Most college basketball coaches would not have survived the string of losing seasons Coppin State's Ron “Fang” Mitchell had over the last decade of his career. Then again, most coaches had not accomplished nearly as much as Mitchell did in taking the little North Avenue school to national acclaim.
Mitchell's 28-year tenure at Coppin State — after legendary Mount St. Mary's coach Jim Phelan, the longest ever among men's basketball coaches at Division I schools in Maryland — ended Friday when his contract was not renewed. The Eagles finished 12-20 this season, their third straight losing record and ninth in the past 10 years.
“It's tough in the fact that Coach has done so much for this institution,” athletic director Derrick Ramsey said. “He's been a pillar here at this institution for a lot of years. When you look back at the last 10 years, when we've had only one winning season, obviously something had to be done. I've had to remove coaches before, but this is extremely hard because of his tenure here and all that he meant.”
Most also will remember Mitchell's 11 straight winning seasons between 1988 and 1999 and his teams that reached the NCAA tournament four times and the National Invitation Tournament twice; beat Maryland at Cole Field House in Gary Williams' first season, in 1989; and upset second-seeded South Carolina in the 1997 NCAA tournament. Mitchell was named Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference coach of the year six times.
“He put Coppin State on the map,” said Williams, whose relationship with Mitchell dates to their formative coaching years in South Jersey.
The news of Mitchell's dismissal was met with a mixture of sadness and reality by one of his former players.
“I'm shocked, on one hand, but I kind of understand because they hadn't won in the last couple of years,” said Kareem Lewis, who played on the Eagles team that beat South Carolina, 78-65. “I can't imagine Coppin without Fang.”
Mitchell, whose tenure at Coppin State ends with a 429-417 overall record, said he was told of his firing last week after meeting with Ramsey and first-year school president Mortimer H. Neufville. But Mitchell said in an interview that he still had not received a letter outlining the reasons for his dismissal.
Mitchell said that after he signed his last contract, a three-year deal, in 2011, Ramsey told him the program needed to bring in $600,000 annually from the “guarantee games” the Eagles agreed to play at some of the nation's top programs, including Michigan this season.
Mitchell also knew his team's academic performance had to improve. Coppin State in 2011 lost four scholarships for failing to reach the NCAA-mandated minimum score Academic Progress Rate, which measures players' paths toward graduation.
Mitchell said eight players have graduated since the 2011-12 season, and five more are on schedule to graduate this spring.
The combination of a tough nonconference schedule, which this season included a road victory over Oregon State, and his players' diminished production on the court, if not in the classrom, conspired against his own coaching future.
Told that Ramsey had pointed to a long stretch of losing as the reason for his decision, Mitchell said: “This is the end of a three-year contract, and he's going back 10 years. The bottom line to me [is] I know it's not the academics; we're doing exceptional in that area.
“It's as simple as it can be. If you mandate that I bring in $600,000 a year, that's a lot of guarantee games. This year, we played nine, and the chances of winning those games are slim and none. If you start off 0-8 or 0-9, it's hard to develop a winning trend. He wants a winning team. I do, too.”
Coppin State, which lost to local rival Morgan State in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament semifinals, will return five players who started at least 11 games this season and lose only three players from a roster of 15. There were eight newcomers on this year's team.
“We did some good things this year,” said Mitchell, a Coppin State alumnus. “It's not like we weren't competitive. … The bottom line to me is graduating the kids. That's why I'm really proud of who we are. I might have been bringing in the wrong kid prior. Maybe I needed to bring in the kid who really and truly wanted to graduate, so when you do that, you become less competitive.”
Mitchell, 65, said he is not ready to stop coaching or about to change a tough-love approach.
”I'm still the same guy: If you don't follow rules, there's some kind of conseqences,” he said with his trademark deep-voiced chuckle.
That has been Mitchell's approach since he was a volunteer assistant coach at Woodrow Wilson High in Camden, N.J., helping out a brand-new junior varsity coach fresh out of the University of Maryland. Williams often has credited Mitchell for his early success.
“He was one of those people in East Camden who really cared about the kids on the team. It wasn't just about basketball,” Williams recalled Friday. “When I became the varsity coach, all those kids were eligible for college. Fang and the community were as proud of that as they were of the state championship.”
Mitchell, whose nickname came from a deep-, scratchy-voiced character named White Fang on the 1960s television show “The Soupy Sales Show,” got his message across to high school players the same way he did for nearly three decades at Coppin State.
“He was tough on the players, but in a good way,” Williams said. “He took kids that needed some structure and made them a good basketball team. That carries after you quit playing ball. You have that structure when you go out and get a job. Fang did a really good job with that.”
After coaching at Gloucester (N.J.) County Community College for eight seasons, Mitchell was hired at Coppin State in 1986. One of the players he brought with him, Phil Booth, said Mitchell was a lot more than a coach to most of the team.
“He took a lot of us from the inner city and he pretty much raised us,” said Booth, who lives in Howard County. “When my son [Mount St. Joseph senior and Villanova signee Phil Booth Jr.] was going through the recruiting process, I met some pretty famous coaches. Everyone knew about Fang.”
Booth said Mitchell's formula for helping to fund the athletic department by playing for large financial guarantees also fueled his players.
“He created an atmosphere that you could go on the road and beat these big-name schools,” Booth said. “It wasn't just in the [NCAA] tournament. We knew from December to the end of January, we would go on two-week trips and play some of the best teams in the country. He wanted to win those games.”
Larry Stewart credits Mitchell with not only getting him to college but also for a 17-year professional career, including the first five in the NBA. When he arrived at Coppin State in 1988, Stewart had played just two years of organized basketball.
“I owe him a heck of a lot,” said Stewart, now the associate head coach at Bowie State. “I've been blessed to be around some very coaches, and Fang was one of them. … Fang was the one who put me on the right path. He showed me that you had to work as hard as you can and not take anything for granted. I owe Fang a tremenous amount. I learned how to work hard from Fang.”
Hundreds of other Coppin State players did as well. Among local college basketball coaches, only Phelan spent more time at the same school, coaching at Mount St. Mary's for 49 seasons. In the same time span that Mitchell was at Coppin State, Loyola Maryland had eight different coaches. Morgan State and Towson each had five.
Ramsey declined to speculate about potential candidates to replace Mitchell, but said he hoped to make the hire by “the third week of April.” Among possible candidates are Stewart; current Maryland assistant Bino Ranson; and former Maryland star and assistant Keith Booth, now an assistant at Loyola. Ranson and Keith Booth are Baltimore natives.
The priority, Ramsey said, is to find a coach who will be able to keep the local talent at home, as former Loyola coach Jimmy Patsos did in turning around the Greyhounds' program.
“I don't have a person [in mind] right now, but I certainly want to play up-tempo basketball. But more importantly, what I want to do, whomever the new coach is, we're going to start right here in Baltimore,” Ramsey said. “Everyone comes here to get talent. We're going to start here.”