Coppin State University men’s basketball coach Michael Grant has been coaching college for 32 years – long enough to know his relationships with players don’t end when the buzzer sounds. This spring, after the West Baltimore neighborhood surrounding Coppin State erupted in racially charged violence following the funeral of a 25-year-old black man who died in police custody, Grant became more than a coach – and his players and other Coppin State student-athletes became something more, too.
CHAMPION: How close is your campus to the violent images the world saw from Baltimore this spring?
Grant: Everything was right in our backyard. Across the street from our arena, there’s a mall, and the day of the funeral, two of our coaches went over to grab something to eat. They called me and said, “Coach, we need to make sure we get in contact with our guys. The police are closing down the mall and think it’s going to be a riot right after this funeral.”
CHAMPION: How did you react?
Grant: We were very concerned about our kids, and we sent texts, and we called them, and we said, “Look, we need for everybody to stay in the dorm. Please don’t get involved in anything.” It could change their lives – especially trying to get involved when everybody’s in an uproar.
All of them started texting us back. “Coach, we’re safe.” “Coach, we’re OK.” “Coach, we’re good.” We just responded back to them and said, “We need for you guys to stay where you are until this is over.”
CHAMPION: In those moments, were you thinking of yourself as a coach or as more of a father figure?
Grant: That’s one of the things that we make a commitment to – not only a commitment to those players, but a commitment to their families that we’re going to watch over their kids. We want to make sure they’re safe.
One of the messages that we were able to get across to them was to let things die down. You never know if guns are going to be involved. You may get hit by a brick. Our No. 1 concern as a basketball staff and as coaches is to make sure that our players are taken care of, that they’re safe.
CHAMPION: What was the reaction elsewhere on campus?
Grant: They shut the college down, they sent all the professors and everybody home. At noon the next day, they opened back up campus. That’s when all the athletes got together and wanted to help with the cleanup process.
CHAMPION: How did athletics mobilize student-athletes to help?
GRANT: That was all on the athletes. The athletics department had nothing to do with that. Once we heard they were doing it, we all joined in as far as support: “What else do you need? Do you need some more brooms? Do you need garbage bags?” It was like they all got together, all the athletes, and they did it on their own. That was a great sign showing that they really cared about what was going on.
CHAMPION: You’ve been a coach for more than 30 years. Did this experience teach you something new?
GRANT: A coach has so many hats. You have to be a coach. You have to be a preacher. You have to be a counselor. You have to be a friend. You have to be a mentor. You have to be a psychologist. So many issues that come up with kids that are between 18 and 22 or 23. My door is always open to these guys.
CHAMPION: Has your program experienced any fallout since the unrest?
GRANT: We lost a couple incoming kids that we signed early. Due to the riot, we had parents who went from being excited about Coppin State to, two weeks later, saying, “Coach, we want out of our letter of intent because we don’t feel that our son is going to be safe there.” You have your highs and your lows.
CHAMPION: What is the school’s relationship now with the city?
GRANT: We want to make sure that we recruit Baltimore. We want to make sure we can start getting people at our games and getting people excited. People here really love basketball, and they really love their city. We want these guys to have a lot of success, to be a spokesperson for us – to be able to go throughout the city and say, “Man, I had a great experience over at Coppin State. You guys need to go there.”