Even now, four years later, the story still brings smiles in the Coplin household.
Booker Coplin, an Augsburg University senior and the reigning national Division III Player of the Year in men’s basketball, was a senior at Shakopee High trying to narrow his mostly D3 college choices. On a team with standout forward Steffon Mitchell, now starting at Boston College, Coplin’s 3-point shooting intrigued multiple schools in the MIAC and elsewhere.
University of St. Thomas Coach John Tauer approached Coplin’s mother, Anjie, at a Shakopee game to gauge Booker’s interest in becoming a Tommie. St. Thomas was well into its run of 12 consecutive Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference titles, and about to win its second national title of the decade.
But school loyalty runs deep among MIAC alumni. Anjie and Booker’s father, Tac, both played basketball at Augsburg in the late 80s and early 90s, and Tauer ran into the recruiting equivalent of high-post screen. As Tauer tells it, Anjie was polite but firm: Don’t bother. Not interested.
And that was that.
True story, Anjie Coplin confirmed earlier this week. “If I remember right, it was getting near the end of (Booker’s) senior season,” she said. “He was trying to eliminate schools, not add to the list. I think he was down to (North Dakota State), Wisconsin-River Falls or Augsburg. I don’t think he had told the other MIAC coaches.
“I do remember, though, telling (Tauer), with my Augsburg pride, that he probably wouldn’t be going to St. Thomas. But I think I was trying to kind of tease him and be funny about it. Had it been earlier in the season, I’m sure Booker would have been willing (to listen) because he looked at many schools in the area.”
Booker heard about it later. “My dad always laughs,” he said. “He said, ‘You didn’t even give him a chance to talk to you or me.’“
Here, the story takes an unexpected twist: Instead of going to Augsburg, Coplin chose Wisconsin-River Falls after declining a preferred walk-on offer from Division 1 NDSU. One year later, once he settled on a major, Coplin had second thoughts and gave Augsburg another look. He transferred to study biopsychology, which UW-River Falls did not offer.
Coach Aaron Greiss’s free-flowing offense proved a perfect fit for Coplin, a 6-3 guard with all-around skills. As a sophomore, Coplin helped the Auggies end the Tommies’ long MIAC championship streak, winning the school’s first conference title and NCAA Tournament bid since Auggie great Devean George’s final season in 1999.
Last season, Coplin averaged a MIAC-leading 28 points per game, breaking school records for scoring average and total points (784) held by George, a three-time NBA champion with the Los Angeles Lakers. Coplin also topped the MIAC in rebounding, steals, field goals, free throw percentage and minutes per game. His scoring average and total points ranked second nationally in D3. The National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) named him the best D3 player in the country.
Though idled almost all last summer by right ankle surgery — he tore ligaments and broke a bone in a mid-June pickup game at Augsburg — Coplin returned in top form the first month of this season. Through seven games he again leads the MIAC in scoring (25.1 ppg) and ranks fourth in rebounding (8.7). Last week he nearly posted his first career triple-double, going for 27 points, 11 rebounds and a career high-tying eight assists against St. Olaf in an 85-57 victory. Four of his 25 career point-rebound double-doubles have come this season.
“He’s been afforded the opportunity to really grow as a player on the floor based on the system of play,” said Griess, who’s beginning his 15th season with the Auggies. “That’s not a knock on any other program. He had a lot of freedom from the start here because that’s kind of how I operate, and he thrived here.”
Griess runs a so-called positionless offense, the latest trend in college basketball, based on movement and spacing the floor. It’s great for teams like Augsburg (5-2, 3-1 in the MIAC) with oodles of speedy guards and wings who drive the lane and shoot 3-pointers. Coplin often brings the ball up and gets the Auggies into their offense, where he, junior Matt Carik and senior Henry Mulligan lead the 3-point barrage. Griess spent nine seasons at Division II Chaminade in Hawaii before coming to Augsburg, and believes Coplin is as talented as any player he’s coached.
“This is the truth: This kid is different,” Griess said. “His level of discipline and work ethic goes beyond a typical Division III college player, or a Division II college player for that matter. And that’s in all facets of his life, not just athletics. His academics, socially, leadership…he’s driven, and he’s disciplined. And he has a plan. Everything he does is planned. He’s an amazing person.”
That Coplin excelled at basketball surprised no one in his family. Booker and his sister Jaley, a freshman backup forward for the Auggie women, are third generation hoopers. Their maternal grandfather, Minnesota Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Famer David Tonolli, won 467 games and 11 conference titles at what is now Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton High. Anjie Coplin said Booker’s first word was “ball,” and she still has video of him as a toddler grabbing a four-foot plastic rim in their home and throwing one down. In fourth grade, Coplin and his buddy Mitchell made a Shakopee fifth-grade travel team.
Lacking Division I or II scholarship offers, Coplin chose Division III to focus on academics. He carries a 3.63 grade point average and aspires to be a physical therapist like his paternal grandfather, Tom Coplin, who tended to the Minnesota North Stars before moving to Louisiana. To earn tuition money — no athletic scholarships in D3, remember — Coplin works in the athletics laundry room washing uniforms. And he volunteers with two Special Olympics groups: A basketball team in Shakopee he discovered in high school, and another organization Augsburg supports.
“(In high school) the older guys used to do it a little bit so coaches reached out to us and said, why don’t come over for a practice?” Coplin said. “I had a blast. I just really loved being there and practicing with those guys. It was only an extra two hours a week for me after practice. Every time I was there, they had so much fun and were happy to have me there. I’ve been doing it every since.”
The Johnnies, Tommies and Auggies figure to tangle again for the MIAC title. Many of Coplin’s best games have come against the conference’s top teams, especially a certain one from St. Paul.
In a 112-105 triple-overtime loss to St. Thomas last January, Coplin went the full 55 minutes, contributing 34 points, 15 rebounds, eight assists and four blocked shots. A month later Coplin poured in 32 points and fed Carik for the winning 3-pointer as the Auggies eliminated St. Thomas in the MIAC Tournament semifinals, 84-81. St. John’s ended Augsburg’s season two days later in the MIAC title game, overcoming Coplin’s career-high 46 points to win, 82-79.
Wednesday night the Tommies and Auggies, both unbeaten in the MIAC, met for the first time this season before a spirited crowd at Augsburg’s Si Melby Hall. The court is one of the coolest in the MIAC, with an outline of the Minneapolis skyline along the sideline near the scorer’s table.
Coplin played all 40 minutes, scoring 24 points with seven rebounds, four assists and four blocks. But the Tommies disrupted the Auggies’ offense enough in the second half to prevail, 89-81. Afterward, Tauer seemed relieved Coplin didn’t do more.
“He’s as good as anyone I’ve seen in the MIAC in 20 years of coaching,” Tauer said. “What he’s done in his time here is ridiculously impressive.
“First of all, he’s a competitor. He has a sparkle in his eye. He’s excited to be out there, which as an opposing coach you have a ton of respect for. He’s versatile in how he scores, but he also rebounds and defends. He’s a complete player. Quite frankly, you’re not going to stop him. You just hope to make him work for everything.”
Coplin already has.