BALTIMORE — Juan Dixon won his first career game as a Division I men's basketball head coach on Monday night, leading his Coppin State Eagles to a double-overtime victory over Florida A&M. Just 48 hours earlier, after his team had blown a late lead against Savannah State to lose its 17th straight game, Dixon rubbed the bags under his eyes and stayed on message. He reminded his group of how difficult it is to win in college basketball, a sermon he has repeated on loop for much of the past two months and reinforced with stories of his time as a player at Maryland.
Winning in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference is especially difficult. Dixon's team traveled more than 12,000 miles to play its 15 nonconference games, all losses by an average margin of 22.9 points. When Coppin State finally did make it to the MEAC conference opener, an eight-point loss at Norfolk State last week, its four-hour return bus trip was doubled and became an all-nighter because of a snowstorm in Virginia. In Game No. 17 — the Eagles' third home game of the season — they played in front of 624 fans.
"We just haven't been in enough close games to know how to win," Dixon said.
It is a shared struggle for Division I programs at historically black colleges and universities, where resources continue to be severely limited and upward mobility for coaches remain almost nonexistent. Most schools have no choice but to stack their nonconference schedules with "guarantee games" against cash-rich Power Five schools, essentially trading losses for money that will help keep their programs and athletic departments afloat.
All six of the 351 Division I teams to go winless in nonconference play, including half of the 10-team Southwestern Athletic Conference, were HBCUs. No team from the SWAC or MEAC entered league play with a winning record; their combined nonconference record was 64-259. Through Monday's games, one team, Mississippi Valley State, remains winless at 0-16.
Those struggles have led to differing philosophies on nonconference scheduling among HBCU coaches. Dixon, who inherited his schedule when he took over at Coppin State last spring, said he will not play so many Power Five schools in the future after playing eight this season. But at other schools, such as Texas Southern, whose nonconference schedule was rated the toughest in the country, guarantee games are not just cash grabs but also viewed as opportunities to fully prepare for conference play. ]
"It's worked for us the last three or four years, because we've gone 16-2 in league and we've won our league the last two years in a row. That's why we do it," said Texas Southern Coach Mike Davis, who has led the Tigers to the NCAA tournament in three of his four seasons at the school. "I think a lot of teams are losing the money. We make the money, but at the same time, we keep all the money. We don't give money to volleyball, or track or any other sports, unless they ask for some money. But it's not designed for that."
After Davis loaded this season's nonconference schedule with heavyweights — including Gonzaga, Kansas, Syracuse, Clemson, Ohio State, Oregon, Baylor and TCU — his team opened 0-13 with all its games on the road. That decision was essentially made five years ago when Davis, the former Indiana coach who lost to a Maryland team lead by leading scorer Dixon in the 2002 national title game, arrived at Texas Southern in 2012 and watched his players endure poor attendance turnouts for nonconference home games.
"We ended up losing money because you had to pay the officials, scorer's table, cleanup crew, security," Davis said, so he started seeking out as many road games as he could, and found as many silver linings as he could, even if it meant losses. He took his teams to Toledo and Oakland this season because both returned most of their players from last season. He took his team to Wyoming, because he thought the high altitude might somehow help his team for conference play. After the 0-13 start, Texas Southern has opened SWAC play with three consecutive victories.
For another HBCU team, success has made scheduling tougher in a different way. LeVelle Moton, considered a rising star in coaching circles but who has now been at North Carolina Central for nine seasons, used to routinely field multiple calls a day from coaches who wanted to play his team. After the Eagles achieved some success in nonconference play — including an overtime win over North Carolina State in 2013 — it became increasingly difficult to find Power Five coaches who would take them on.
"I've always said that one of the best things that happened for our program is that we defeated N.C. State. At the same time, that was one of the worst things because since then we can't schedule," said Moton, who has two NCAA tournament appearances and three seasons with at least 25 wins since ushering the program back into Division I after more than three decades in Division II. "If you look at our schedule, we're everywhere."
North Carolina Central, which finished with the second-best nonconference record of any MEAC or SWAC school at 6-8 (North Carolina A&T went 7-8), opened the season with four games at four different sites in eight days. It played a home-and-home with Southeast Missouri State in a six-day span, with another game in between. A day after losing at George Mason on Dec. 9, the team flew roughly 2,000 miles the next morning to Phoenix to play Grand Canyon on one day of rest.
"Why? Because that was the only game we could get," said Moton, whose team also lost that game, 64-59. "We all have the guarantee games. [Dixon] just happened to play a little more . . . I probably can't give him any advice, other than what I've already told him: Just fight your way through it."
That's what Dixon intends to do, even though losing so much in college basketball mostly remains a foreign concept. His name alone has helped attract talent to Coppin State — "Him being a an ex-NBA player played a factor in my decision," said guard Karonn Davis, a graduate transfer from Niagara. Dixon, 39, has also tried to leverage his time at Maryland to jump-start a struggling program. His top assistant is former Terrapins player John Auslander, whose younger brother Kent is a graduate-transfer player on the Eagles' roster.
Dixon has often spoken about his success at Maryland, first as a player, where he led the Terrapins to a national title and lost only 31 games during his four-year career. He also began his coaching career as a special assistant under Mark Turgeon in 2013 and was part of the program's return revival before leaving in 2016 and spending a season as the women's basketball coach at the University of the District of Columbia.
He knew the move to Coppin State would be difficult; there are no charter plane rides for his team, nor are there any shortcuts to landing recruits. There is also no clear-cut philosophy on nonconference scheduling as leader of an HBCU program.
"It's not going to be easy," Dixon said. "It's not something that is going to happen overnight."