Mitchell at 399 wins - his way Coppin State coach demands commitment

January 25, 1996|By Roch Eric Kubatko | Roch Eric Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Nine straight losses. That was Fang Mitchell's introduction into coaching men's basketball at Coppin State. Most of the games weren't even close, but they also weren't a true indicator of what the future held.

If that dubious streak appears long ago, it's not just because almost 10 years have passed. Mitchell has become so synonymous with winning at Coppin, it's as if that time period never existed.

"Those were some tough days for me," he said. "I do know what depression is. You start having some self-doubts."

Not anymore. How could he? A victory tonight over UMES at Tawes Gymnasium in Princess Anne would be the 400th of Mitchell's career, which began at Gloucester County (N.J.) College in 1978. He's 172-108 at Coppin, with two appearances RTC each in the NCAA tournament and the National Invitation Tournament.

While at Gloucester, his teams won 227 games and four regional championships in eight seasons. His winning percentage was .835. His methods, which included heavy doses of discipline, were working.

"If anything, [winning 400 games] signifies longevity," he said. "You must have done some right things to still be here. But it's just not me. [Assistant coach] Derek Brown has been with me that whole time and has been very important. And the administration and staff have always been supportive."

Mitchell came to Coppin in July 1986. The Eagles had finished below .500 for the third straight year, and with so many holdovers and no fresh recruits, they went 8-19 in his first season.

An infusion of talent brought improvement, from 13-14 the next ++ year to 18-11. Coppin hasn't posted a losing record since, hasn't lost more than five games in a row and hasn't won fewer than 21 the past three seasons.

Mitchell's teams also continue to bully their Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference rivals, going 116-29 during the regular season. They've won 52 of the past 53.

No wonder Mitchell's fellow MEAC coaches picked Coppin to finish second this season, even though the Eagles had lost all five starters and were adding 10 new players. And Mitchell hasn't let them down. Coppin (8-7) has won five straight and is 5-0 in the conference. And it has remained untouchable at home with a streak of 35 consecutive wins -- the longest in the nation.

"They're playing defense now, not just trying to trade baskets all the time," Mitchell said of his present group. "Going into this year, I knew it was going to be real tough trying to get these guys to play as a team. When you have offensive-minded people, and they've been that way all their lives, it's a major problem for you."

The roster changes each year, but not the philosophy. To play for Mitchell requires total commitment, and not just on the court.

"I've told these guys over and over that I only ask three things: Be the best possible student you can be, be the best possible basketball player you can be, and the thing that means the most to me, be the best possible person you can be. It's 100 percent in all three areas," he said.

"He's not just teaching us about basketball," said senior Allen Watson. "He's teaching us about life."

Mitchell's "my way or the highway" approach has softened some, but the margin for error remains slim. He hadn't been at yesterday's practice for more than a minute when he spotted a player taking what Mitchell considered foolish shots. He screamed his objection, then moved away.

"I think what's happening with this team is, they're understanding me more, what I'm going to tolerate and not tolerate," he said. "Young people like to battle you. They don't necessarily accept what people say. That's just life."

Mitchell has had his share of run-ins with this group. Only two of them, Watson and senior Kyle Locke, wore a Coppin uniform last season. The mix includes four freshmen, two sophomores and a couple of transfers.

"This has been a real tough year," he said. "Maturity is becoming the biggest obstacle for success. Young people today are coming in more and more immature because it's a me-myself-and-I attitude. It's a mature person who understands the big picture. If anything, though, I'm probably a lot more

patient than I have been in past years.

"I'm not the basic dictator-type of coach where we have to do everything my way. I'm more like a community manager. But once I get the information, then I have to find a solution."

The thought brings another loud, infectious laugh from Mitchell -- the kind that belies his tough-guy image. He clearly loves his job and the contact with people, whether it's a player or just a friend of the program.

Ask Mitchell about a favorite moment within his first 399 wins, and he tells a story of an athlete who entered Gloucester reading at a second-grade level. "He graduated from junior college and a four-year school, and is a few classes away from receiving his master's degree," Mitchell said.

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