'Now they know where we are' Coppin State: The Eagles may be out of the NCAA tournament, but the school expects more recognition -- and money -- from the team's underdog run.

March 17, 1997|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

PITTSBURGH -- The clock may have struck midnight, but don't expect Cinderella, also known as Coppin State College, to go home with nothing but a pumpkin and six mice to show for its appearance in the 1997 NCAA basketball tournament's East Regional.

Tiny Coppin State is literally richer and more famous today than its fiercely proud administrators, alumni and students ever dreamed possible for the Baltimore school.

So what if the Eagles suffered a heartbreaking 82-81 loss to Texas yesterday. They made a name for themselves. They made history, too, when they became the first Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference school to win a game in the NCAA's Division I tournament when they defeated South Carolina on Friday, 78-65.

"We came here and gave everyone the shock of their lives," said Stacey S. Fooks, Coppin's homecoming queen, who was crowned last month because Coppin has no football team, and therefore, no fall homecoming. "We made history. We shook a lot of people up. Now they know where we are, and they know how to say it."

Tom Goggins, a federal worker from Baltimore and a member of Coppin's Class of '75, agreed. "We don't have anything to be ashamed of."

Coppin was the clear sentimental favorite at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena, as thousands of college basketball fans temporarily abandoned their own allegiances to chant, "Let's go Eagles, let's go!"

It had been that way all weekend here, in a city with a well-known affinity for improbable victories -- think of the "Immaculate Reception," the game-winning touchdown catch by the Steelers' Franco Harris. Think "The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh," a film about an underdog basketball team that's a favorite of Eagles point guard Antoine Brockington. Heck, think "Flashdance," a film set in Pittsburgh that tells the story of a young Pittsburgh welder who dances her way into ballet school.

Some would find Coppin's story line more implausible than that.

As the nation was discovering Coppin, many Baltimoreans were also learning about the North Avenue school. Yes, it's small, about 3,500 students. Yes, it's still primarily a commuter school, with only 300 students living on campus. Yes, it has only $1.6 million for its athletics department, a laughably minuscule amount.

Asked if the national media's repeated description of Coppin as an "inner city" school was really code for poor and black, the basketball coach and athletic director, Ron "Fang" Mitchell, replied, "Well, that's what we are."

But the financial situation is one of the first things that will change at Coppin, as a result of its appearance here.

An estimated $250,000 will be divided by Coppin, the MEAC and other MEAC member colleges. Recruiting and enrollment are also expected to improve after this moment in the national limelight.

"We're going to see more dead presidents than we've ever seen before," said Gordon Rackley, assistant to the athletic director. "But while we've got everyone's attention, could I send a message to corporate Baltimore? We really need some equipment for our strength training program."

In other words, "Show them the money."

The financial impact of the weekend was secondary to the fans, though. They wanted the world to know about the charm of Coppin and the way it inspires lifelong loyalty.

For Gregory Young, director of student activities, Coppin has always been a family affair.

His mother, Omenta Owens, taught sociology there. He met his wife, Treeva, as an undergraduate 25 years ago. And now both his children, Gregory Jr., 20, and Melanie, 18, are students there.

"There won't be any going back; people know us now," Young said.

Rich Bright, who runs the political science program at Coppin and has been at the school for 30 years, remembers when two victories a season was the norm. That was when Coppin played in the Potomac Athletic Association and its chief rival was Gallaudet, the Washington college for the deaf. "Now those were some quiet games," Bright said.

The arena was anything but quiet yesterday. And at the final buzzer, few tears were shed. The Sweet 16 would have been sweet, but Coppin had been noticed.

"These players always saw themselves as being at a great school," said Coach Mitchell's wife, Yvonne, who had the idea of having the Biblical story of David and Goliath read to the team before the tournament began.

"But it's not just about them; the school can share it, too."

Pub Date: 3/17/97

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