Road of hard knocks

Coppin: Seeking funds and experience, the Eagles travel light, with buses, burgers and blowout losses their companions.

December 24, 2004|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

MARYLAND-PENNSYLVANIA LINE - It is a few minutes past 2 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 19, and the men's basketball team from Coppin State is making its way to Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Fifteen players, four coaches, a trainer, a manager and a publicist are five hours removed from a whipping in Pittsburgh, and 43 away from another in Salt Lake City. They are heading from a shot-and-a-beer town to America's driest big city, but at the moment night life has a different meaning.

This is the third season in four that the Eagles will not play a nonconference game at home, but this slate is more masochistic than normal. There are no tournaments or neutral sites, as all nine tests are on the opponents' floor.

This particular stretch will cover an infinity of bacon cheeseburgers, six days, five airports and a pair of what the late Al McGuire called aircraft carriers, big men for whom Coppin State has no counter. The bottom line will read two losses, an $82,000 boost to the athletic program and a wealth of experience for a young team whose second-leading scorer is all of 17.

Welcome to the other side of Division I basketball, the one Billy Packer and SportsCenter avoid.

Enormous state universities like Maryland occupy the more visible end of that 330-team spectrum, where athletic department budgets approach $70 million and administrative assistants detail the itinerary.

The other end includes a small, historically black institution where there is little revenue from ticket sales, none from TV and radio, and the coach doesn't complain to the athletic director, since they are one and the same.

Spider-Man 2 loses some of its effect on a 9-inch screen, but the sound system is working fine, and the damsel in distress howls of Kirsten Dunst overwhelm the whine of a 54-passenger bus as it skirts Frederick and then Hagerstown. It is a week ago this morning, after the stress of semester exams, and slumbering young men don't stir until Dodgeball is plopped into the DVD player.

Rip Torn, a great character actor, is whipping a bunch of misfits into a team. On cue, Fang Mitchell, one of the great characters in college basketball, responds to a question about Coppin State's schedule with a riff that laments the sorry state of America's soft youth.

"Are you saying something about adversity?" Mitchell answers, in mock horror. "I say that's good, especially in days of a pampered society."

Mitchell is in his 19th season at Coppin State. No other coach in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference is a holdover from the 1990s.

"As the coach, I would prefer to be in a different situation, but I'm also the athletic director, and this is our revenue sport," Mitchell said. "We have to take the brunt of this, for the school. Egos prevent some people from doing this, because winning becomes the most important thing. I can go into a challenging situation and not be hurt, as opposed to coaches who aren't secure in their job."

The endowment at the average Baltimore prep school dwarfs Coppin State's. Its athletic budget is $3 million, and the biggest credit line item is the athletic fees paid by its 3,900 students. The second-biggest is guarantees that the men's basketball team will be paid, which total $415,000 this season.

Pittsburgh and Utah paid Coppin State a combined $100,000 to come to them. The Eagles will watch their expenses, and airfare, four nights lodging, this bus, vans in Salt Lake City and meals will run a little over $18,000.

"It's not just about the money," Mitchell says. "We want our players to get accustomed to this kind of competition. We won't be intimidated later, because we'll be used to playing in a tough atmosphere. We're not going for the paycheck. It might seem that way, with the whippings we took, but that's not the purpose."

Did we eat?

A 60ish doorman at the Pittsburgh Marriott City Center recognizes the name on the blue warm-ups, and a light bulb comes on: "Didn't you beat Arizona here?"

His memory is shaded by the Wildcats' many March flameouts, but he knows the Eagles' lore. Up the hill stands the Mellon Center, where in 1997 they became only the third No. 15 seed to win a game in the NCAA tournament. Coppin State pounded South Carolina, and fell one point shy of beating Texas and going to the Sweet 16.

Reminiscences fill time but not bellies, and the Eagles who had breakfast did so six hours ago. Across the street, Epiphany Catholic Church advertises its Friday Fish Fry, $4 for fried or baked, cabbage, string beans, macaroni and cheese, and sheet cake. It is an economical, healthy use of per diem, especially since dinner will consist of a stop at Wendy's after practice.

"If you eat at Coppin, fast food might be healthy," Henry Colter says. "Nobody wants to eat at the school cafeteria."

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