Trains, Planes, Automobiles, and Hoops

By Dick Jerardi
Updated: December 31, 2008

PHILADELPHIA — Airports, hotels, buses, big arenas, losses.

It is the way of Coppin State every November, December and early January. The Eagles leave Baltimore early in the season and stop back occasionally to get clean clothes and handle schoolwork.

In the have-and-have-not world of college basketball, Coppin is not a “have,” unless you count the experience, the money and the preparation for its MEAC season.

Coppin is not unique in being an “opponent.” The Eagles, however, have made it into an art form.

“If you pay, we will play,” Coppin coach Ron “Fang” Mitchell said.

Mitchell was speaking from Hawaii on Saturday, where he has taken his Coppin team for three consecutive seasons. Who else does that?

Typically, Mitchell said, “opponents” get between $30,000 and $100,000 per game. The guaranteed money, upward of $500,000 per season, goes into Coppin’s athletic department budget, not the men’s basketball program.

“My recruiting budget is still $12,000 a year,” Mitchell said.

In 2007, Coppin’s entire men’s basketball operating expenses totaled $181,811; Kentucky’s was $2.2 million. They are both in Division I.

Through the years, Mitchell has developed very good negotiating skills. What schools are willing to pay, Mitchell said, “depends on how desperate they are.”

The big boys, Mitchell said, “know who I am,” and how he can be reached.

“I’m known across the country,” he said. “They will call me in the end if they need a game.”

This season, the Eagles have played at Purdue, Kansas, Dayton, Wisconsin and Syracuse. After they get back from Hawaii, they will go to Oklahoma and Missouri.

Last season, it was Arizona, Ohio State, Marquette and Indiana, among others. In 2005, they played, in succession, at Clemson, Xavier, UCLA, Oklahoma, Illinois, Pittsburgh, Michigan and Michigan State.

There was the night game at Marquette, followed the next day by the noon game at Indiana. That, Mitchell said, was not supposed to happen. “That was a rough one,” he said.

Mitchell has been told the chance of winning in these “buy” games is “2 percent.”

Coppin has won a few, and when it does, Mitchell’s phone number gets misplaced. It won down the road at Maryland in 1989.

“We haven’t played them since,” Mitchell said. “We beat LSU and never played them again.”

When he took the Coppin job 23 years ago, Mitchell’s mentor, John Chaney, told him to play anybody, anywhere, anytime. He absolutely has done that.

Coppin (2-10, after Tuesday’s 59-53 win at George Washington) just finished playing in the Rainbow Classic, where it finished seventh. At least it was not playing on somebody’s home court. It was not playing teams with comparable budgets, however.

Hawaii was “desperate” for a game last season. Mitchell got the call and he parlayed that game into the Rainbow Classic as well, the third straight trip to paradise.

“I don’t know many teams that can get that done,” Mitchell said.

Lost in the early season losing is the fact that Mitchell has been a very good coach for a very long time. He has won 360 games at Coppin, 587 overall going back to his days at Gloucester County (N.J.) College. In the 1990s, his teams went 107-11 in the MEAC regular season.

Under Mitchell, Coppin has been to four NCAA Tournaments and the NIT twice. In 1997, his No. 15 seed beat South Carolina in the first round and lost to Texas by a point in the second round.

Last season was classic Coppin. The Eagles were 4-19 on Feb. 2, won 12 of their next 13, including the MEAC Tournament (winning the four games by one point, one point, two points and two points behind the brilliant play of Bartram High’s Tywain McKee) and got into the NCAA with 20 losses.

“Somebody was complaining that you were the first to lose 20 games and win the tournament,” Mitchell said. “I said. ‘And . . . what do I care?’ I’ll lose 30 if I get to the tournament.”

Before Hawaii, Coppin was in Madison, Wis., in the cold and snow. The Eagles got stranded in Chicago (minus-20 wind chill) on the way to Syracuse. They eventually got back to Baltimore and arrived in Syracuse during a blizzard 5 hours before the Dec. 23 game. The Eagles lost, 82-71. McKee had 31 points, nine rebounds, six steals and five assists against 13-1 Syracuse.

After that trip, “Hawaii looks real good right now,” Mitchell said.