By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 13, 2005
B rian Chesnut calls the death of his grandfather the most painful event of his 19-year-old life, a trauma he said molded him into a stronger person. The Coppin State freshman plans to draw on that experience as he approaches what he anticipates will be his second-greatest ordeal: the Eagles' nonconference schedule.
There are grueling schedules, which Coppin State Coach Ron "Fang" Mitchell assembles annually, and then there is this season's lineup, so barbed with obstacles that some coaches tabbed it "insane" and "scary." Today, when the Eagles play Charlotte in the BCA Invitational in Laramie, Wyo., they begin a two-month journey no men's basketball team has attempted in recent memory.
By the time Coppin State plays its first home game Jan. 14, the Eagles will have played 14 road games, including nine against schools from traditionally powerful conferences. When New Year's arrives, they will already have logged 17,820 air miles. Coach Tom Izzo, whose Michigan State team hosts Coppin State on Dec. 31, called it the toughest nonconference schedule he has ever seen.
"Are you kidding me?" Izzo said after a reporter recited the 11 nonconference games. "I'd rather play the Lakers and Celtics because at least you get a home [game]. Wow, that is insane. . . . I'm not sure you are ever good enough to handle the kind of schedule you just gave me. I'd like to see how the Lakers would do with that schedule."
Coppin State, a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference school in Baltimore, has a team composed of 11 freshmen or sophomores and no seniors. Its only hope to reach the NCAA tournament, which it has done three times under Mitchell, is to win the MEAC tournament, the most important week of its season.
One reason Mitchell amassed such a schedule is to foster fearlessness in players for the postseason. Another reason, he acknowledged, is financial. Low- and mid-major programs typically help support their athletic budgets by playing road games in return for tens of thousands of dollars from more successful host schools.
Mitchell, who is also the school's athletic director, said Coppin State will receive almost $500,000 in guaranteed money this season, a sizeable amount for an athletic department with a budget of just more than $3 million. The largest single payout, he said, is roughly $65,000.
Mitchell, 57, said he also receives a percentage of the money in lieu of an athletic director's salary; he declined to divulge the percentage. Both Izzo and Coach Ben Betts, whose South Carolina State team competes in the MEAC, said it is somewhat common for coaches at low- and mid-major programs to receive a portion of the money for guaranteed games even when they aren't in a dual role like Mitchell.
"I'm dealing with young people," Mitchell said. "I'm dealing with motivation. I don't need to get into confrontations on why I am doing things, if you understand what I mean. We're doing things for the reason of trying to toughen them up."
Mitchell, entering his 20th season at Coppin State, acknowledged he couldn't afford to construct such a schedule if job security was an issue. "The athletic director is a real good friend of mine," he joked.
Many coaches at the low- and mid-major level wouldn't consider putting together a schedule that almost certainly will result in at least 10 losses before conference play begins.
"You've got to get wins," Loyola Coach Jimmy Patsos said. "If you don't win, you get fired. They'll still fire me at Loyola if we don't win."
To a man, Coppin State players treat their schedule as a badge of honor and are enthused about playing teams that they have watched on television for years. Some, including Chesnut and freshman Chuckie Ivey, said the schedule was a prime reason why they committed to Coppin State.
To visualize the possibilities, players can merely walk into their coach's office and glance at the walls, which are adorned with framed photos of Coppin State's 1997 team. That year, the 15th-seeded Eagles upset second-seeded South Carolina in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
In the spirit of that '97 team, several Coppin State players said every game on their schedule is winnable. When pressed, two acknowledged looking over the nonconference games and thinking only "a couple" are winnable. In all, Coppin State will face a nonconference schedule composed of teams that won 68 percent of their games last season.
"The home team paying the money wins 96 percent of the games," Patsos said. "I'm pretty sure it's an accurate stat."
Asked how many nonconference victories would be considered a success, Ivey replied, "More than zero." Mitchell essentially agreed, explaining in his raspy voice that players should not be intimidated.
"What are they going to do?" Mitchell said. "Shoot us? Hit us over the head? We're there for what? To play basketball. How rough can that be?"
Mitchell calls this season the biggest challenge of his career. He must make sure his players' confidence is not broken beyond repair by New Year's, even though the number in the team's loss column likely will grow from week to week.
Sophomore Darryl Proctor, who played a difficult schedule last season, acknowledged that "between the crowd and the score going up and up and up, you have to play with confidence. . . . Sometimes when you're getting kicked and losing every time, that stuff brings your confidence down and you start questioning yourself and the skill level of your team."
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas pointed to the philosophy of Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, which is to learn through winning, albeit against relatively easy nonconference competition. "If you just get used to getting blasted and you walk into your conference schedule beaten up and bloodied and underconfident," Bilas said, "then maybe it's not the best thing."
Mitchell, on the other hand, said he sees the basketball court offering lifelong lessons and memories.
"We worry too much about winning," he said. "Yes, it's going to get them; yes, it's going to put a strain on them. But does it make them tougher in life? And that is the way they are going to have to be to survive out here, that's the way the world is today. If they've been protected all their lives, Mom can't help them, Dad can't help them out here. It's going to be us against them. And it might be like it was at Kentucky last year -- 23,000 of them."
Mitchell usually schedules as least one game at home to break up the consecutive road games, but a quirk in the schedule forced the move of a conference game to the end of the regular season. This season he did not even schedule a home exhibition game.
Players said they would have preferred at least one early home game for the fans. Some players have lost count how many times students in class ask when the team will debut at the 1,720-seat Coppin Center.
Their response: "Patience."
Tulane, whose campus was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, has been displaced to the Texas A&M campus for the fall semester but will play its first home game Dec. 27, almost three weeks before Coppin State. And Baylor, whose nonconference schedule was eliminated because of NCAA sanctions, will play its first home game the same day Coppin State makes its home debut, Jan. 14.
"That's scary," Patsos said.
Mitchell would consider scheduling a Division II team to give his team a better chance to earn at least one early victory, but he said the conference does not allow it. "Let us buy a victory," he said of the chance to bring in a Division II team. "Everyone else has been buying us."
Fourteen straight road games also means an inordinate amount of travel and scheduling logistics that have been coordinated by the team's business manager, Danielle Richard, who says she has "tunnel vision."
And Coppin State's nationwide tour also means loads of schoolwork that has to be completed on planes, buses and in hotels. In fact, Chesnut recently groaned about a 15-page paper, the longest assignment he has ever received, due at month's end.
Whatever happens the next two months, Chesnut said, he and his teammates will be forever changed, strengthened in character even if defeated on the court.
"A lot of teams would break apart, start pointing fingers," Chesnut said. "As long as we stay strong -- we're a close team -- it's like a brotherhood. Just understand it takes some battle scars to go through life, to go through the trials and tribulations, but win or lose, we go through it as a team."