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Features Sections from WYPR including Fraser Smith's Commentary, Inside Maryland Politics and Sports at Large with Milton Kent.

You Won't Meet Another "Fang"

mvongrue via flikr

In case you hadn’t noticed, college athletics is divided in much the same way the retail world is:  there are schools like Maryland in the major conferences, like the Atlantic Coast Conference, soon to be in the Big Ten. Think of them like big grocery stores, where you can get just about everything, from soup and soap to hair nets and meat at the cheapest possible cost.

And then there are schools like Coppin State in the smaller leagues like the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Think of them like the corner butcher, where you get the best pork tenderloin known to man. It cost a little more, but the guy behind the counter has been there for decades. He’s a little gruff, but he feels like a part of the family.

For 28 years, Ron Mitchell was that guy in the little corner store trying to hold on against the big boys at places like Maryland. Mitchell ran the men’s basketball team at Coppin, just like the guy in the butcher shop, with a smidge of cantankerousness, but a lot of care. Mitchell was at Coppin long enough to mold generations of callow youth into young men.

That is, until last Friday, when Mitchell, who is better known by the nickname Fang, was let go by the school. By virtually any objective measure, Coppin’s management had every right to let Mitchell go.

The Eagles finished the 2013-14 season at 12-20, their third straight losing season and the ninth in the last 10 years. In a day and age when two losing seasons can mean unemployment, Mitchell was able to stay on longer than most might have had a reason to expect. Of course, there was a time when under Mitchell, Coppin had 11 straight winning seasons. In 1989, Mitchell took a seemingly overmatched bunch to College Park and beat mighty Maryland. Eight years later, Mitchell’s Eagles flew into the NCAA tournament and beat heavily favored South Carolina, marking one of the few times that a team seeded 15th in their region beat a second seed. Mitchell got into the postseason six times, which just happens to equal the number of times he was named Conference Coach of the Year. Likely to the chagrin of administrators at the West Baltimore school, Mitchell was synonymous with Coppin.

But Mitchell became a victim of his success. At a school like Coppin, where there is no other moneymaking sport to keep the athletic department afloat, Mitchell was often forced to take his team on brutal road trips to big schools, who need little schools to load up their home schedules. More often than not, Mitchell would come back to Baltimore with losses in the record books. But he would also come back with valuable checks for hundreds of thousands of dollars, to help keep the athletic department afloat.

Coppin will surely get a new basketball coach, but basketball coaches are a dime a dozen. But try finding a good local butcher, especially one named Fang. Now, there’s a challenge.