At 5 o'clock on a fall morning in 2009, Coppin State University basketball coach Fang Mitchell drove then-sophomore Michael Harper to the hospital for surgery on his wrist. Harper, from Milwaukee, appreciated the show of support — then and now.
When Harper finishes his college career next season for the Eagles, Mitchell will be there for him again, just like Harper would want it.
"If they were bringing in a new coach in my fourth year, it would mean a whole new system, a new personality, a different look on the team," Harper said. "Him not coming back would have been horrible."
After two months of uncertainty, Mitchell is coming back for his 26th season and more. Francine Stokes McElveen, the senior advisor to the president for legal affairs, acknowledged Tuesday that Coppin has given Mitchell a new, three-year contract that will allow the legendary 63-year-old coach to finish his career at the only Division I school he's worked for.
"Definitely, that was my goal," Mitchell said. "When you start something, you really want to finish it. The opportunity to work at Coppin was my main concern. I want to retire here, I want to take care of the young men I brought in. I'm just happy that I have that opportunity."
His job security had been in question since the end of the season. Neither university president Reginald Avery nor athletic director Derrick Ramsey were available to comment Tuesday.
The new contract does not include 35 percent of "guaranteed game money," which Mitchell previously received for playing on the road against elite Division I schools. That was a point of contention at a school that struggled to balance its athletic budget.
The Eagles still will play five guarantee games next fall. Four — against Connecticut, Oklahoma, Illinois and Purdue — are already set.
Mitchell had been under fire for losing records and diminished revenue in recent years, after dominating the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference during the 1990s. Although he had six consecutive losing seasons this decade, he has had just three losing MEAC seasons in 25 years. During that time, he won 10 regular-season titles and advanced to the postseason six times, including four times to the NCAA tournament.
With the addition of several junior college players this season — among them, Antonio Williams, Tony Gallo and Akeem Ellis — Coppin turned a mutinous 8-22 team around to go 16-14 and tie for second place in the MEAC after being picked to finish last. The juco players are happy with the result.
"I'm just glad he stayed," Gallo said. "I like playing for Fang. I wanted to finish my college career with Fang. His system fits the way I like to play. I like his style of coaching, I like him as a person."
Said Williams: "I was a little worried about him not coming back. I basically came here because of him. I wanted to finish what I started."
After losing four scholarships in the NCAA's Academic Progress Rating system (for poor academic performance), Mitchell said he has gotten that side of the program back on track.
"I'm just happy to be here because of my loyalty to Coppin," he said. "I always felt this was the way it should be."