He's had 13 winning seasons in 15 years of coaching, so Coppin State coach Ron "Fang" Mitchell expects his teams to succeed. Which is why it was surprising to find Mitchell in his office with a dazed look on his face after an 18-point win over Delaware State last month.
"Can you believe this? Can you believe this?" said Mitchell, shaking his head, after that win on Feb. 10. "I really don't understand how they keep doing this."
No one could have predicted success for Coppin, which started the season with players that had eight total years of college experience. Not the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference coaches, who picked Coppin to finish seventh in the nine-team league. Not the numerous basketball publications that picked the Eagles to finish in the middle of the pack.
But in what Delaware State coach Jeff Jones calls "Fang's finest coaching job of his career," Mitchell has led a team that has no seniors and practically no size to a 19-0 record against MEAC teams and into the NCAA tournament. Coppin will play No. 7 Cincinnati Friday in a first-round game in Syracuse, N.Y.
In seven seasons at the 3,000-student West Baltimore school, Mitchell -- a stern disciplinarian, a teacher and a father figure -- time after time has taken groups of unwanted kids out of schools in Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey and molded them into winners.
This will be Mitchell's third postseason appearance in four years at Coppin -- an accomplishment he takes in stride because "that's what I'm paid to do." Still, on the eve of this year's NCAA tournament, Mitchell has a special feeling for a team that has done so much with what was perceived to be so little.
"We don't get any respect -- even in the last games during our conference tournament, everybody thought that they could beat Mitchell said of his team, which starts two freshmen and three sophomores.
"So this has been a great season to accomplish what we have, through a tough situation. Eight years of experience is eight years of experience, and that's not supposed to allow you to go through any conference undefeated. That's just a tribute to the young men who played for me this season."
Ever since the Eagles returned home from their 27-point win over Delaware State in the MEAC championship game earlier this month, there's been an increased sense of pride on Coppin's campus.
By the time Mitchell returned to his office, someone had hung a "Congratulations Fang" balloon and blue and gold party streamers on his door. On the nearby office of assistant coaches Derek Brown and Nate Blackwell, there's a "Class of 64" poster, honoring the team for being one of 64 in the NCAA tournament.
"Everybody here is so proud and they're happy in getting the attention they felt they've deserved for so long," Mitchell said. "The students are extremely happy. We've gone [to the NCAA tournament] before, but a lot of these students weren't here the last time. So they're really proud."
Coppin made a complete turnaround from a 2-6 start. Though the losses came against opponents such as Boston College, Kansas State and James Madison, Mitchell said many had written off the Eagles.
"There were a lot of people jumping off the bandwagon early," Mitchell said. "I heard one comment on TV after we lost to UMBC [76-68 on Dec. 9] that our season was over. People just gave up on us not realizing we were a youthful team. Things were not going to get done overnight."
But Mitchell's method is one that's designed to get the most out of his players. "The one thing they do at Coppin is play good defense," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "His team's very disciplined. Ron has proven he can coach."
Check egos at the gym door
Sensitive or egotistical players need not enroll at Coppin. Mitchell's style is demanding, and players must deal with a coach not afraid to show them -- face-to-face -- just how loud he can get.
"I'm a no-nonsense person," Mitchell said. "When you're in a basketball game, it's like war. And, in a war, I'm not going to say, 'Johnnie, will you please come here, pretty please?'
"If it comes to a point where I have to talk to student-athletes to a degree of their being momma's boys, then I'm going to have to send them home to their mommas. My job is to bring up men who will be positive contributors to society, and that's what mothers give me their sons for. Either they want me to get the job done, or they don't."
Mitchell was getting the job done during the MEAC semifinal against Florida A&M when he yanked freshman guard Melvin Roberts following an ill-advised pass at the end of the game. After Mitchell finished his lecture, Roberts was left on the bench for several minutes with his face buried in a towel. Some might have considered Mitchell's style harsh, but not Roberts' parents, who witnessed the incident.