Cinderella Morgan eyes Beth.-Cookman slipper

Mitchell's 1st-year group tries to copy MEAC rise

Notebook

August 12, 1999|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

Morgan State's football program could write its own rags-to-riches tale in the last season of the millennium. And for inspiration at last week's Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference media day in Crystal City, Va., new Bears football coach Stanley Mitchell needn't have looked any farther than Bethune-Cookman and its coach, Al Wyatt, who delivered the traditionally moribund program into Cinderella-dom and a Heritage Bowl appearance last season.

The Wildcats, like Mitchell's team now, were picked to finish deep in the bowels of the league's standings a year ago. At that point, Wyatt's boasts of future glory seemed as laughable as they were in 1997, when the 4-7 record was the result.

In 1998, however, Bethune-Cookman went 8-3 and had an opportunity to win the MEAC in the last weekend of the regular season. Mitchell and the Bears hope to do something similar, though the coach picked his team to finish seventh in the conference.

"I didn't want us to start at the bottom -- but it gives us something to shoot for," said Mitchell, whose team was nonetheless tabbed last in the official poll. "No one expects anything from us. The key thing will be the element of surprise."

If there's any magic formula that produces such a result, Wyatt wasn't giving it out.

"I can't speak on Morgan State. What works for me may not work for them," he said, though mentioning that the lack of respect worked wonders as a motivational tool. "I took it personally, and I made sure my team took it personally. I expected us to rise to the top."

Of course, when your program is mired in a slump that goes back two decades, there are obstacles to be cleared. One is having a coach who was hired late enough -- on the eve of spring practice -- to miss most of the main recruiting season so that he was looking for a quarterback to back up Willie McGirt as recently as two weeks ago. The other is that with Hughes Stadium undergoing renovations that start in October, the Bears will be on the road for eight of the season's 11 weeks.

At the same time, it doesn't hurt to have a coach who has won two state titles, as Mitchell did at Dunbar over a five-year span. And though talents like the ones at Mitchell's disposal -- McGirt, tailback Ali Culpepper, wide receiver Mark Lester and cornerback Warner Herndon -- are similar to ones scattered generously across the 20-year-stretch of futility, he still has them.

With good players under his command, Mitchell is determined not to let the circumstances be a factor. "It [the renovation] won't be easy, but we've got to accept that we can win anywhere, I don't care how many games there are on the road," he said. "If not, we don't need to be playing football."

Towson to take next step?

A few miles north, Towson University's situation isn't quite as dire as that of the Bears, but the challenge is the same. The Tigers, who finished last in the Patriot League and are predicted to do the same this season, are trying to move up in a league that put two teams in the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs last season, just as the MEAC did.

Freed to give financial aid over the past three seasons, Towson has been steadily building up a cache of players in hopes of attaining the level that the program reached during a pair of successful seasons in the early 1990s.

Tigers coach Gordy Combs, with his players pumped about the new weights instructor and staying over the summer to work seven-on-seven drills twice a week, feels that his team is ready to take the next baby step up the ladder in the league. Last season, Towson went 4-7 to improve over a 2-8 campaign in 1997, though failing to get more than one conference triumph.

Still, Combs compares this team to the 1993 and 1994 teams that went a combined 20-4.

"It's a really focused group," he said. "It reminds me of the 1993 and 1994 teams. There was skill and ability, but they also had the mental preparation and attitude that it takes to win in this league."

With running back Jason Corle (the league's leading rusher), and skilled players such as receiver Jamal White and defensive back Ricky Crestwell, co-captain and linebacker Andre Atkins says the team is in as good a shape as any in the league, in some areas.

"We have better athletes at every position than any school in the Patriot League," Atkins said. "We just haven't been able to put it together yet."

More hope in Centennial

The Centennial Conference's media day in Hershey, Pa., provided no surprises: Western Maryland and Johns Hopkins are once again predicted to duel for the league crown, as they have done for the past two seasons.

Hopkins is picked to finish second with 14 starters returning from a 7-3 season, while Western Maryland is picked to win the conference after going unbeaten in its last 20 regular-season games, 13 starters returning.

"Western Maryland is clearly the best team. After going 20-0 these last two years, there's not much guessing there," JHU coach Jim Margraff said. "After that, the conference has always been a toss-up."

Sure, Dickinson joins the Green Terror and Kings Point as one of the three teams to thwart the Blue Jays in the last two seasons. Muhlenberg won its last four games of 1998 and is a popular choice as a darkhorse.

But Hopkins has entered the final game of the last two seasons -- against Western Maryland -- with a shot at a share of the Centennial Conference title and a possible Division III playoff berth.

This season, the pressure decreases somewhat. The NCAA's move to increase the Division III playoff field to 28 teams creates a better opportunity for a team that falters.

"We could have lost a game last season and not gotten in," Western Maryland coach Tim Keating said. "This year, we could lose a game out of conference and get in, or we could not lose out of conference, lose one game in conference, and still make it."

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