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HBCU Game Time

The End of an Era at Coppin

I’m excited to write HBCU Game Time, powered by BOX TO ROW for JET!  As host of the national sports talk radio show, From the Press Box to Press Row, I cover all sports, with an emphasis on our Historically Black Colleges and Universities, with some entertainment sprinkled in from time to time.

This season started off somewhat promising for Coppin State University’s men’s basketball team in Baltimore.

The Eagles defeated Oregon State in the second game 78-73.  It was Coppin’s first ever win over a Pac-12 opponent.

But that was the highlight of the season.  The Eagles finished the season 12-20, 7-9 in the MEAC.  It was Coppin’s ninth losing season in the last 10 years and at the end of the season, Coppin announced it would not renew the contract of its head coach Ron “Fang” Mitchell.

And so ends an era at Coppin and in the MEAC.

Mitchell’s 28 years at the helm of the Eagles program produced so many highlights.  The Eagles regularly defeated bigger programs.  In the ’90s, his programs won or shared nine of 10 MEAC regular season championships.  His teams won four MEAC championships and made four NCAA Tournament appearances.  He produced some great players, including Larry Stewart, who as an undrafted free agent, made the Washington Bullets team and was named NBA All-Rookie second team in 1992.

In 1989, the Eagles won at the University of Maryland in Gary Williams’ first season.  Maryland rarely scheduled MEAC teams after that.

Shoe contracts nowadays are common amongst schools and conferences, but that was not the case 20 years ago. Because of the success of Coppin State under Mitchell, the program was the first in the MEAC to have its own shoe contract, with Fila. 

The Eagles won their first post season game in the school’s history, defeating St. Joe’s in the first round of the 1995 NIT.

But what most will remember about Fang Mitchell and Coppin State is the Eagles upset of South Carolina in the first round of the 1997 NCAA Tournament.  The Eagles were a No. 15 seed and South Carolina a No. 2 seed.  It was the first win ever for a MEAC school in the Division I Tournament. (Two others have occurred since then: Hampton’s win over Iowa State in 2001 and Norfolk State’s win over Missouri in 2012.  Both teams were No. 15 seeds.)

Also memorable was the 82-81 loss two days later to Texas.  Down by one point with four second remaining, the Eagles turned the ball over on an inbounds pass which may well have prevented them from moving on to the Sweet 16.

Mitchell was one of the last of the “old school” coaches.  He was an in-your-face coach whose raspy voice could easily be heard on the sideline getting after his players.

For Coppin State, this was a tough decision, but the right decision.  The firing of Mitchell probably would have happened six years ago because of all of the losing seasons.  The Eagles also had not won the MEAC Tournament since 1997.  Except Mitchell “reinvented” himself and led the Eagles, behind the play of Tywain McKee, to the 2008 MEAC Tournament championship and a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

Mitchell and Coppin State had always been loyal to each other.  In 1995, Mitchell had an opportunity to take over the Florida International University program at double the salary.  Coppin had given Mitchell his first opportunity to coach Division I basketball.  Coppin president Calvin Burnett told Mitchell that he couldn’t match what FIU was offering, but wanted him to stay.

Mitchell did.

Mitchell even served as director of athletics at Coppin State for a number of years.  Coaching men’s basketball and running athletics at a Division I program isn’t easy. 

If not for the success of the basketball program, the 246,000 square-foot physical education complex on Coppin’s campus, which opened in 2009, would not have been built.

In a time when there is more emphasis placed on students in the term student-athlete, Mitchell’s team had better than a 3.2 grade point average.  But there’s also the pressure to win, even at Coppin.

Mitchell’s overall record at Coppin was 429-417.  But in his last six years the Eagles were 71-115, including a pair of eight-win seasons, three 20 or more loss seasons and only one winning season.

Still, when it’s all said and done, Mitchell will go down as one of the greatest coaches in MEAC history.

Listen to Box to Row on Fridays 1p ET/10a PT on SiriusXM Channel 141 and Saturdays 12p/9a PT on SiriusXM Channel 142. You can follow Donal Ware on Twitter @dware1 and @boxtorow. Please share your thoughts at digitalpitches@ebony.com.