Bears' fast start stumps experts Coach: Not even the players believed Stump Mitchell could turn around Morgan State this quickly.

September 27, 1996|By Roch Eric Kubatko | Roch Eric Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Shock the world. That's what Morgan State's new football coach, Stump Mitchell, promised his team would do this season.

Shock the world. Mitchell sat behind his desk one day this summer, looked a visitor in the eyes and said these words as if he really meant them.

Shock the world. Even he would admit the Bears' reach hasn't extended quite that far yet, but at the least, they're surprising people who have associated Morgan State football with everything except winning.

These are no longer the bad news Bears, and jokes about their porous defense and lack of direction -- on and off the field -- already seem outdated.

Morgan is 2-1 going into Saturday's 1 p.m. game against Cheyney at Drexel. That doesn't sound like much until it's considered the Bears already have doubled last year's victory total and are above .500 for the first time in 14 years -- a span that includes five coaches.

Shock the world? The Bears floored Liberty coach Sam Rutigliano last weekend, defeating a team in overtime that it had lost to twice over the past three years by a combined total of 58 points.

"I think the difference in Morgan is enthusiasm," said Rutigliano, a former Cleveland Browns coach. "We played them in the past where they had breaking points and raised the flag up. But I don't think there is a breaking point on this team."

The Bears aren't accustomed to getting many breaks. They played well in their opener against Central (Ohio) State, but all they had to show for putting up a tough fight against the defending NAIA national champion was an 18-17 loss.

Momentum from that near-miss would build slowly. Morgan staggered to a 13-6 victory over Bethune-Cookman, winning when quarterback Otis Covington dived 1 yard with 18 seconds remaining. The offense sputtered, and the bandwagon still had lots of seats available.

It's getting more crowded. Beating Liberty, which in the preseason was ranked No. 9 in Division I-AA by Street & Smith's, has made believers out of some of the program's staunch critics.

Shock the world? "Not only did people outside the university not believe it, the players didn't believe it," said Mitchell, the team's offensive coordinator last year before replacing Ricky Diggs (10-45 in five seasons).

"There was a lot of skepticism around campus," Covington said. "Beating a team that was ranked, opened a lot of eyes, and it's nice having people behind you and supporting you. It's a welcome change from the past."

Morgan's improvement begins with Mitchell, the former NFL running back whose previous head-coaching experience was three years at an Arizona high school, but it is personified in a defense that for the previous seven years ranked last in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

Going into the Liberty game, the unit hadn't given up a touchdown in six consecutive quarters. Why? The players are faster, they attack the ball and they don't wear down during a game.

After getting battered two weeks ago, Bethune-Cookman quarterback Todd Walker said: "In my three years playing in the MEAC, I haven't been hit as hard as I was hit today."

Offensive tackle Willie Jones, a 6-foot-7, 340-pound sophomore transfer from Central Florida, is making sure no one lining up opposite him is putting any hits on Covington. Jones has graded highly after every game and was named MEAC Offensive Lineman of the Week after his blocking helped Morgan gain 221 yards rushing against Bethune-Cookman.

Few defensive lineman have been able to get Jones off his feet. None has gotten the better of him.

His performance against Bethune-Cookman even impressed Morgan's equipment manager, Arno Adams. "I've been washing uniforms for over 30 years," Adams said, "and I cannot remember when an offensive lineman's pants were turned in clean on the backside. But Willie Jones did not have a mark on his pants."

Jones said he didn't have any apprehensions about coming to Morgan, because he knew nothing about the years of losing. He had planned on enrolling at Miami and sitting out a year, but his uncle's friendship with former NFL safety Andre Waters, the Bears' secondary coach, helped steer him to Morgan.

"When I first came here, every one disrespected the program," Jones said. "I watched films from last year, and this is a totally different team -- the players, intensity, the will to play. And Coach Mitchell is like a spiritual motivator. He's the backbone of the team."

Mitchell knew how important it was to protect Covington's back this year.

Making the transition from receiver, where Covington played for three seasons at Morgan, to starting quarterback was going to be difficult enough without fearing a pass rush each time he drops to throw.

Erratic his first two games, Covington caught fire against Liberty, throwing for 287 yards and a school-record-tying four touchdowns. He also rushed for 80 yards, giving him a team-leading 309.

Covington, who ranks 18th in total offense in Division I-AA with 237.3 yards a game, said the players knew they had enough talent to start winning. "It was just a matter of working hard for it to become a reality."

Here's the reality: A program that has churned out losing seasons since 1979, with two years remaining on its probation and a stigma that seemed to be permanently attached, could be 3-1 after Saturday. And there isn't a team remaining on Morgan's schedule that Mitchell doesn't believe can be beaten.

"I don't think there's anybody in Division I-AA, if we go out and play the type of football we're capable of, that's going to beat us," Mitchell said.

He looked his visitor in the eyes when he said it. And he meant every word.

Next for Morgan

Opponent: Cheyney (0-3)

Site: Drexel Field, Philadelphia.

When: Tomorrow, 1 p.m.

Radio: WEAA (88.9 FM)

Pub Date: 9/27/96

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