Mitchell, happy where he is, hopes to be where it's at

March 20, 1997|By John Eisenberg

What happens now to the basketball program at Coppin State? Does it experience the traditional trappings of success? Does it attract better players, more fans and more exposure? And does it lose coach Fang Mitchell to a bigger school?

The last question is the biggie, obviously; having built Coppin from scratch into the team that upset South Carolina and almost beat Texas to advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament this year, Mitchell clearly would know best how to use that success to make Coppin even bigger and better.

The larger schools have dismissed him for years, but now, suddenly, he is on the list of "it" coaches that circulates every year in the wake of the tournament. It seems almost inevitable that some athletic director somewhere finds him attractive.

"I know I probably will get some calls from various people," Mitchell said yesterday. "But it's going to have to be something good for me even to discuss that."

He is comfortable at Coppin, where he makes $100,000 and also serves as the school's athletic director. Few Division I coaches have as much control or authority.

A job at a larger school would mean more money and prestige, but also more pressure to win. He told reporters last week in Pittsburgh that he is under almost no pressure at Coppin because it was a teacher's school until 1970 and therefore has a large percentage of female alumni who don't get uptight about the basketball team.

"I'm happy where I am," he said yesterday, "especially now that we have a chance to take the whole thing up a notch."

4 Notice that he said one notch, not four or five.

That's the sound of a coach taking a rational approach, not a greedy approach, to the spotlight finally finding his formerly obscure team.

"I don't need us to be [the University of] Maryland," he said. "I'm happy in this environment."

He is wise to feel that way, because as much as Coppin proved last weekend that it could play with just about any high-profile team, including Maryland, college basketball remains a rigidly hierarchical sport.

Coppin can get bigger, but only so big as long as it continues to play in a small arena and a small conference and with so few of its games on television. Sadly, those are limiting factors -- not on the court, but off it.

The reality is that you are what you are in college basketball, regardless of what great or terrible fortune visits.

"That's fine with me," Mitchell said. "I can take special joy in looking at a Maryland, whose basketball budget is probably as big as our whole athletic department budget, and then looking at our team and recognizing that we're basically at the same place in basketball terms. Anything beyond that is just about having your ego stroked. And I'm not about ego. I don't need that attention. The school does, but I don't as a coach."

At the same time, Mitchell said, he wants to use last week's success to grow his enterprise at Coppin. He received a boost several years ago when he signed a shoe contract with Fila. Now, after last weekend, he wants to lure higher-profile recruits, more fans and higher-quality opponents.

Are those realistic goals? Some more than others.

"I do think we will get to recruit some decent players and maybe become a really dangerous team that people would really be afraid of," he said. "I can't see why kids wouldn't be interested in coming. You can get a good education at a small school and still play a good brand of basketball. You can't knock the basketball anymore, like people used to do. Just ask the people at South Carolina and Texas about the basketball at Coppin State."

Interest in the team is almost bound to increase around town in the wake of last weekend's games. The Eagles averaged 1,931 fans this season, a typical number in a city in which college basketball has drawn peanuts for years. Coppin doesn't have enough alumni, television coverage or acclaim to become as popular as the Terps, but, having proved that they belong in the big time, they should get more media coverage and more fans as long as they continue to win.

"My whole thing is just to fill our gym and turn our home games into events," Mitchell said. "We have a 3,000-seat arena. That's all I want. I think we can do it."

Fans want to see competitive games against known teams, of course, and Coppin's chances of bringing such opponents to town are even more remote now. Big-name coaches are loath to schedule tough games against teams from small conferences. What's to gain?

"We might not get those teams in here," Mitchell said. "But our conference games are still good. We can sell that."

Mitchell already is working to make the most of last weekend's success. He has been on the phone with potential sponsors this week.

He also has fielded "dozens" of congratulatory calls.

"A former player now playing in Italy called me," he said. "That was beautiful. You know you really accomplished something big."

Big enough to change Coppin's world forever?

"I hope so," Mitchell said. "If we can make it as far as we have without getting much support, just think what we could do if we got some of that support. We could get a lot bigger.

"I hope it happens. What we did last weekend certainly is our opportunity to make it happen."

Pub Date: 3/20/97

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