'Overnight' took 11 years for Mitchell

March 15, 1997|By John Eisenberg

PITTSBURGH -- As the final buzzer sounded, the Coppin State players began to celebrate at midcourt and the cheers of a disbelieving crowd rained down around him, Fang Mitchell finally let down his guard.

After spending all day screaming, wheedling and cajoling on the sideline, he let a smile escape onto his face and light up the Pittsburgh Civic Arena.

At long last, his day had come.

"When I took this job 11 years ago, my dream was to win a game in the NCAA tournament," said Mitchell, the basketball coach at Coppin State. "I just watched my dream come true. And wasn't it beautiful?"

The Eagles' 78-65 defeat of South Carolina in a first-round East Regional game yesterday was one of the biggest upsets in the history of the NCAA tournament.

South Carolina, seeded No. 2 in the regional, had beaten Kentucky twice this season and won the Southeastern Conference's regular-season title.

The Eagles? They had to come with a pep band borrowed from crosstown rival Morgan State.

No team from their conference, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, had ever won an NCAA tournament game. Only twice before had a No. 15 seed beaten a No. 2.

"You're an overnight sensation!" a reporter bubbled to Mitchell in the Eagles' riotous locker room.

"Please," Mitchell said, putting up a hand to stop such talk.

This wasn't a dream that happened overnight.

This was a dream that was 11 years in the making.

Eleven of the hardest years that any Division I basketball coach will ever experience.

"You can't begin to know," Mitchell said, shaking his head and laughing as reporters pressed him to tell the story of the tournament's newest Cinderella.

How could he tell it all in 15 minutes? He would need days to do justice to the hard times, the obstacles, the sheer lack of status and respect that he endured.

He would need days to tell about the early years, when his office was in a home ec classroom, he played his home games at Baltimore Community College and tried to recruit without on-campus dorms to offer players.

You try selling a recruit on the "charm" of living in a rundown apartment on North Avenue.

"We were putting them in places that I wouldn't let my kids live in," Derek Brown, Mitchell's longtime assistant, said yesterday. "I remember going into one place with my wife and trying to clean it up. Looked like bums had been living in there."

How, in 15 minutes, could Mitchell sum up all those winter nights when he took his teams into sold-out barns in the Midwest and learned to play with the big boys? There isn't a short version of having to settle for leftover talent from the bigger schools, and then spending his life playing for paychecks, getting bad calls and getting heckled -- but teaching the players, through it all, that they belonged.

That those other teams really weren't any better, just more famous.

"We made something out of nothing," Derek Brown said, "and it took a lot of sweat and struggle."

It's a story about a philosophy that Mitchell decided he would use when he came from Gloucester Community College, outside Philadelphia, to take a job at a school that had just joined Division I.

He would demand that his players adhere to his rules, on and off the court.

They would play smart and slow, relying on the match-up zone defense he learned from his mentor, Temple coach John Chaney.

They would be on time, go to class and show respect.

And they would go out into the heartland, play anyone anywhere, and learn.

"All those nights on the road," Mitchell said yesterday, shaking his head and smiling. "They were all about teaching the kids that they could do this."

He looked around the locker room at his players.

"All those nights led up to what happened here today," he said.

Things began to get better in the late '80s. The Coppin Center opened, giving the Eagles a nice home on campus. Mitchell located better off-campus housing for the players. Dorms opened on campus a few years ago.

The Eagles beat Maryland at Cole Field House in 1989 and went on to make the NCAA tournament for the first time. Another NCAA bid and two to the NIT followed in the next five years. The Eagles were established.

And yet they were still the outsiders, the team from the conference that had never won an NCAA game.

"I have lived my whole life without getting respect," Mitchell said. "I'm OK with that. But for these kids, coming from the inner city, they just don't have that many opportunities to do something that really makes them feel good. This was one of those opportunities."

South Carolina was a pretty good draw for the Eagles as high seeds go, a surprise team without a tradition of tournament success.

"We stressed that," Derek Brown said. "We stressed that a lot of pressure was on them."

The Eagles learned early that their guards were just as quick and their frontcourt was just as tough. It was a ballgame.

Trailing by a point with seven minutes to play, the Eagles took control with a 14-4 run.

The crowd, composed of fans from Wisconsin and Texas and the other schools playing here, adopted them.

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