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Gary Washburn

In Baltimore’s time of turmoil, Coppin State coach plays big role

Coppin State’s Michael Grant demonstrated how the responsibility of coach is all encompassing, especially in volatile times.Duane Burleson/Getty Images/File

On Tuesday, April 28, class resumed at noon on the campus of Coppin State University in West Baltimore. The civil unrest on April 27, which followed the death of Freddie Gray, occurred on North Avenue, just blocks from campus, and Eagles basketball coach Michael Grant sent text messages to his players.

This is communication in 2015. Grant didn’t frantically call each of his 15 players in their dorm rooms, hoping for an answer as Baltimore was experiencing upheaval. He sent out text messages, and slowly but surely the responses came in: “I’m good, Coach,” “I’m OK, Coach,” “Everything is cool, Coach.”

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The riots led to injuries to approximately 130 police officers and resulted in more than 200 arrests, according to the Baltimore Sun.

This is supposed to be downtime for Grant, nearing his first anniversary as coach of the historically black, Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference school. His recruiting was done, eight players with signatures freshly minted to attend school next fall, a sign of progress after a difficult 8-23 season for Grant.

If only Grant’s job were limited to X’s and O’s and reaching NCAA tournaments and beating rival Morgan State. When residents of the West Baltimore neighborhood began protesting hours after the funeral of Gray, who died as a result of an injury that prosecutors say he suffered in the back of a police van, Grant suddenly became father, life coach, and guidance counselor.

His job was to prevent his kids, at the most reactionary stages of their lives, from becoming negatively involved in the unrest that necessitated a citywide curfew and prompted the postponement of two Baltimore Orioles games.

This wasn’t in Grant’s job description, but the responsibility of coach is all encompassing, especially in these volatile times.

“This is a tough place,” said Grant of Baltimore. “You’re in the inner city, right in the mix of everything. You have to have some good family values and good family support and support from your coaches to be able to make it in this type of environment.

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“It’s been a major impact on our program. It’s been a major impact on our university, but we’re just looking at the positives.”

Grant said he called all eight of his recruits and asked, “Are you good? Are you good with this?”

Two asked out of their commitments following the unrest.

“We had a couple of players who called and reached out and said that they don’t want to be here in Baltimore,” Grant said. “With all the things that were going on, so it’s not only our programs but it hurt a couple of other teams whose recruits have called and said they’re not coming. At the same time, we want guys that want to be here, want to be part of what we’re doing.

“That’s life. What we tried to explain to them is that it could happen anywhere. You have to be prepared for anything. You never know what life is going to bring.”

What is precarious for Grant and many other college coaches is determining when to condone civic action for athletes. College is the time when youngsters plant their political roots, formulate strong opinions about the world, and become more savvy about issues that affect their existence. That has to be encouraged.

This is nothing new. John Wooden wasn’t exactly pleased with Bill Walton’s hippie ways and liberal views, but he allowed that type of expression. In a climate in which the uncomfortable and temperamental relationship between African-American youths and police seems to escalate monthly, Grant and other coaches have to stress to their players to question authority or the system in a positive manner.

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“A lot of it comes with upbringing and not putting themselves in situations that are negative when people are tearing up things and doing [negative] things,” Grant said. “We have a pretty good hold on our guys, when they see trouble, they need to go the opposite way. Do you want to go to jail? Or spend the rest of your life with a record? Or do you want to try to walk away from this situation and look at the bigger picture that you’re here to play college basketball and here to graduate? Because if you get caught by the law, nine times out of 10, we’re not going to be able to help you.

“But anything they see positive, want to be part of a positive march, then I think that’s fine. It takes a lot of talking to these kids to be able to walk away from things.”

So he frantically sent text messages on that fateful Monday.

Afterward, athletes and students from Coppin State, Morgan State, and Howard University participated in helping to clean up the areas affected by the rioting.

It wasn’t widely publicized, but these students participated in repairing their community.

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“It was an unfortunate set of circumstances that we find ourselves in,” Morgan State athletic director Floyd Kerr said. “But it was an opportunity for many of our students and faculty and staff to step up and show their commitment to the community and to Baltimore, and do the right thing. We had to take this huge challenge that Baltimore had and create something positive out of it.”

Doing the right thing isn’t always the popular choice, especially during reactionary college years, but it’s critical to highlight when those right things occur.

And credit should be given to those guides, mentors, life coaches, and even basketball coaches who work daily to ensure these youngsters and student-athletes make sound decisions.


Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.