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Official Review by Michael Spatz, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
Many highly-regarded icons, such as Pope John Paul II, Hubert H. Humphrey and former President Jimmy Carter, have said in one way or another that a country’s worth is determined by how they treat its less fortunate citizens. Just off of Caton Avenue in Baltimore is Coppin State University, a historically black college that is known for supplying education to some of the most oppressed populations in the United States. Established in 1900, CSU has one of the lower graduation rates in the country, but also opens up a world of opportunities that wouldn’t have otherwise been realized for those who do graduate as a Coppin State Eagle and get a degree. Originally a one-year training program for the preparation of African-American elementary school teachers, Coppin State University first offered a bachelor program in 1967. Today the university enrolls 4,000 students on a 52-acre campus with a motto of ‘Nurturing Potential, Transforming Lives’.
Athletically, the Coppin State Eagles participate in several sports on the men’s and women’s side. The school has been a member of the MEAC North Division since 1985, and is one of two members in the conference who do not sponsor a football team (Maryland-Eastern Shore being the other). The smallest school in the MEAC in terms of enrollment, Coppin State has earned the most recognition with its basketball team. Since 1985, the Eagles have been the MEAC regular season champion ten times. The conference tournament champion, of course, gets the automatic bid to the NCAA Basketball Tournament, allowing the Eagles to have been a part of March Madness four times (1990, 1993, 1997, 2008). In 1997, Coppin State received national attention and broke several brackets as a #15 seed by beating #2 seed South Carolina in the first round by 13 points, becoming the third-ever #15 seed that defeated a #2. In the 2007-2008 season the Eagles entered the MEAC Tournament as a #7 seed and won, becoming the first 20-loss team to be in the NCAA Tournament (16-20 record).
Since 2009, the Eagles have played in the Physical Education Complex, a venue which replaced the old Coppin Center. The PEC, as it is commonly abbreviated, has a capacity of 4,100, over double that of the previous building. Without a doubt, the Physical Education Complex may be the most generic and least menacing or historic name for a sports venue in the entire country. While the name is bland, many parts of the experience are quite the opposite The Physical Education Complex won't leave you speechless, but if you want bang for your buck and to be able to spend time watching sports in Baltimore without spending too much money, seeing the Eagles in the PEC is certainly a viable option.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Food and concessions are the one part of the Physical Education Complex experience that you may find a little lacking. There are enough great places to eat around Baltimore to make a meal outside the venue a preferable option to dining at a game. If you do find yourself hungry during the game, there are concession stands on either side of the stadium. Chicken ($5) and hot dogs ($3) are the two main selections, in case you're looking for something filling. Snacks include nachos ($3), popcorn ($2), chips ($2) and pretzels ($2). Beverages are Pepsi products, and are $2. Bottled water is also available. Concession stands are cash-only and it's very important to miss the halftime rush; lines will be long and a bit slow, and the crowds will not thin out until the second half is already underway.
The food at the PEC is standard fare, but if you're in need of a little snack, the prices are fair and the food will hold you over.
The first thing you'll automatically notice is that there is a concourse that circles around the Physical Education Complex where fans are able to stand and watch the game while leaning on the rail in front of them. This is a huge perk, because it allows fans to talk to their friends without having to worry about where everyone is seated. Standing on the concourse allows you some space and flexibility while watching the game and also allows kids to move around in case they're getting restless in their seats. Even though there were many people on the concourse when I visited, it was big enough that it was never even partially blocked. A concourse may not seem to be an important feature, but it definitely gave the fans some freedom.
The actual seats are blue and yellow, and along with the baseline bleachers, fans circled the entire court. Having seats on each side of the court really does add to the atmosphere and the home-court advantage, since you want the other team to feel surrounded. The student band has about ten members and they sit in the left bleachers. The cheerleaders for Coppin State are on the right baseline and are active for most of the game, including a few performances at half court during intermissions and timeouts. There is also a large four-sided scoreboard hanging above center court, which displays the time remaining, score, uniform numbers of each player on the floor and their individual points and fouls. There is also a video screen on the scoreboard, but it doesn't get used much at all; it stayed on all game with simply a Coppin State text graphic. There is a separate video board that is on the wall behind the right baseline that displays a live feed of the action on the court from a few different angles, which isn't really necessary since fans can see the court from any seat in the stadium. A player information graphic that includes their name, class and hometown is displayed on the video board when an Eagles player is shooting free throws, which is a nice add-on, although you cannot see the video board at all if you're sitting on the right baseline bleachers.
There were no fan games during intermissions and timeouts, though, and I could definitely sense a disconnect sometimes between the fans and the game. It seemed as though some fans' main priority was to just hang out with friends, while the actual basketball game was an afterthought. As the program grows, the overall interest will surely follow. The Eagles have left plenty of room on their rafters to add more banners, which at this point include recognition of making the NCAA Tournament in 1990, 1993 and 2008 and making it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 1997. The PA announcer was very clear, and there were also a couple of tables and chairs on the concourse which allowed fans to eat what they bought at the concession stands without having to go all the way back to their seat to do so. Overall, the atmosphere at the Physical Education Complex is very relaxed, and it's obvious that the school takes pride in making the fans feel comfortable at the home games.
When a small university is located in a big city, there are certain pros and cons to its location. On the downside, the Eagles get looked over in the city in favor of the bigger teams, like the Ravens and Orioles. On the positive side, though, it means that there is always something to do in the surrounding area of the PEC. The biggest city in Maryland and the 24th-largest city in the country, the Baltimore culture and cityscape really have something for everyone.
Great restaurants like The PaperMoon Diner are everywhere around the city. If you're looking for places to visit, venues such as the American Visionary Art Museum, Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum, Maryland Science Center, Port Discovery and the Baltimore Aquarium are just some of the places that you could visit and spend the course of an entire day. Home of the 2013 Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens, Charm City, as Baltimore is locally nicknamed, provides fun for people of all ages and interests.
As with any big city, though, there are certainly areas in Baltimore that would be good to stay away from. Once an industrial town with an economy based on auto manufacturing, shipping and steel processing, the city still prides itself on being a middle-class place with hard workers who aren't afraid to get their hands dirty. Traffic isn't always the most pleasant aspect of the city, but I have spent countless days in the city, and there always seems to be something new that catches my attention.
The Coppin State fan base for men's basketball is basically what you would expect. Fans were into it when the score was close, but then lost interest as the visiting team started pulling away on the night I attended. As you read earlier, many Coppin State students and alumni take the game as an opportunity to hang out and socialize more than to watch the actual game and follow the action. This is not necessarily a bad thing, though it does take away some of that home-court advantage.
The chants were standard and there was a small tradition with Coppin State free throws where the band clapped twice and put their hands up as the Eagles player was getting ready to shoot, but with no one else in the stands doing it, it's not much of a tradition. Fans of all ages attend Coppin State games, though there were notably a lot of kids at the game I visited. The atmosphere is definitely fan-friendly, and although there aren't any special videos or intermission games that can entertain the younger Eagles fans, parents do bring their kids out because it can be part of a fun day in Baltimore that won't make your wallet take a huge hit.
The city of Baltimore is always moving, and as such, getting from point A to point B in the city can sometimes be a very difficult task. Many different roads are one-way or turn into a turn lane fast and you are often not allowed to turn right on red, something that you really have to watch out for. To get to the city from the north, take I-95 South to Baltimore Beltway 695 West and end up on I-83 South to North Avenue West. There is also a Metro line that stops at Mondawmin Mall, which is located just north of the university, within walking distance. Parking is available close to the stadium and is $5. There is no reentry once you enter the complex and the bathrooms are adequate and acceptable. If you follow your GPS or review the directions provided by the school, you'll be able to come across the PEC. It doesn't stand out much as a building, but there are enough signs around that once you're close, you should be okay.
On game day, tickets go on sale about one hour before tipoff. Seats are not reserved. so once you get a ticket, you're allowed to sit anywhere you want. Adult tickets are $10, while tickets for children 12- and under are $5. This is pretty standard pricing for a mid-major in Division I. The $5 parking was a bit surprising, but is hardly a deal-breaker. Many kids were also given free CSU merchandise like foam fingers and water bottles throughout the game, which definitely put a smile on many young fans' faces. Even in the MEAC, Coppin State's ticket prices are in the middle of the pack, with some fellow schools being cheaper (Bethune Cookman) and some more expensive (Howard). Compared to the money you would spend to see the University of Maryland in College Park or the Washington Wizards in DC, though, $10 for a Coppin State Eagles game is a fair price.
One extra point goes to the student band. An active band is always great to see at a college basketball game and the Eagles band was impressive, starting cheers and doing a great rendition of the beat to "Power" by Kanye West.
Another extra point goes to the spacious concourse. It may seem like overkill, but as a fan, I love being able to have my own space and freedom. Being able to walk around without missing any of the Eagles action is a great perk, and I tip my cap to the architect of the Physical Education Complex.
Two extra points are given for the Physical Education Complex, which is equal to the seed that the Eagles beat in the 1997 NCAA Tournament, the #2 seed (and SEC champion) South Carolina Gamecocks, to become just the third #15 seed to win in the first round.
While the Physical Education Complex is arguably the worst name for a venue in Division I basketball, the experience inside certainly is not. The PEC is only the seventh-largest basketball arena in the 13- member MEAC but with its opening in 2009, it's one of the newer facilities in the conference. Baltimore is a large city, and as such, there's a lot of competition in terms of entertainment from other schools like Morgan State, professional teams like the Orioles and Ravens and the tons of attractions that help make Baltimore a very strong tourist destination on the East Coast. This is good news for Coppin State, though, because that means the traffic is there; if the Eagles can find some steady mid-major success, the Physical Education Complex certainly has the chance to become a hot spot for mid-major basketball.
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