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.
A Slow Grind
Fang didn’t arrive in Baltimore empty-handed. He brought William Crandall, a 5-9 sophomore guard nicknamed “The Wizard” with him. Also following Fang down I-95 was Phil Booth (father of the current Villanova star with the same name), a talented scorer from Philly’s Northeast High School, who played for him as a freshman at
Mitchell’s first-year record wasn’t impressive overall, 8-19, but it went 7-6 in the MEAC.
Things got better in Year Two. The Wizard disappeared, but Booth hit the court running, leading the MEAC in scoring and averaging 20 points and 6.8 boards per game. Derrick Orr chipped in 17 a game and was a constant outside threat. The team went 13-14 and inched forward with an 8-7 record in MEAC play, and things were starting to look up.
By the time Coppin showed up for its first MEAC Tournament in Greensboro that spring, it showed it was a serious player. Playing in its first-ever post season game as a member in the NCAA, and first overall in 13 years, Coppin beat A&T 71-58. The win ended A&T’s seven-year stranglehold on the MEAC and its NCAA Tournament bid.
That was a coming out game for young Larry Stewart as he put up 17 points and 17 rebounds in the win. The 6’7 strong man from Philly was an emerging force down low for Coppin, one that would leave his mark on the program. CSU would go on to lose 76-74 to eventual champion FAMU, but the win over A&T signaled a changing of the guard in the MEAC as the 80s turned into the 1990s.
Coppin State may have shocked the MEAC world at the end of the 1989 season, but it started the 1990 season with an even bigger upset. Coppin State pulled off a 70-63 upset of the University of Maryland on Dec 12,
The ACC squad was in shock, exemplified by the comments of Maryland’s Jerrod Mustaf.
“This is one of the lowest feelings, one of the worst losses I’ve ever had. It’s
“We knew who we were, but the public didn’t,” Mitchell said. “I hear jokes every time we come into a place to play. They make fun of our name. They question why we are on the schedule. They don’t know if we’re a junior college or a low Division III school.”
“Our guys have a lot of pride and self-esteem,” Mitchell said. “We don’t have a lot of things that other schools have. Our players know that their hard work will establish the program for the players in the future.”
The Cost of Winning
Mitchell turned out to be a prophet in 1989, and not just regarding his team’s future success. Even before Coppin’s monumental win over Maryland, Mitchell had already expressed exasperation with simply finding games for his teams to play. The better his team got, the harder it got to get teams to come to their gyms, or even play them period.
“It’s somewhat of a stigma losing to a black school. Why? Because this is America. How many episodes have we dealt with in the past few years, showing that blacks are supposedly inferior and that black coaches aren’t supposed to be able to coach?Fang Mitchell, 1989
Well, Fang was wrong about that. Coppin did play American again, twice. One of them was even at home, a 92-87 win in 1991. But his premise was right and still is true today.
Eleven months later, the Eagles beat the Terps. Thirty years later, the teams have not played each other since. But Mitchell knew the implications were much bigger than wins and losses on the court. He knew what time it was.
“We’re not talking about fairness so much as we are talking about money. The big schools are in control and the at-large spaces are reserved for them. They figure, ‘let the little people fight it out.”
As much as they may have resented it, that’s just what the Eagles did during the 1989-90 season. They won 23 games in the regular season, going 15-1 in the MEAC, and it did it without any fourth-year seniors. Booth and Orr, both of whom saw their points and shots go down as the wins went up, were in their third seasons at Coppin. Trigger man Larry Yarbray averaged 7.7 assists per game as a sophomore. Stewart, the MEAC Player of The Year, and Reggie Isaac who averaged 23.1
The win over Maryland, along with another over a solid Creighton team and their dominance of the MEAC had folks talking a possible at-large bid should Coppin fail in the MEAC Tournament. Fang knew better.
“We have to win the tournament,” Mitchell told the Baltimore Sun. “We can’t possibly put our trust in the selection committee. It’s either we win or go home.”
And that’s exactly what the Eagles did. They beat Morgan State, SC State and then held off an upset-minded A&T team hoping to return the favor for the previous year’s defeat. But it was Coppin’s time, and it came away with a 54-50 win in the Greensboro Coliseum despite playing in A&T’s back yard and being referred to as “Copping” State by ESPN’s announcers.
“We got a bunch of players no one else wanted and we put together a team, and we’ve been traveling around the country for two years teaching people how to spell our name. This should take care of that. We’re there. We’re really there,” Mitchell said after the game.
“They gambled on us and came here when they didn’t know anything about the school. Now they’re getting paid off for gambling.”
The reward for a 26-6 record, beating bigger programs and winning the MEAC: A no. 15 seed and a date with the beasts from the Big East–Syracuse. The 1990 edition featured future NBA top draft pick Derrick Coleman and Billy Owens while being coached, of course, by Jim Boeheim.
The height difference was daunting. Coleman was listed as 6’10, 230 pounds, while Owens was right behind him at 6’9. Remember, Stewart was 6’7, while 6’5 Booth was left to battle Owens.
Coppin battled early, but a 14-0 run early in the second half gave ‘Cuse a 53-33 lead and eventually a 70-48 loss.
It was a dissappointing end to a great season. But it was far from the end of a great story. In less than one recruiting class, Coppin had gone from an afterthought to an emerging force in the MEAC and on the East Coast.
And as we all know, the best was yet to come. But it wouldn’t come quickly, or easily.