Bitter reality: Eagles' era is over

March 05, 1995|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Stephen Stewart lay face down, pounding the floor in anger as North Carolina A&T began its celebration.

And he took it better than most.

Sidney Goodman sat on a stairway, his head in his hands, crying as his teammates accepted their second-place trophy.

"This is not real," he would say later. "This is not real."

Senior co-captain Marcus Robinson didn't even play, but he sat on another stairway, his warm-up jacket draped over his head.

Eventually, coach Ron "Fang" Mitchell gathered them all together, told them he was proud of them, told them he loved them.

It didn't help.

The Coppin dynasty is over -- maybe for good.

The players didn't know this after yesterday's 66-64 loss in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship game, didn't know that Mitchell reportedly is one of six finalists for the coaching job at Florida International.

All they knew was that six seniors had played their last game at Coppin.

Heaven knows, that was painful enough.

Stewart, Goodman, Keith Carmichael -- they're all leaving. So is Tariq Saunders, who led Coppin with 22 points yesterday. So is Michael Thomas, who led the team in field-goal percentage, rebounds and blocked shots.

That's the heart of the team.

The heart that is broken.

Assistant coach Derek Brown sat alone in the locker room, staring at a blackboard, his eyes moist.

Carmichael sat in front of his locker, clutching his yellow home jersey for the last time.

Some players talked quietly.

Others cried softly.

One could be heard clear across the room, sobbing loudly.

"Unbelievable," Brown said. "Unbelievable."

Actually, it wasn't unbelievable. It happens every March. It happens to all kinds of teams. It even happened to Coppin last season.

The problem is, the Coppins of the world get only one chance, one game to validate their season, one shot at the NCAA tournament.

That's what hurt so much.

A big-time power like Maryland will go to the NCAAs regardless of how it fares in the ACC tournament. Coppin is 47-1 in the MEAC the past three seasons, yet has qualified for the NCAAs once.

Win your conference tournament, or else -- that's the deal, and Coppin knew it. But that doesn't make it right. It doesn't make it fair. And, for the Eagles, it sure doesn't ease the pain.

This game will haunt them forever -- maybe even more than the first-round loss to Morgan State in last year's MEAC tournament.

"Yeah," Brown said. "Because last year they knew they had a chance to redeem themselves. These kids here, they'll basically be broken up now.

"I was watching Keith staring at his uniform. It's the last time he was going to put it on. He didn't want to go out like this."

None of them did, least of all Mitchell, who might have coached his last game at Coppin State.

He declined to comment when asked about the Florida International job yesterday, but Fang is no dummy.

It's the perfect time to depart.

This was Mitchell's ninth season at Coppin. He has won five MEAC regular-season titles. Forget the upsets in the conference tournament. What's left for him to accomplish?

Florida International plays in the Trans-America Athletic

Conference -- a cut above the MEAC, but not by much. But Florida International also has 24,500 students, compared with 3,200 at Coppin.

That translates to better resources.

Historically black institutions face a constant struggle competing Division I -- that's why Fang visits half the Big Eight every year, taking home approximately $35,000 per game for his troubles.

Still, Florida International draws crowds of only 300 to 500 at the 4,661-seat Golden Panther Arena. And Trans-America tournament losers get ignored for at-large bids, just like in the MEAC.

On the other hand, Fang is 46.

Maybe it's time.

He was subdued after yesterday's loss, emotional, yet reflective. He didn't blame Goodman for throwing away a pass with a two-point lead and 48 seconds left. He didn't blame Carmichael for missing a three-pointer with the score tied and 12 seconds left.

"How can I get upset with them?" Mitchell said. "We didn't win a basketball game. How many other games have we won? They've stood tall for a long time.

"That's a three-year run a lot of coaches wish they could have. I love them. I love what they've stood for, what they've given to the institution."

It was out there for everyone to see yesterday, their blood, their sweat and especially their tears. One shot, that's all they ever get. One shot, and now it's gone.

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