For Coppin-Morgan, warmth takes holiday


March 05, 2004|By Laura Vecsey | Laura Vecsey,SUN COLUMNIST

BUTCH BEARD and Fang Mitchell know the score. Coppin State at Morgan State tonight at Hill Field House in the regular-season finale for both Baltimore schools.

No time for love. No time for sharing scouting reports or film. No time for blowing kisses to a cross-town rival, even if, for the rest of the year, Beard and Mitchell are road-game partners, friends.

"You think I really [care]?" Morgan's Beard said about Coppin's chances of getting back to the NCAA tournament.

"We're trying to get some momentum, go into the conference tournament on a high note. The beauty of this time of year is it's one-game elimination. Everyone has to have their A game. A lot of pressure is on guys. There can be upsets of teams that are supposed to win by teams that can play carefree."

In other words: Take that, Fang.

Like Beard, Mitchell would also like to use a win tonight as a springboard for Coppin's best season (15-13 overall, 13-4 conference) and best chance of going to the NCAA tournament since 1997. That's when 15th seed Coppin knocked off No. 2 seedSouth Carolina to etch one of those classic March Madness moments.

Mitchell laments that a regular-season title won't be enough, that Coppin will have to run off a winning streak in the MEAC tournament next week in Richmond, Va., but this game against Morgan is circled on the Coppin calendar - forever.

"Butch has done a tremendous job with his team. He works hard; he makes us a lot better. We're well aware of each other. It's a partnership, but it won't be a partnership [tonight]," Mitchell said.

It's not like a Coppin-Morgan regular-season finale needs any extra juice, but what else could we expect from the two wily ol' coaches? It's March. It's on - even for two 50-something, hard-court warriors who constantly weigh the lofty goal of getting to the Big Dance against the stark reality of running a program in the lowest economic echelon of Division I basketball.

It isn't easy. Mitchell, who also serves as Coppin's athletics director, said the budget for his team is $425,000 - about the same that Kentucky or Connecticut or North Carolina or Texas spends on sneakers. And that's after Mitchell had to trim the men's budget to help an upgrade of the women's program.

"Someone had to take the hit. Might as well be me," he said, figuring he knows how to handle those things.

With 20 years in the NBA as a player, assistant coach and head coach, Beard brings to Morgan State (10-15, 9-8) a fire and agitated drive toward winning that's different from Mitchell's style.

"I don't give them much slack," Beard said. "I'm old school. If I give you a scholarship, I expect a little something back. If I give you a scholarship, that means I believe in you, so I want you to give something back."

Beard and Mitchell are driven. Both push their players hard. But Mitchell is not a gym rat like Beard, whose competitive edge was clearly sharpened during his NBA career. Mitchell said he has gone back to recruiting players who are more like him - who appreciate defense, which he learned from Temple coach and friend John Chaney.

Mitchell, however, has a different tone from Beard and a different perspective, one forged from his days of working in an aluminum factory instead of going to directly to college, of working graveyard shifts while getting his degree at Gloucester Community College in New Jersey, not far from his native Philadelphia.

Two different paths taken to the same place, now Beard and Mitchell want what the other wants. Affirmation that all the sweat and tears are worth it.

Ask Mitchell how long ago 1997 feels, he tells you it feels like another lifetime. That's understandable for a coach who ran off an astounding, 107-11 conference record during the 1990s, then nearly went bust - in the standings and emotionally.

Coppin's win over the Gamecocks in the first round of the '97 NCAA tournament was a career highlight, but Mitchell said there are many other reasons to coach, to work, to teach. Too much importance placed on one game, one tournament, when a successful season or career can be achieved different ways.

"I don't like to think about those types of things," Mitchell said. "To focus on the past is only good for making you understand what you have to do to get there. You don't get any rewards for what was."

Since '97, it has been a lot of tough times, not the least of which was the 2001-02 season, when Mitchell's beloved wife, Yvonne, 56, died of an aneurysm of the aorta. This is the woman who ran into the locker room after Coppin's big tournament win and presented her Bible to one of Mitchell's players. She was a believer - in her husband, too.

"The year she died was an all-time low, but I'm a fighter. I am a winner. We're trying to bring things back from an all-time low a few years ago when we were battling for last place," Mitchell said.

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