Two weeks before walking into Cole Field House for its first-ever game against Maryland, the Coppin State men’s basketball team beat Creighton in the home team’s 1989-90 season opener in Omaha. A week after that, the Eagles took care of Toledo on its home court as well.
So when coach Ron “Fang” Mitchell and his players arrived in College Park on that snowy night in mid-December, they weren’t as intimidated as some might have thought. Impressed, perhaps, by the historic venue, but not overwhelmed by their big-name, in-state opponent.
“At that time, we were on kind of a high,” recalled Phil Booth Sr., then the team’s senior leader who had been the first player Mitchell brought with him from Gloucester County Community College in South Jersey after being hired at Coppin State three years earlier. “We felt really good about ourselves.”
The Eagles, who will finally make it back to Maryland for a rematch on Friday, were still an unknown commodity. Mitchell, whose relationship with then first-year Maryland coach Gary Williams dated back to when Williams was a fresh-out-of-college high school coach in Camden, N.J., was misidentified as “Rod” in a Washington Post story that followed the game.
Some Maryland students asked where “Choppin State” was.
“When we got to Maryland, it was funny. They had no clue where Coppin was even though we were 45 minutes away,” Booth said. “We were a pretty confident bunch going into that game.”
Larry Stewart, the team’s rugged junior center, said the confidence also came from the summer leagues he and some of his fellow Philadelphians on the team faced back home.
“The crew that we had, we were used to playing against tough competition. We grew up playing in the Sonny Hill League and we were used to playing guys in the pros, guys like Hank Gathers, Bo Kimble, Lionel Simmons, Pooh Richardson,” said Stewart, now in his first season as an assistant with the Morgan State men’s basketball team. “We were used to playing against guys that were considered on a higher level than us.”
The Terps, with a roster that included future NBA players Walt Williams, Jerrod Mustaf and Tony Massenburg, got a fast and rude introduction from the Eagles, who stormed out to a 39-25 lead at halftime. It didn’t help Maryland that Walt Williams, who would become one of the ACC’s most prolific scorers as a senior two years later, picked up three early fouls.
Stewart credits sophomore Reggie Isaac, then a 6-6 shooting guard in the second year of what became a nearly 2,000-point career in three seasons at Coppin State, with getting the Eagles off to a flying start.
“A lot of people thought I was the key,” Stewart said. “Reggie got us off to a great start. Once that happened, we knew that they were going to be in for a long night. We were just motivated. They didn’t know where Coppin was, and said we only had a girls team. We used that as motivation, seeing that this could really put us on the map in Baltimore.”
Though Maryland came back behind a barrage of 3-point shots by Teyon McCoy in the second half and eventually took a one-point with 2:35 remaining, Coppin State didn’t buckle. The Eagles wound up making nine of their last 10 free throws to win. Isaac, who once scored 84 points in a Philadelphia high school game, led all scorers with 26 points, including six 3-pointers.
“We really were up most of the game, it wasn’t that close until late when they made a run,” said Booth, whose son Phil Jr. would become a two-time national champion at Villanova. “From start to finish, which I recollect, we pretty much controlled the game. We had a great crowd that came [from Coppin State]. We felt pretty much at home.”
There was a lot of celebrating both at Cole Field House and back on the West Baltimore campus for Coppin State later that night — and for days to come.
“Today was just another game to me, but to the community and to the players it meant a lot,” Mitchell said that night. “Winning in Cole Field House, we won’t be a mystery team anymore, even in Baltimore.”
It was the first of many signature wins for Mitchell in his legendary 28-year career at Coppin State, the biggest coming as a No. 15 seed over No. 2 seed South Carolina in the 1997 NCAA tournament (Mitchell’s challenges building Coopin State and earning that signature win are chronicled in the Andscape documentary On & Coppin.)
Walt Williams and Mustaf, the team’s leading scorer as a sophomore that season, summed up the feeling of the Terps.
“There’s a sour taste in our mouth after that game,” Wiliams said in On & Coppin. “You realize this is a team from Baltimore, the same state that you’re in, a smaller school. You might say we underestimated them. They came in here and they whipped our butts, plain and simple as that.”
“This is totally embarrassing,” Mustaf said in the lockerroom. “All I thought about Coppin State is that they had a girls team.”
Interestingly, the Eagles couldn’t build immediately on their success. Two nights after beating the Terps, Coppin State lost on the road to another in-state team, the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, 79-73.
Maryland had a chance to redeem itself 12 days later and thousands of miles away in a tournament in Hawaii, with a possible rematch with Coppin State scheduled for the championship game. The Terps did their part, beating George Mason and East Tennessee State. The Eagles didn’t.
After enjoying the nearby beach on Waikiki, tooling around Honolulu on motor scooters and not being able to get much court time to practice, Coppin State lost its opener to Sacramento State, which wound up losing to Maryland in the final. The Eagles would also lose subsequent games in Hawaii to George Mason and Cornell.
Following his team’s opening-round loss, Mitchell didn’t allow reporters into the locker room for nearly an hour as he yelled at his players, his basso profundo voice scorching its walls.
“Fang was furious,” said Booth. “We already had a letdown, we had lost to UMBC. We had beaten Maryland. Everybody thought we’d meet them in the championship [in Hawaii] and we lost to Sacramento State. I thought he [Mitchell] got panicky, too. He felt the pressure.”
Except for the games, Booth said with a laugh, “We had a ball in Hawaii.”
Stewart said the losing streak in Hawaii helped refocus the team en route to a 26-7 record, including regular season and post-season MEAC titles, and the first of four NCAA tournament bids under Mitchell.
“It was an eye opener, you have to realize that a lot of us had never been in a place like that, a lot of our guys had never been out of the United States,” Stewart said. “It kind of woke us up and got us back on track.”
Maryland was more competitive in the ACC than many expected — sweeping North Carolina and going a respectable 7-9 in Williams’ first season back at his alma mater — but ultimately was relegated to the NIT. Many, including Gary Williams, believed the Terps were being punished because of the NCAA sanctions announced toward the end of a 19-win regular season.
Gary Williams recalls the tumult surrounding the Maryland program he had inherited from Bob Wade, who had replaced Lefty Driesell after the death of superstar Len Bias in 1986 and was fired after three seasons amid allegations of NCAA infractions. The Terps had NCAA investigators on campus for months and would be hit with penalties that all but derailed the program for the next three years or longer.
“You know me, I never make excuses, but that year was the most unique year I’ve ever had coaching because guys were taken out of practice to talk to lawyers on both sides [the NCAA and the university],” Gary Williams recalled last week. “We very rarely had all our guys at practice. There was infighting at the school at the president level, at the AD level, all those things going on. I probably didn’t do a good job preparing for that game. That was a talented Coppin team.”
The Terps would not lose another non-conference home game for 13 years — the nation’s longest streak of its kind ended 87 games later against No. 14 Florida, a few months before Maryland won the 2002 national championship. Sadly for Coppin State, despite the relationship between Gary Williams and Mitchell, the Terps never scheduled the Eagles again until earlier this year.
“Everybody else was getting a call, why couldn’t I get a call?” Mitchell asked years later, in On & Coppin, only half kidding. ”But it just didn’t work out. That was a tribute to the team.”
And to what happened in College Park on a cold, snowy night in December of 1989.
Don Markus covered college sports at The Baltimore Sun, where he was on staff for 35 years. He is the author of “100 Things Maryland Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die” and was a producer for the podcast series “Len Bias: A Mixed Legacy.”