New Coppin State women’s basketball coach Laura Harper was on campus rearranging her office after she was hired July 20.
“I wanted to make it comfortable, I’m going to be spending a lot of time there,” Harper said.
An effusive Harper, the Philadelphia product who made a name in college basketball as Most Outstanding Player of the 2006 Final Four when her Maryland Terrapins took the title, knows comfort is more important these days than perhaps it has ever been among the demographic she works in — high school athletes headed to college and the young ladies they are becoming in college.
Most recently the head coach at prep powerhouse Montverde Academy in Florida, Harper has been an assistant at Florida, George Washington, High Point, Loyola and American in preparation for her first college head coaching job. Much as she so often was as a star player at Maryland for mentor Brenda Frese, Harper seems to be in the right place at the right time.
“When everything happened and I first started talking about Coppin, it just made it seem like this was the time,” she said. “Given everything with the pandemic and George Floyd, there were so many things that led me to be at Coppin.”
Harper knows basketball is a piece of a much bigger picture in these young student-athletes’ lives, but an important one. She relishes the role she can have through her own experiences in the game.
“I know timing is everything and right now if you’re in a place of power with a platform to support people, specifically people of color, I think you have to take it. You can’t be silent,” she said. “For me I know that I will not be silent. I feel that there are so many young women looking up to me and I have to make them proud. I have to lead by example. I have to make this a comfortable place, a safe place.”
Frese, who just added another branch to her impressive coaching tree, was “thrilled” for Harper, a player who helped lay the foundation for perennially powerful Maryland women’s basketball.
“Her passion for the game, her relationships with people,” Frese said of the characteristics that have led to Harper’s rise. “I envisioned her having a longer career professionally, but it ended earlier with injuries. She has never been afraid to express herself or put her emotions out there. She was really a leader for the team [at Maryland] and provided that energy level. It’s incredible to watch her maturity grow and how she has blossomed into a really, young, dynamic head coach.”
Frese has been a sounding board and friend for Harper as the young coach has made career decisions, the two frequently communicating, especially of late as Harper considered moving back to Maryland.
“Sometimes I think I’m her 9-1-1 call,” Frese joked.
Another Harper mentor is current Louisville head coach Jeff Walz, an assistant on that 2006 Maryland national championship team. And yet another, important part of her journey and ultimate decision to come to Coppin State was another Maryland mentor, longtime Terrapin athletics fixture Cheryl Harrison, now the senior associate athletic director for development at the school.
“Cheryl’s sister, Tori, was one of the most successful head coaches in Coppin history,” Harper said. “In researching the job I found out what a legacy she left, and Cheryl was a mentor for me at Maryland.”
Tori Harrison, one of the first major female basketball recruits out of Baltimore at Towson Catholic in 1983, passed away in May from a rare genetic disorder. She had starred at Louisiana Tech and later coached Coppin to a 61-77 mark from 1992-1997, posting a .549 winning percentage in Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference play and winning Coach of the Year honors in 1992-93.
Harrison’s overall .442 winning percentage is still third in school history, perhaps pointing to the difficulty of establishing a proven program at a school that has only been playing women’s basketball since 1985. The Eagles haven’t had a winning record in seven years and haven’t won more than six games in any of the last three seasons, including a 3-25 regular-season mark in 2019-20.
Coppin athletic director Derek Carter, who already had a notable Maryland alumnus national champion in Juan Dixon running the men’s program, thinks he has the right person in the 34-year-old Harper.
“Laura will bring incredible passion, energy and a championship mentality to our team,” Carter said. “Throughout her career, she has worked hard to establish herself as a winner in all phases of basketball. I feel that she will provide a valuable influence in the lives of the young women in our program.”
But how will Harper get her Eagles to take wing?
“I start with establishing relationships with the players and their families,” said Harper, who has already had a couple of Zoom calls with the team. “I’m going to listen and let my players know that they can trust me. That’s going to be the core of it. The next line is the alumni, the people that are so passionate, so you have that support. Once I start going off on a tear recruiting, I want to make sure that core trusts me.”
Harper’s confidence is contagious. She’s a local product and also excited to be back close to her family in Philadelphia. She has extended family in Columbia, Md., and she’s staying with an aunt in Owings Mills, Md., while she relocates, gets settled and starts putting her plan into action.
Executing that rebuilding plan should be easier for people-person Harper than it is for most.
“I love the impact I can have on each individual,” she said. “I love learning about each individual’s family. I love being a sounding board for these girls. It’s so much bigger than basketball. Putting in the work alongside them and knowing that they trust you, I think that’s the biggest gift you can get.”
Harper knows those feelings from both sides of the player-coach equation even if she didn’t expect to learn it from the coaching side so early. Eight knee surgeries finally derailed her professional playing career, one that took her from Maryland to the Sacramento Monarchs as the 10th overall selection of the 2008 WNBA Draft. She also played in Turkey, Italy and Russia before hanging up her basketball shoes in 2013. She then took a coaching job at American, but moved on to Loyola before coaching any games with the Eagles.
Her desire to coach goes back further, though.
“Not many people know this, but I came back one summer and [2014 Maryland grad] Essence Townsend was in the gym battling back from knee surgery and I’m just watching her faith, watching her struggle,” Harper said. “Surgeries will mess you up mentally. I talked to her and I thought maybe there’s value to me being a support system and really learning how to teach the game. Just being patient with players that experience adversity. You’d be crazy to think you’re not going to experience some sort of adversity while you’re playing.”
Harper had a major battle with that adversity her freshman season at Maryland in 2004-05, suffering an Achilles tendon rupture. She came back the next year to average 11.5 points and 7.2 rebounds for the 34-4 national championship team and played her best when it mattered most.
The 6-foot-4 swing forward/center had a career-high 24 points in the semifinals to lead Maryland past North Carolina, and then added 16 points and seven rebounds in the championship overtime win against Duke to earn Final Four MOP honors and secure a place in the hearts of local basketball fans.
The championship is a key part of her basketball resume, but the work she had to do in order to get back to a championship level of play herself has also stuck with Harper.
“You doubt yourself after that kind of injury and I was humbled in a way that nothing else could humble me,” she recalled. “Honestly, I feel like I owe my life to this game and when I sat out that was all I focused on.”
Her senior season (2007-08), Harper was an Associated Press honorable mention All-American pick and a third-team All-ACC selection. Her 198 career blocked shots are still a school record, and she was seventh in career rebounds upon graduation. She also scored 1,407 points during her career. She was named an ACC Legend in 2014, and her No. 15 jersey hangs from the Xfinity Center rafters.
Harper’s backstory is why she is so confident she can use basketball to better others’ lives, too. She knows the transformative powers a commitment to the game can provide.
“When I think of growing up in Philly, my mom with three jobs — my story is very much about me finding solace in playing,” Harper said. “That’s all I did, just staying out of trouble and staying off the streets. I really feel like basketball has saved my life and I know it has the power to do that for so many other young women as well.”
George Washington head coach and basketball legend coach Jennifer Rizzotti, who Harper worked for a season before moving on to Florida, said, “Her players will benefit from having a role model that is hard-working and driven.”
Harper is already applying her life lessons to her new players, building the relationships that will allow her to rebuild a program.
“They’re so special and each one of them has a special story,” Harper said of her team. “I’m here to be patient. There are so many people acting in fear now and fear just drives a lot of negativity. I want to be a leader that brings positivity. Having that opportunity at a historically black college, I just want to be that example and I know I can.”
Photo Credit: UAA Photography