EMMITSBURG -- Back in the beginning, way back, Jim Phelan was offered a three-year contract to coach the basketball team at Mount St. Mary's. He was 24 at the time, a child of the Philadelphia streets, unsure about the rural, small-school setting. didn't think I'd like it, and I knew my wife wouldn't," he said. He signed for one year.
That was in 1954. The year the Orioles moved to Baltimore. The year John Unitas got out of college. "Thirty-seven years," Phelan said yesterday, smiling. "If I'd stayed in the Marines, I'd have become a general. If I'd become a cop, I'd have retired 10 years ago. It's a hell of a long time, isn't it, 37 years? I must like this."
He must like this, he says, and you can only laugh at the understatement, for he is still the coach at Mount St. Mary's, now a grandfather instead of a newlywed, his tenure lasting through eight presidencies, longer than many of his brothers in the coaching lodge have been alive. Still preaching the same up-tempo ball. Still wearing bow ties on the bench. Thirty-seven years.
"The thing I can't believe," he said, "is how quickly it has gone. It's just flown by. I sit here and remember games, remember coaching against Manute Bol and Maurice Stokes, remember winning the national title in 1962, and it comes back to me just like it was yesterday. I didn't even know it was a thousand games until someone mentioned it to me. I had no idea."
He will coach his 1,000th game tonight, at home against Wagner, and it is in keeping with his selfless manner that he downplays the significance. "These things," he said, "are inevitable if you hang around long enough." The truth, of course, is that you hang around long enough only if you're good enough to hang around long enough.
Phelan is more than good enough. He has had 32 winning seasons, won almost 70 percent of his games; only seven college coaches have won more than his 682. As the 10th coach to make it to 1,000 games, he joins a list that includes Bighouse Gaines, Hank Iba, Adolph Rupp and Phog Allen, the same group of icons near the top of the list of career wins.
The inevitable question is whether he could have done it at a bright-lights school, and there's little doubt he could have, but it's a moot debate, for he long ago decided he had found a home at Mount St. Mary's. He did interview at a couple of places in the '60s, at Georgetown, with the Bullets, but his family loved the small-town environment and the idea of moving just never seemed right.
He occasionally wonders what it would have been like, but not for long. This is a coach with his ego firmly in control, a coach who -- shock of all shocks -- thought it was more important to be happy than climb the ladder. "I couldn't care less that people don't know my name," he said. "They never knew my name in the first place."
Maybe he didn't start out that way, but in his first three years he won three conference titles and had two kids. "We developed a (( fond feeling for the place," he said. Six years later, the Mount won the small-college national championship. Four years after that, Phelan broke the color line in the Mason-Dixon Conference with Fred Carter, who went on to star in the NBA.
His only period of hardship came in the '70s, when television discovered college basketball and everyone jumped to Division I for the money, taking many of the good players. A new school president arrived in 1977 and asked Phelan if he wanted to quit. Phelan said that all he needed was an assistant coach to help him recruit. He's been winning ever since.
All he asks is that his players protect the ball, be smart and not pass up open jumpers. He doesn't try to befriend them, just wants them to respect him. They do. "We've never not renewed a scholarship, and never had one transfer out," he said. "People say, 'Oh, the players must've changed in 37 years,' but they really haven't much."
His current team, debilitated by injuries, is only 3-8, but people in the know out here already are pointing to next season, when the Mount, in its fourth year in Division I, figures to
be loaded. The goal, naturally, is a conference title and a trip to the NCAAs. "We think we'll have an excellent team next season," assistant coach Bob Flynn said.
Phelan should get his 700th win next season, and plans to keep going "as long as I'm contributing." He is as relaxed and approachable as any coach you'll find, but still takes losses hard, still finds himself looking at film in the middle of the night. The drive is still there, which is the answer to a question that gets asked when you've had the same job for 37 years.
He does find himself looking back whenever he reaches one of these milestones. Yesterday, he was thinking of the advice La Salle coach Ken Loeffler had given him when he applied at the Mount 37 years ago. He was a La Salle assistant at the time, and was taking classes to become an insurance salesman. He wasn't sure about coaching.
"Loeffler told me, 'What's going to happen is you're going to go down there, you're going to like it, you're going to stay there and be successful, and nobody will ever hear of you. And then you'll die there.' Pretty prophetic, eh? Boy, he had that right."
The Phelan years