This is Part I of a series on the rise, climax and fall of Coppin State’s basketball dynasty.
March 14, 1997. Pittsburgh. A. J. Palumbo Center.
It was a tale of two sides as the clock ticked down to zero in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. The players from the University of South Carolina were stunned, faces buried in towels. The faces of the players from Coppin State were excited, but not overly elated, the same as their usually demonstrative coach, Ronald “Fang” Mitchell.
They expected to win, though no one else outside of pockets of Philadelphia and West Baltimore gave them much of a chance. They were a 15 seed from the lowly Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, one that had never won an NCAA Tournament Game in 15 tries, going up against a nationally-ranked team from the SEC that had all the advantages.
But that was nothing new for Coppin State, a small historically black college in a very black West Baltimore. In just a decade the program had gone from a virtual unknown to writing its own chapter in the annals of March Madness.
Baltimore’s basketball “stepchild”
When Fang Mitchell rolled into Coppin State in 1986, it was probably the least desirable job in Division I basketball. In fact, it was barely a Division I job. CSU made the jump to D1 in 1985 from the NAIA, hoping to join the fledgling Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and get in on the lucrative TV money to be made from the TV Tournament.
Coppin was referred to as “the stepchild of area college basketball” by the Baltimore Sun in 1985. Games were played at Community College of Baltimore, where crowds of anywhere from 200 to 500 were the norm. Its ace in the hole was a $6.5 million athletic facility which was under construction.
Then again, Mitchell wasn’t exactly a household name. He was a 38 year old entrepreneur-turned-JUCO coach from New Jersey. He led Gloucester County (NJ) College 227-45 record. The program had won only 110 games in 11 years before he got there, but it finished 32-4 his final season there.
He replaced John Bates, who went 297-135 in a dozen years, and led Coppin to a 10-17 record its first year in Division I. He also led Coppin State to the 1976 NAIA title. Before that, he had Maryland State as an emerging power in the early days of the MEAC.
“We had a lot of great players,” Bates said. “Every time we hit the floor, we had a chance to win. I sometimes wonder if we’ll ever get back to that level again. We’ve gone from giants to dwarfs. Small in stature, and small in the standings.”
His motto, “The Strongest and Swiftest don’t always win. Sooner or layer, the person who wants to win most will.