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Dick Jerardi: Coppin State finds success on the road

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.

Coppin State coach Ron 'Fang' Mitchell knows all about playing on the road. Coppin is a popular opponent for big-time teams.
Coppin State coach Ron 'Fang' Mitchell knows all about playing on the road. Coppin is a popular opponent for big-time teams.Read moreAssociated Press

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 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference 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 yesterday'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.

The Davidson story

Check out "Taking The Shot" by Michael Kruse. It is the story of Davidson's run to within a made three of the 2008 Final Four. Don't, however, go looking for play-by-play or statistics.

This book is about why those March moments meant so much to so many. And it is eloquent in the explaining.

There is a history to Davidson basketball and to the institution itself that few know still. Read this book and you will know.

There are the players, the coaches, the fans, the faculty, the alumni and just people who got caught up in the moment.

A Davidson alum and talented writer with just the right amount of passion and perspective, Kruse puts the readers in the gyms, in the huddles and in the minds of everybody, from star Stephen Curry to coach Bob McKillop.

McKillop went to Davidson 20 years ago for the wrong reasons and stayed for the right reasons. Like so many other young coaches, he looked at Davidson as his steppingstone to the big time. Countless losses later, the coach got some perspective that so many in his profession never get. It wasn't, McKillop found out, about him. It was about them. It wasn't about the wins. It was about the journey.

When the coach finally understood that, his team started to win. It was not a coincidence.

Getting Curry to come to the small school outside Charlotte certainly helped, but Davidson was already a winning program by then. Curry just took them places they had never been, places you will share while reading this book.

This and that

* James Harden, from Arizona State, has not entered the Player of the Year discussion yet, but he should. The sophomore is putting up some incredible numbers for the Sun Devils. He is not only efficient, he is versatile.

Harden averages 23.8 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.3 assists. He shoots 57.8 percent overall, 46.2 percent from the arc and 79.0 percent from the foul line. He averages an incredible 1.85 points per shot, taking efficiency to a whole new level.

* In the city, the efficiency discussion is over. Saint Joseph's Ahmad Nivins shoots 69.4 percent from the field, 78.9 from the line, averages a double-double (19.1 points, 10.6 rebounds) and is even outdoing Harden in overall efficiency, averaging 1.94 points per shot.

St. Joe's (5-6) has so far wasted Nivins' historic season with three come-from-ahead losses (Holy Cross, Villanova, Siena).

* And this from my friend Vince Curran, the Penn radio color analyst. In Orlando, for Penn's two games in the UCF Holiday Classic, he witnessed this classic line Monday from Chicago State's 5-8 David Holston against Campbell - 40 points, 10 assists and 10 turnovers. Holston, by the way, is the nation's second-leading scorer (27.8 points). Only Davidson's Stephen Curry scores more.

* BYU has won 53 straight at home. That streak will be tested Saturday when unbeaten Wake Forest comes to Provo, Utah.

* Notre Dame's home streak (43 in a row) also could be in jeopardy Monday when Georgetown comes to South Bend, Ind.