 35.2; 4.3
Conference 68.5; 41.3; 25.6; 67.2; 43.5; 7.5