Longtime Northeast coach Copeland going out in style

In recent years, Alvin Copeland sat and waited in the bowels of the Macon Coliseum.

He spoke with those standing nearby, but really Copeland just waited and did his job.

As each team walked through the service entrance at the Coliseum, the longtime Northeast High School girls basketball coach greeted the teams that qualified for the Final Four. His job was to register teams as they walked into the building, which plays host to 24 high school basketball teams each year as they all chase dreams of winning a state championship.

Copeland peered out from underneath the bill of his cap to welcome most folks into the arena with a smile.

But as he sat on his perch behind a brown lectern, Copeland was torn apart inside. The man who has hoisted five state championship trophies and won more high school basketball games than most will ever coach in was relegated to volunteering.

Copeland could hear the roar of the Coliseum crowd, and he would sometimes wander into the gym to catch some of the action, but it ate at him that the biggest basketball tournament in the state was on his side of the river, and he wasn’t out on the court diagramming plays and barking instructions.

He said recently that in those years he sat a little slouched on a stool less than two miles from his office and thought, “I belong on the court, not in some hallway underneath the arena.”

“I felt a little empty,” said Copeland, who has volunteered at the Coliseum for about six years.

The teams entering the Coliseum this year won’t see Copeland’s face greeting them. He’s a little busy. For the first time since 2002, the 67-year-old will lead his Raiderettes into the Final Four. It will be his ninth and final appearance in the Final Four as Northeast takes on Greater Atlanta Christian School at 4 p.m. Thursday in the semifinals.

Copeland will retire following the season after 40 years at Northeast.

“It’s time,” he said. “It’s time for someone else to give it a shot. I’ve had a lot of fun, but it’s just time.”

Copeland took over as the head coach at Northeast in 1973, and he won immediately. The Raiderettes were in the Final Four in his second year and won the state championship by year three.

Northeast competed in the largest classification in the state for the first part of Copeland’s career. The Raiderettes beat Lowndes County High School at Grady High School in Atlanta to win the first championship. He won three championships in a span of five seasons, starting in 1981 by beating Baldwin County High School twice at the Coliseum and knocking off LaGrange High School at Georgia Tech. He claimed his most recent championship with a win over Swainsboro High School in 2002.

From that first season at Northeast until this current run to the Final Four, Copeland has won 862 career games, a mark that would put him eighth nationally among active coaches and 13th all-time, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations’ record book. He has added six girls track and field state championships, as well.

If he had his choice, Copeland said he’d like to coach his final game on the court that bears his name at Northeast’s Mark Smith Gym.

“I don’t think they’ll let me move it,” he joked. “But that’s where my heart is.”

Copeland knows the Coliseum has been good to him.

Three of his five state championships were won in that building. For years, the inner-city matchups -- particularly Northeast vs. Southwest High School -- were held there.

His teams played before packed houses of 6,000-plus who went to see the talented Southwest boys teams matchup with Northeast. But the fans got there early to guarantee a seat, and often were treated to some great games.

“There probably haven’t been many girls games ever in the state that had crowds the size that Northeast and Southwest played in front of,” Bibb County athletics director Raynette Evans said. “Coach Copeland helped raise the interest level in girls basketball in the area.”

The wins and the championships are nice, Evans said, but Copeland’s legacy and lives he has affected tell the more complete story.

Copeland has sent scores of student-athletes off to play college sports.

Girls who played for Copeland in the early years have funneled their daughters and granddaughters through the Northeast basketball program. Current assistant coach Randy Crawford has been with Copeland for more than 30 years. Another assistant, Cynthia Booker, whom Copeland would like to see follow him as head coach, played for Copeland from 1979-81.

“He really is a father figure to everyone who plays for him,” said senior Cyler Ward, whose mother played for Copeland and made sure that Ward got the same chance. “Everyone is loyal to him. He means a lot to this community and this school. I just don’t think that anyone can think of Northeast High School without (Copeland).”

Copeland insists this week is about his players and not about his final game (or games) at Northeast.

“It isn’t fair to these girls to focus on me,” he said.

He does admit, however, that he’s pleased that his career didn’t end in a region tournament or a court somewhere across the state.

“It will be nice to be standing on the court, instead of sitting on the chair checking teams in,” Copeland said.

To contact writer Jonathan Heeter, call 744-4400.