MEAC struggles to gain national respect

Originally Published: February 28, 2005
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

There are times, during the pay-game blowouts, when Butch Beard sits on the sideline and silently seethes.

The highly paid coach on the other bench plays his starters longer than necessary. The fans urge the home team for more. The score balloons from runaway to rout to rampage. Beard's Morgan State players are sacrificed on the altar of big-time basketball bloodlust.

"When they're still piling it on with three or four minutes left I sit there and think, 'If I ever get the opportunity to have some really good players, and I get them on a neutral court, I'd love to beat the ---- out of them,'" Beard said.

For the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, payback is a pipe dream. Work a miracle in the NCAA Tournament or forget it. Otherwise, you'll never get a shot on a level playing field.

That's the way of the world in the MEAC. You bring your overmatched team into a high-powered program's arena for a five-figure check that helps keep an entire athletic department afloat. ("That buys a lot of baseballs, golf balls and uniforms," said Coppin State coach/athletic director Fang Mitchell.) You deal with referees from the home team's conference, who have no motivation to give you a call. You take your beating and try to leave with your dignity intact.

Sometimes, it isn't so easy to swallow.

"Those kids suffer tremendously," Beard said. "It can take us 2-3 weeks to get them back to believing they can compete."

Butch Beard knows what it's like to compete at the game's highest level -- knows it better than most of the coaches who run up the score these days on his kids. During 1994-96, he was a head coach in the National Basketball Association with the New Jersey Nets. Thirty years ago this spring, he was a starting guard for the NBA champion Golden State Warriors. He's been an NBA All-Star and a college All-American as well.

Yet today Beard's place is near the bottom of the Division I pecking order. Morgan State (11-15 overall, 9-7 in league play) is a mid-pack team in the MEAC, which has the second-lowest conference RPI in the nation. The lowest belongs to the other league of historically black colleges, the Southwestern Athletic Conference.

In most places, African-Americans are at least a generation removed from the days when historically black colleges were among the few higher-education avenues at their disposal. With campuses more integrated than ever, MEAC schools find greater competition for students.

And the basketball coaches are competing with several strikes against them. They don't have the money, the exposure or the clout of the top 100 schools in the country -- or, in most cases, even the top 200.

MEAC schools generally work with an annual basketball recruiting budget of about $15,000 -- an amount the top-level schools can blow in July travel alone. You won't see any MEAC teams in ESPN's Bracket Buster Saturday. In fact, Until ESPNU came along and struck a deal to televise a handful of MEAC events in the next year, you wouldn't have seen any of its teams on any given Saturday. This is the league that TV ignores and the NCAA selection committee deplores, constantly giving its champion a No. 15 or 16 seed. And at-large bids? Please.

Beard took over at Morgan State in 2001 and went 3-25. Next year the Bears crept up to 7-22. Last year they were 11-16, and as Beard put it, "you would have thought we won the World Series."

Progress is slow but undeniable, as Morgan State's RPI has finally risen into the 200s this season. Beard has earned every paycheck along the way.

"I get that question all the time: 'Why are you at Morgan State?'" said Beard, who previously coached in the MEAC at Howard and took the Bison to the 1992 NCAA Tournament. "But I'll say this: The coaches in this league, we're the most creative people in the world. We don't have the money they have, but we still have to get kids who will make us competitive. And then we play those guarantee games. You take the money and try your damnedest to not get embarrassed.

"There's a lot of coaches who won't do what we do. We work for a living."

And what's the reward for that work? Usually, it's an invitation to keep busting your butt as Coach For Life in the MEAC, and little more. Upgrading from this league isn't easy.

Only two coaches in recent years have left the MEAC for jobs in more prestigious leagues -- and we're not talking the ACC, Big East or SEC. Try the Ohio Valley and Missouri Valley. Cy Alexander left South Carolina State for Tennessee State in 2003, and Steve Merfeld left Hampton for Evansville in 2002.

Merfeld, it should be noted, is white. Asked if that might have helped his market value, Coppin's Mitchell laughed.

"It didn't hurt him," he said. "If we're trying to keep it real in this world, let's say it: It didn't hurt him. I understand how it is, who does the hiring."

If anyone should have gotten a job upgrade out of the MEAC, it's Mitchell. Merfeld was celebrated nationwide in 2001 for guiding 15th-seeded Hampton to a first-round NCAA upset of No. 2 seed Iowa State -- but Mitchell did it first.

In 1997, Coppin State became just the third 15-seed to win an NCAA game, shocking SEC champion South Carolina. Then the Eagles came within a point of becoming the first and only 15-seed to make the Sweet Sixteen, losing to Texas 82-81.

APMitchell's had more than his fair share of success at Coppin.

Many coaches have gone further on much less. Tim Floyd went from New Orleans to Iowa State (and then on to complete disaster in the NBA) with a 0-2 NCAA Tournament record as coach of the Privateers. Eddie Fogler went from Wichita State to Vanderbilt with a 0-2 record as well. Mike Brey parlayed a 0-2 mark at Delaware into the Notre Dame job.

Fang Mitchell, a man with 300 victories? A man who coached one of the four biggest upsets, by seed, in NCAA Tournament history? A man who once beat 700-Victory Club members Lefty Driesell and Norm Stewart on their home floors?

He's on his 18th season at Coppin State. Mitchell says he loves working at the Baltimore school and enjoys the MEAC -- but he knows his work has been undervalued nationally.

"It's always been a stigma with the MEAC," Mitchell says, not a trace of bitterness in his voice. "To some people, we can't coach. To people who know what's going on, they know what we can do."

What they can do is so often clouded by what they must do.

Mitchell's team is 13-13. Sounds average at best, right? Now consider the schedule: zero non-conference home games. Coppin was 0-9 out of conference, playing at Kentucky (RPI 11) Dayton (112), Texas (35), Oklahoma (17), West Virginia (53), Pittsburgh (64), Utah (18), Marquette (64) and Minnesota (48). RPI rates it the second-hardest non-conference schedule in the country.

You think any of the coaches that brought in the Eagles would play even one-third of those opponents on the road in a single season?

Mitchell said the guarantee games brought in close to half a million badly needed dollars. But they also torpedoed his team's record. If Fang were still young enough to be out looking for another job, it would be tough to sell 13-13.

Jerry Eaves of North Carolina A&T is still young enough to dream about someday being a head coach on a higher level -- although, as a starting guard on Louisville's 1980 national championship team, he's no longer a pup. In his second season as a head coach in the MEAC, he's learned that what happens out of conference is almost completely beyond his control.

The NCAA doesn't respect what we do. ... Florida A&M showed last year we ain't that damn bad.
Butch Beard, Morgan State coach

"I don't mind playing it, but I'm not evaluating it on wins and losses," Eaves said. "We led at Duquesne. We led at Tulane with eight minutes to go. At Nebraska, we were up one at halftime. But truly, we're 4-12 (the Aggies' MEAC record). How we do in conference play is how you should judge yourself as a coach. The other games, we're not going to win."

And when you get a league full of teams that have taken a non-conference beating -- the MEAC was a combined 27-79 (while the SWAC went 22-71) -- they all bring poor records and low RPI marks into conference play and drag each other down. Hence the perennially lousy seeding.

Even though Florida A&M proved itself in the last NCAA Tournament by winning the objectionable play-in game against Lehigh and then pushing No. 1-ranked Kentucky hard for more than 30 minutes, the MEAC folks are resigned to a 16th straight year of seeing their champion seeded 15th or 16th.

"The NCAA doesn't respect what we do," Beard said. "They know what we have to do in November and December, getting our brains beat out, but they don't respect what we do. Florida A&M showed last year we ain't that damn bad."

But the seeding will be low again this year. And after that one lucky team, there will be nowhere else to go. MEAC teams tend to be ignored by the NIT.

"For folks within the conference, it's win the conference tournament or go home," Mitchell said.

This year's MEAC tournament is in Richmond, Va., March 7-12. Chances are decent that the winner will be sent to Dayton once again for the play-in game. The coaches don't complain -- they see it as a chance to win an NCAA Tournament game on national television. And then, there's the chance to make history as the first 16-seed to beat a No. 1 seed.

It's the scenario Butch Beard dreams of during those November and December nights when he's getting his teeth kicked in.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.