An NCAA tournament de force performance – Coppin State College - Higher Education

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An NCAA tournament de force performance – Coppin State College

by Charles S. Farrell

It was as shocking as it was improbable. As a result,
some are calling Coppin State College’s dramatic win
over the University of South Carolina in the National
Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Basketball
Tournament the single most significant victory in the history
of sports at historically Black colleges and universities
(HBCUs).

It was the first time in tournament history that a team
from the Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference (MEAC) had won
a game. It was only the third time in tournament history that a
fifteenth-seed heat a second-seed. And Coppin’s one-point
loss to Texas in the second round of the tournament proved
the Eagles victory was no fluke. But the games were so much
more than that.

“I knew it was more than just a win,” Coppin State
Coach Ron “Fang” Mitchell said of the 78-65 pasting of
South Carolina. “I know what it symbolized and what it
means for the future.”
Mitchell knew his squad was up against a team ranked
sixth in the nation going into the tournament–a team that
had beaten defending NCAA champion Kentucky twice
during the season, including once on Kentucky’s home court.
He knew his Eagles were 17-point underdogs.

“What I liked when we won it was the poise that we
showed in dismantling the sixth-ranked team before a national
audience,” he said. “Here was a little commuter
school of 3,500 in the city of Baltimore, with nine or ten
buildings. It says a lot to the country that `Here we are doing
a lot with a little.’ We’re [considered] inferior to most people.
For an inferior team to do so well says a lot for a Black
college.”

Even the loss to Texas was a positive, Mitchell said.
“For us to come back and play the way we played again is
not surprising to me, but it further showcased a tiny Black
school to the nation. It promotes to the nation who we are
and what we can do.”

Visibility Raised

By the time Coppin played Texas, a legion of new
fans–both at the Pittsburgh arena, where the game was
played, and across the nation–were cheering for the Eagles.
“It was good to see the total country–white, Black.
Latino, Asian, everybody-rooting for a historically Black
school,” Mitchell said. “That in itself says a lot.”

A week after the dramatic victory, Mitchell and Coppin
State were still soaking up the deluge of attention. The coach
received interview requests from all over the country as
people eagerly- expressed the desire to learn more about him,
about Coppin State, located in Baltimore, Maryland, and
about Black colleges in general.
Said Mitchell: “This has raised the
visibility of all Black colleges.”

That significance is not lost on MEAC
Commissioners Charles Harris, who
acknowledged that Coppin State’s feat “says
volumes in a lot of ways. What it becomes its
not just the milestone [that] it is…. It is a
benchmark for the other historically Black’
colleges to really evaluate our programs: `If
Coppin can do it, why can’t we do it? That.
in longer terms, becomes the most significant
component of this.”

Because the game was seen on national
television, Harris considered the victory a
huge plus, saying, “Here was an opportunity
for everybody to see a program that
represents a lot of programs, doing well.’
But as important as the triumph over
South Carolina was, Harris said he believes
that the way the Texas game played out had
its own significance. The Eagles were down
by a point with 4.2 seconds left in the game
and had possession of the hall, only to have
the inbound pass stolen.

Merchandising Potential

“The shot wasn’t taken,” Harris said.
“The shot goes in and Coppin plays
Louisville. If it doesn’t, maybe there still would
have been time for one more shot. But this was
not a shot taken. It adds to the lore. It is an ideal
place [for athletic departments of HBCUs] to be,
provided I we can capitalize.”
For Harris, Mitchell and others,
capitalizing on success includes the marketing
of merchandise from Coppin State and other
HBCUs.

“The next step is to work with vendors on
additional products that can be sold,” said
Harris. “We have the ability to convert to
licensing more materials, which converts to more
royalties…. It leads to scheduling
opportunities–not just for Coppin,
but for the MEAC.”
Indeed, Coppin fever spread so quickly
during the tournament that all school
paraphernalia that was available in the
Pittsburgh area was quickly bought up. One
fan sold the T-shirt off his back for $50 and a
man from Pittsburgh drove to Baltimore to
purchase $500 worth of Coppin
State-emblazoned merchandise.

“I’m already calling licensing companies,”
said Mitchell, who also doubles as Coppin
State’s athletics director. “I don’t
know much about it, but I know I need to do
it.”
Presumably, the MEAC’s good fortunes
will rub off on the Southwestern Athletic
Conference (SWAC). The two organizations
are the only athletic conferences in NCAA
Division I that are comprised of HBCUs. The
SWAC sent Jackson State University to the
tournament, where it lost in the first round to
top-seeded Kansas.

SWAC commissioner James Frank said
that Coppin State’s success proved that, “We
belong there. Our best teams get to the
NCAA tournament, and while there are
not usually upsets, we can compete. We can
give good showing. I think we’re going to get
better and better and the time will come when
it will not be a rarity to advance to the second
round. We do play good basketball at
historically Black colleges. The teams that
represent the conferences,…represent [them]
well at the Big Dance.”

A Recruitment Asset

According to Frank, future success will
depend on solid recruiting by Black
colleges. And one way to improve recruitment
efforts is by being able to use the lure of
television.
“Victories like [Coppin State’s] and the
visibility of playing in the sixty-four-team
tournament has to help with recruiting,” said
Frank. “We know that top Black athletes go to
top schools because they appear on TV any
number of times. Now, our schools can say
we have a chance too.”
Another recruitment lure for many
athletic programs has been access to the
professional ranks.

“They say our kids don’t get to the pros,
but we know scouts do come to our games,”
said Frank. “It is a tool we can [now] use
against the larger schools that [have been using
it] against us.”
Competition, however, remains
paramount in recruitment.

“You’ve got to do it on the court,” said
Frank. “In order to do that, Black schools
have to get more of the top athletes. What
is not going to change in general is the manner
of selecting [the sixty-four] teams to be in the
[tournament]. In order to get more teams in
there, we have to have more schools in our
conferences compete successfully in
non-conference schedules with other schools.”

Howard University Coach Mike McLeese
agrees that HBCUs must win the recruiting
wars in order to have future success in the
NCAA tournament. He sees the performance
of Coppin State in this year’s tournament as
an aid in that battle.

Howard is also a member of the MEAC.
“The victory over South Carolina was
great,” he said, “But more important was the
way they played in the second round against
Texas. That proved that they were not a
fluke, that they belonged. It gave credibility to
our conference and Black college basketball
and let folk know that we play a pretty good
brand of basketball. A lot of teams from so
called power conferences went out in the first
round, so the parity is there.”

Howard–which is also a member of
the MEAC and, as a result, plays Coppin
State at least twice a year–has already
received some encouraging fallout from its
rival’s stunning victory. The father of a recruit
who had been impressed with the level of
Howard’s play during the season recently
asked who had won the MEAC tournament.
Informed that it was Coppin State, the father
said he hadn’t realized Howard was in the
same conference.

“He said, `You really do have a
competitive conference”‘ McLeese said. “Like
most people, he thought the MEAC was
playground basketball.”
To another recruit who saw Coppin State
top South Carolina, McLeese explained, “Our
conference champion gets an automatic bid to
the NCAA Tournament. Coppin was our
representative. You saw what they did? That
can be us if you come to Howard.”

But Black colleges need more money for
recruiting if they are to become consistently
successful, McLeese and others warn.
We need funds to get out and recruit, to
bring in the solid student athletes,” McLeese
said. “We need [a] serious television package
so that people will not ask, `Where’s Coppin?’
or `What is the MEAC?’ We need to market
our product, and historically Black colleges
have enough alums and the power to get it
done.”

Harris agreed, saying, “The name of the
game in recruiting is who do you play and have I
seen you? We do have a unique opportunity
now, and have six months to build on Coppin’s
fame. The name of the game is go out and peddle
your product. Coppin may not be a household
name, but [because of] fifteen minutes of fame,
we can talk television and marketing and
scheduling about a team we don’t need to
introduce. “

Quality Coaching at HBCUs

Mitchell gives an impression of
practicality when discussing the future–both
Coppin State’s and his own.
“A whole business concept has to be
done,” he said, “and it has to be done in a
better manner. I’m a basketball coach but I am
also a businessman. I understand I have to
take this triumph and turn it into money and
put the money into places that give us more
visibility. Recruiting better players puts us on
radio and television. Any concept that
generates money; if you [don’t] have [such a
concept], you have a problem. We have to
take advantage of this. Right now I’m
accepting every speaking invitation. I’m tired
right now, [but] there is a bigger picture. It is
not about me.”

But others who have long touted
Mitchell’s coaching ability believe he can
personally benefit, if he wants to. Few
coaches at HBCUs have gone on to coach at
predominantly white institutions, but there
are many who feel that Mitchell is primely
positioned for such a move. And if he is not
interested, many believe that his performance
and reputation could inspire predominantly
white institutions to
consider other coaches from the ranks of the
HBCUs.

Ruby Washington, executive director of
the Black Coaches Association, wants to
downplay all the emphasis on Coppin State’s
historic victory, because it sounds like they
couldn’t get it done before. But it certainly
tells people that we have quality coaching at
historically Black colleges. We’re starting to
see a trend I predicted a few years ago and
that is more Black athletes seeking out Black
schools.”

The economic impact of such a trend
could be tremendous, Washington said,
foreseeing a day when Black colleges get the
best athletic talent and the two Black
conferences send teams to the NCAA Final
Four.

“Needless to say, each will get a million
dollars. But they’ll [also] get national
exposure, and see attendance rates and
application rates go up. [Coppin State’s
tournament success] is a hell of a lot more
than just a win itself. It gives the conference,
schools and coaches exposure. I just hope
Coppin will put itself in a position to keep
Fang. Only a few have gone on from
historically Black colleges, but maybe this will
change the mentality that inferiority takes
place at Black colleges,” Washington said.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates



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