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Selling the program is half the job for new coaches like Coppin State's Michael Grant

Coppin State coach Michael Grant, center, holds his first practice. At left is Shomari Triggs; at right is Christian Kessee.
Coppin State coach Michael Grant, center, holds his first practice. At left is Shomari Triggs; at right is Christian Kessee. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

Michael Grant's formal title at Coppin State is men's basketball head coach, but he also answers to several other labels: promoter, fundraiser, politician, barker.

"Anything that's done with people, I have the title," Grant said half-jokingly.

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While the first-year Eagles coach worries about the X's and O's of improving a team that went 12-20 last season, Grant also aims to rally support for a program that has reached the NCAA tournament just once in the past 17 years.

It isn't easy to build a large college basketball following in Baltimore, where a handful of schools compete for attention against one another and an established professional sports landscape. But Grant is the latest recent hire to take his shot at doing so.

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Grant — who was hired in May after longtime Coppin coach Fang Mitchell was let go — said he eats two to three meals a day in the campus dining hall and sits with students to encourage their attendance at upcoming games. He recently spent a couple hours handing out posters with a team schedule printed on the bottom at a few campus buildings.

Outside of the university's Northwest Baltimore campus, Grant and the players have visited Windsor Mill Elementary School as part of the National Association of Basketball Coaches' "Stay in to Win" program, which seeks to reduce dropout rates. And he has plans to make promotional appearances at Mondawmin Mall in Northwest Baltimore.

Add almost daily practices as Coppin State prepares to open the season at Oregon on Friday night, and it sounds like a grueling schedule. But Grant seems to enjoy the aspect of his job that involves interacting with people.

"I think if I stay in this office and don't go out and build any relationships, the program is not going to go," he said. "Everybody needs to connect to us, and the only way they're going to connect to us is you have to be out there. So my whole thing is, who is better to talk about my program than me? ...

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"People want to see the head coach, and they want to see the players. It's fine and dandy that I send out my assistant coaches to do a lot of things, but people want to see me, and they want to see the new voice and new face of Coppin State basketball, and the only way they're going to see that is by me getting out there and building relationships and getting excited about what we're doing."

Grant isn't alone in trying to build buzz for his program in Baltimore, where fellow Division-I programs Loyola and Morgan State are also located in the city, and Maryland, Towson, UMBC, Navy and Mount St. Mary's are a short drive away.

Beside Maryland, none of the other eight Division-I programs in the state averaged 3,000 fans per home game last season. Coppin State ranked second-to-last among those schools with an average of attendance of 1,064, ahead of only Loyola (917).

Loyola coach G.G. Smith, who succeeded Jimmy Patsos after the 2012-13 season, said every new coach in the area — especially those not hired at Maryland — faces the same challenge.

"Anywhere you go, it's about getting fans to buy in — buy into your program, buy into your philosophy, buy into your culture," said Smith, who was an assistant when the Greyhounds last went to the NCAA tournament in 2012. "Those are the types of things that we do. … The players have to buy in. The whole administration, the whole athletic department has to buy into what you're trying to do. For me, I'm just trying to win the right way and keep this thing on the same path that it's been on for the past four years. I like where we are. I just want to keep our game entertaining and keep true to the program, and hopefully, we'll keep having success."

Like Grant, third-year UMBC coach Aki Thomas said a significant portion of his duties involves drumming up interest in the Retrievers.

"It's part of the job," Thomas said. "It's work, but it doesn't feel like work. It's just something that for most coaches that are doing this, it's a passion. We don't see it as being hard. There are a lot of things that are hard, but it's part of what we do. We have these young men who are working extremely hard, and we need people to come and support them. When you think about it like that, at least for me, it doesn't seem like a burden. It just seems like something that needs to be done."

Smith and Thomas have each been in Grant's position and have used a variety of initiatives to garner support.

Smith said Loyola has given away T-shirts, posters, and cards before and during games. Players have handed out pizza and water to students waiting in line for tickets, and the program has relied heavily on social media to disseminate news.

In an effort to get more students at UMBC invested in the men's basketball program, Thomas said the team worked with the school's student events board to popularize the Retriever Rally, the team's version of Midnight Madness.

The team handed out free food and T-shirts, organized raffles and arranged for a few selected students to participate in half-court shots. "It was not like before," Thomas said admiringly.

Life is a little different at Mount St. Mary's, where the team in Emmitsburg is the only draw for nearby locales like Frederick, Hagerstown and even Gaithersburg.

The initial challenge for the Mountaineers' third-year coach Jamion Christian was winning over fans after replacing Hall of Famer Jim Phelan. But many of those fans remembered Christian from when he was a three-year captain for the Mountaineers who scored 581 points in 90 games before graduating in 2004.

"I think it was huge in the sense that they knew me, and I knew a lot of people that had been around for years," said Christian, whose Mountaineers were the only D-I men's team in the state to make the NCAA tournament last year. "Coach Phelan had been around for 49 years. So a lot of people who watched his teams, they're in their 50s and 60s right now, and they have children or grandchildren that they're bringing back to games. So I thought it was a huge advantage for them to know what kind of player I was — a hard-nosed player who was smart and passionate about playing and passionate about putting on that jersey every day. I think that really helped them understand that's how our team would look."

Grant doesn't have the benefit of that sort of background at Coppin State as he faces the challenge of succeeding Mitchell, who had coached the Eagles for 28 years until his contract was not renewed after last season.

"I think it's a challenge to be able to get back to what Coach [Mitchell] had done while he was here," Grant said. "I want to be in a position where I want them to understand that they feel this was a good hire, too, that Coach is going to bring us back to what Coach Mitchell used to have the program at."

Grant has grand plans for his first season. On the court, he has promised an up-tempo style of play that will be fun to watch. Off the court, he has helped bring back cheerleaders, a dance team and a pep band for home games and has worked with student groups so that every home game has a theme.

For instance, fans who attend the team's Dec. 1 home opener against Goldey-Beacom will be given blue T-shirts as part of a "Blue Out Night" theme. Other home game themes include a teacher appreciation night, a military appreciation day and a game where hot dogs will only coast $1.

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"There's definitely more talk about the basketball team this year because we have a new coach," said senior point guard Taariq Cephas, who mentioned that he has been approached by classmates, professors and even police officers to talk about the team this fall. "When you're dealing with a team that has had the same coach for 20-some years and it's been redundant, it's kind of boring and people are like, 'We don't have anything to look forward to.'

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"But this year, we have a new coach and a new era, and everybody has a lot to look forward to. So there's more talk around campus like, 'We can't wait to see the new basketball team.'"

Beyond this winter, Grant wants to organize basketball camps and sponsor Amateur Athletic Union tournaments at Coppin State's Physical Education Complex as vehicles to entice young players and their parents to the school. And he wants to cast a wider recruiting net in Baltimore so that the stands will resemble the packed gymnasiums at nearby high schools.

It may seem like an ambitious goal, but Grant said this is what he lives for.

"I hope they don't take this literally, but I would do the job for free," he said. "This is what I do. This is 30 years now. I've been doing this for 30 years. … I wouldn't have it any other way. There is no way I would trade doing what I'm doing."

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