Coppin State coach Ron "Fang" Mitchell yells instructions… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth…)
Endings are usually bittersweet, often unwelcomed and sometimes contentious.
That might best describe the potential end of Ron "Fang" Mitchell's 25-year basketball stewardship at Coppin State University. If this is his farewell script, it will not be a good one for the man who built a dominating Division I program in West Baltimore in the 1990s, only to see it sputter and stall in the last decade.
Mitchell's departure this year is not certain. But his contract expires at the end of the season, the athletic director says he hasn't made a decision to retain — or remove — the coach, and Mitchell himself speaks only in cryptic phrases, if at all, about his job status.
"I'm focused in on the team," he said recently. "These kids came here to win a championship and that's what I want to do."
Moments later, in a bass voice that sounds as if it came from the bottom of a gravel pit, Mitchell put the subject on hold — for now.
"It's back to what I said before: I will have further statements later, OK? But I just don't think it's fair to have statements of that nature with our athletes not even aware of anything going on," he said.
This much is known at this point:
Mitchell, who turned 63 in February, is on the verge of pulling off a stunning resurgence in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, where the Eagles are 10-5 this season going into Thursday night's regular-season finale against Morgan State. He has, in one year, put together a young team — Coppin has only two seniors and eight new players — that is deep in scorers and long on talent. He wants to continue to coach, at least into the foreseeable future.
Derrick Ramsey, meanwhile, is the third-year athletic director — and former NFL tight end — who wants to elevate Coppin's athletic profile across the board while raising its academic success. As for basketball, Ramsey envisions a program that will win 20 games and compete for an NCAA tournament bid every season.
"Maybe my expectations are unrealistic, but I don't necessarily think so," Ramsey said. "I think when you demand things and you expect to be at a very, very high level, it's almost like shooting for the stars. And if you hit the moon, you're still OK."
While the athletic director complimented Mitchell several times in the course of a recent interview, he stopped short of saying the coach would return next season.
"I'll sit down with coach after the season and we'll do what's best for both Coach Mitchell and what's best for Coppin State University," Ramsey said. "Coach Mitchell has been the face of this program for 25 years and has done an absolutely incredible job of putting this university on the map nationally."
Still, Mitchell said he has not talked to Ramsey this season about his contract or his future. And his cautious demeanor suggests a coach whose job is in jeopardy.
Point guard Vince Goldsberry, one of two seniors, said he has had a conversation with Mitchell about the situation. "I'm pretty sure the whole team is aware of it," Goldsberry said.
"I think he'll still be here. He's a great coach. There's no reason for him not to be here, unless he doesn't want to be."
A lost decade
The case for Mitchell coming back is one built on his golden decade. Coppin has won 10 regular-season championships in the MEAC and made four NCAA tourney appearances under Mitchell. He is a six-time MEAC coach of the year. He has won 394 games at Coppin and 620 overall, including an eight-year reign at Gloucester (N.J.) County College.
The Eagles so dominated the MEAC in the '90s that they lost only six regular-season games over a period of seven years (1992-98). In that span, they won 32 consecutive MEAC games and 54 of 55.
The case against Mitchell is the school's long, humbling slide into mediocrity. The Eagles are 15-13 this season and have halted a string of six straight losing seasons. They had endured four 20-or-more loss seasons in the past 10 years, including an 8-22 campaign in 2009-10.
Last year's team was wracked with turmoil and dissension. Players questioned Mitchell's authority and coaching methods. The team never bonded and couldn't win.
Five underclassmen that were eligible to return from that team did not come back this season. Mitchell replaced those with a collection of junior college players and freshmen who were willing to work — with equal success — both on the court and in the classroom.
"I had to find people that love the game more than in the past," Mitchell said. "Last year's team, I truly thought, was talented, OK? We needed to do attitude adjustments, and some things happened that didn't help the attitudes. We just proceeded in doing what we had to do to get through that season."
Goldsberry, who was attracted to Coppin because of Mitchell, could see the contrarian forces playing out against his old-school coach.