As long as one of these two men are on the sidelines, no top-seed will be safe in next month’s NCAA tournament.
Coppin State’s Ron “Fang” Mitchell and FAMU’s Mike Gillespie Sr. are a pair of coaches who have represented the MEAC well once making the NCAA tournament.
In 1997 Mitchell-the MEAC’s elder statesman with 19 years on the sidelines-led the Eagles to an upset of second-seeded South Carolina in 1997.
Last year Gillespie and company had top-seeded Kentucky in a dog fight for the first 30 minutes of their tournament appearance.
With each coach’s accomplishments, it would not be a stretch to say they are respected around the conference because of their sideline accomplishments.
What would be a reach to some is the national attention Mitchell and Gillespie have received for their hellacious non-conference schedules over the years.
“We feel that way all the time, with the schedule we play,” Mitchell said.
“It’s not a thing we’re looking to get. (We’re) out to (play the) best teams in the country, if notoriety comes so be it.”
And so it has, Mitchell and CSC were named the fifth easiest team to root for by Sports Illustrated on Campus last November. The Eagles and Vermont (America East) were the only two schools from mid-major conferences to make the 10-team list.
Although Mitchell does not talk with his team about the ranking, considering it a thing of the past, he said uses the past as a “learning mechanism.”
“The past is the past, you use the past to understand today,” Mitchell said.
“I have a lot of respect for Coach Mitchell.” Gillespie said. “His kids play so hard, he’s the xxx in this league, I have the utmost respect for him.”
Though Mitchell and Coppin State have been nationally recognized Gillespie and Co. are steadily gaining respect around the nation following FAMU’s performance in last year’s tournament as an uber- underdog to Lehigh and Kentucky.
“Coach Gillespie has a habit of winning, last year is a perfect example of that,” Mitchell said. “He finds a way to get his players motivated.”
Whereas Gillespie paces the sidelines for nearly the entire 40 minutes, Mitchell remains seated, occasionally rising to call a play. In Saturday’s rematch of the 2004 conference championship game Gillespie did not sit down at all during the second half despite the Rattlers double-digit lead at one point.
“He has toned himself down,” Gillespie said noting Mitchell’s surgery to remove his thymus gland October 19. Adding that Mitchell’s intensity in games nearly matched his before his surgery.
“(We have) different styles of playing the game and (a) different intensity.’
One of the reasons Mitchell feels he and Gillespie have been so successful is because their players buy into their systems, understanding that both “command respect and demand respect.”
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And respect is all a MEAC school is asking for in the NCAA tournament.