Sir Mount For low-key Phelan, tomorrow's game is one in thousand, but who's counting?

January 09, 1991|By Doug Brown | Doug Brown,Evening Sun Staff

EMMITSBURG -- Oh, no, not another milestone for Jim Phelan. Must we dwell on them? There was the first Mason-Dixon Conference championship in 1955, the Division II national championship in 1962, the 500th win and then the 600th.

The man is 61. Must we dwell on these milestones? Must we remind him that tomorrow night, when Mount St. Mary's entertains Wagner, he will become the 10th man in college basketball history to coach 1,000 games?

John Wooden didn't do that. Dean Smith hasn't. Only one coach still active has more games -- Winston-Salem's Clarence "Bighouse" Gaines, 67, who in his 46th season heads the list with 1,208.

"Jim finds this 1,000 thing more annoying than anything," said Kevin Robinson, a former Phelan assistant who is now a business law professor at the Mount, a local attorney and, oh, yes, Phelan's son-in-law.

"A thousand is inevitable, the result of longevity," Phelan said after the Mount beat Monmouth, 54-51, in game No. 999 last night. He shrugged. No big deal.

Jack Campbell, the 6-foot-5 center on Phelan's 1962 national championship team, is now the Mount St. Mary's provost. Campbell and his teammates considered Phelan "the toughest SOB" they had ever encountered.

He was a taskmaster who ran his players until they were ready to drop. One day, as the team bus was ready to depart on a road trip, Phelan dispatched the driver even though he knew John O'Reilly, one of his best players, wasn't aboard.

"John drove to the game, and Phelan knew he would," Campbell said. "That was a lesson I've never forgotten: He treated all the players the same.

"In restaurants, he sat by himself. He wasn't buddy-buddy with us. He kept his distance to maintain respect. It worked, because we all held him in the highest esteem."

Aloof as Phelan seemed, he wasn't insensitive. In Campbell's freshman year, the center had an abscessed tooth and wasn't sure he could get the money to pay the dentist. Phelan told him to holler if he needed help.

At halftime of a game during the championship season, Phelan's ire was aroused to the point where he kicked a 50-gallon cardboard trash drum. His foot went through the drum and got stuck. Infuriated even more, Phelan kicked and kicked in mid-tirade until his foot came free.

"He was so mad we were afraid to look up because he might see us laughing," Campbell said.

In 1978, when Campbell was an education professor at the University of Nevada-Reno, Phelan notified him of an attractive opening at the Mount. Yet, in return, never has Phelan asked Campbell for a concession on the admission of a player.

"I intervened myself on Durelle Lewis, a kid from the Harrisburg area who had low SATs but good high school class attendance," Campbell said. "He was the kind you take a chance on. Jim never said a word on the boy's behalf. Durelle was the starting point guard for four years and took the 1981 team to the Division II national championship game."

Tom Ryan was paid all of $500 to be Phelan's first official assistant coach in 1965 and worked under him for 12 years. Ryan has been at the Mount for 31 years, currently as a professor of business and mathematics.

"I can't think of any scholarship player who has ever transferred out," Ryan said. (Neither can Phelan.) "That says a lot about Jim and the program. He allows players to be students and individuals. He doesn't hassle them.

"Jim defines what we are in basketball. Most of the players are happy, in good times and bad. He doesn't make the program bigger than it ought to be. He gives the players room."

On rare occasions, Phelan has had so much talent he hasn't known what to do with it. In the 1968-69 season he had Fred Carter, Lou Grillo, Dick Dohler, Bob Sutor, Bob Riley and John Novey, four of whom were drafted by the NBA and all of whom are in the Mount Hall of Fame.

Trouble was, because of injuries, they weren't available as a group until the fourth game against Long Island. Phelan looked at all the talent, turned to Ryan and asked, "Who do you think should start?"

For many years, Phelan rated recruits by a formula that consisted of two questions.

"He'd ask, 'How big is your mother and what's your shoe size,?' " Robinson said. "He'd take those two answers and predict how tall a kid would be when he was 22."

Said Phelan, "I concluded the father's size didn't mean that much."

Phelan is colorblind, and as a result Dottie Phelan lays out his clothes -- including his trademark bow tie -- before every game.

"I've often wondered, if they had a fight, what sort of ludicrously ornate outfit she'd send him to the game in," Robinson said, grinning evilly.

The legend that is Jim Phelan is not taken seriously by the legend himself. He may be the college's celebrity, but he doesn't consider himself bigger than the institution.

"You'd think he'd have an entourage and distance himself from people," Robinson said. "He doesn't.

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