Eagles find fans long for long shot Pittsburgh, visitors embrace Coppin team, wherever it is from

March 16, 1997|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

PITTSBURGH -- It was midafternoon yesterday in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel here, and the party was in full swing. It was a St. Patrick's Day celebration, and it seemed the entire lobby was decked out in green.

Then a bus pulled up, and the Coppin State basketball team stepped off. By the time the players made their way through the revolving doors, they were mobbed -- bringing the lobby festivities to a halt.

"I don't even know where they're from," said Mike Perien of Pittsburgh. "But I'm behind them all the way. They're great, they're real impressive. Everybody's behind them right now."

As amazing as it sounds, tiny Coppin State -- a historically black college -- has caught the imagination of a nation. America loves an underdog, and by recording one of the biggest upsets ever in the NCAA tournament in Friday's win over second-seeded South Carolina, the school that few have ever heard of finally is garnering nationwide support.

"They're the story of the tournament, and we're just happy to be a part of it," said Peter Dinicola, who lives in Washington, D.C. "I think they're awesome. Coppin State, man -- the only team to root for."

The Eagles had plenty of fans in their corner Friday. Once those at the Civic Arena realized Coppin wasn't going to fold against the Gamecocks, the enthusiasm built. By the time the game was over, the entire Civic Arena crowd -- save for the South Carolina contingent -- was giving Coppin a standing ovation.

"I was watching the game and I said, 'I'm out of here by halftime, I'm going to the bar,' " said Roger Douillet, here from Massachusetts. "I figured this game's over. But [Coppin] came back and tied the game by halftime. And everyone couldn't wait for the second half to start. When it was over, everyone was so excited."

And the Eagles found out soon after the game how their lives had suddenly changed.

"I had a million phone calls when I got back to my room," Coppin center Terquin Mott said. "When I stopped recognizing the names of the people who were calling me, I turned the ringer off. I called my answering machine at home and had 25 messages."

Upon waking up yesterday morning, the Eagles found their team gracing the front cover of the two daily papers here -- and practically every sports section in America.

On the front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was a headline reading "No stoppin' Coppin." Inside on the front page of sports, in huge type, the headline read "Coppin Robbers".

"The last 24 hours have been difficult," Coppin coach Fang Mitchell said. "Our sports information director Dave Popham said that if I plan on raising funds, I had better make sure to talk to dTC everybody who wanted to talk to me. The interviews that I did [Friday night] might have covered what I have done in my entire 11 years."

How much clout does playing for Coppin carry? When reserve center Kareem Lewis jumped in a cab on Friday after the game, he was given the royal treatment.

"The driver asked me what school I played for, and when I said Coppin State he dropped me off and said 'the ride is on me,' " Lewis said. "He told his dispatcher I was in the car, and cabs from all over the city got on the line and told him to tell me congratulations. We don't feel like we're the underdogs. Everybody's behind us."

When Coppin forward Reggie Welch walked through the mall after the game, he also found the fans very warm and receptive.

"I walked through the mall and there's all type of Coppin deals now -- in CD stores, clothes stores, food stands," Welch said. "That's just the greatness of this city. They really appreciate hard workers. We definitely have accepted their hospitality, and we offer nothing but thanks."

And the fans are offering thanks in return, thanks to the Coppin team for providing a tremendous thrill.

As Richard Long of Pittsburgh was making his way to the elevator at the Sheraton, out of the corner of his eye he spotted a couple of Coppin players seated on the side. As he walked toward them he shouted something about the players ruining his office pool -- all the while extending his hand to offer them congratulations.

"I don't know where Coppin State is at, I never even heard of Coppin State," Long said. "But I love the underdog. They were fantastic."

Pub Date: 3/16/97

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