Phelan fights off Mount-ing pressure

The Inside Stuff

November 03, 1992|By Bill Tanton

When a basketball coach reaches the age of 63 and his team is coming off 8-19 and 6-22 seasons, it's obvious what people are going to think.

They'll think it even if the coach is a legend like Mount St. Mary's Jim Phelan.

Phelan is entering his 39th season as head coach at that school. His name is synonymous with Mount St. Mary's, a respected Catholic institution in Emmitsburg where nothing is more respected than the college's rich basketball tradition.

Even so, it occurred to President Robert J. Wickenheiser that it might be a good idea for Phelan to step aside after this season so that the Mount might go in "a new direction." He so notified Phelan in a letter dated Oct. 26.

Four years ago, when the school moved up to Division I, Wickenheiser signed Phelan to a contract that will pay him to age 70.

Wickenheiser figured a week ago that Phelan might welcome the chance to collect his salary, serve the college in capacities designated by the president, such as fund-raising, and enjoy his hobbies (golf and the racetrack) while a new man tackles the draining chores of recruiting and coaching.

The president was wrong. Phelan found the president's suggestion unacceptable. Totally.

"We've had terrible luck with injuries to key players and we've had two losing seasons," says Phelan, "but the year before that we were 16-12.

"I can't make this my last year. At the end of the '93-'94 season I'll be 65 and I'll have 40 years' service. I'm sure we can turn this thing around before then."

There's another consideration that seems to mean even more to Wickenheiser than it does to the coach: Phelan's getting his 700th career win. Jim is seven shy of that now.

"I want to see Jim get his 700 wins," says Wickenheiser. "That should get him in the Basketball Hall of Fame. If Jim Phelan doesn't deserve to get 700 wins, who does? I never want to do anything to hurt or embarrass Jim. He's too good a man and he means too much to Mount St. Mary's."

Phelan has an idea his basketball team might turn around quicker than people think. He's most encouraged by the group that began practice Sunday.

It's interesting that last week, amid the hoopla over Midnight Madness at the University of Maryland, Phelan said Mount St. Mary's wouldn't start practice at 12:01 Sunday because "it's past my bedtime."

Guess what happened. The Mount did have Midnight Madness. Hundreds of students showed up at the Knott Center and there was more excitement than at any time last year. One of the excited was Phelan.

"Midnight Madness went great," Phelan says. "We've got some good players. We're back."

One player in particular, freshman Chris McGuthrie, from Springbrook High, makes a huge difference. He's a legitimate point guard. Mount St. Mary's hasn't had one of those for a couple years.

Wickenheiser said yesterday that he does not see "where this has to be Jim's last year."

The president and the coach now agree that Phelan will be free to pursue win No. 700. That is to the relief of a legion of friends of Mount St. Mary's who respect and admire both men.

* An interesting thing about Midnight Madness at Maryland was the Cole Field House crowd. It was announced as 10,000. It looked like more.

That afternoon there were only 22,099 at Byrd Stadium to see Maryland lose to North Carolina in football, 31-24. The student section in Byrd was relatively deserted, basketball being the current No. 1 attraction in the students' eyes. It's easy to see why.

The Terps football team, no matter what happens the rest of the season, is going to finish with a poor record. It's now 2-7 with two games left.

College kids are not very interested in long-range stuff and looking for signs of improvement. They want to win now. This year, Gary Williams' basketball team has a better chance of doing that.

* One of Maryland's problems in football is punting, which is handled by Dave DeArmas. If it sounds to you as if DeArmas has been at Maryland for an eternity, it's because his brother, Dan, handled the Terps' punting and kicking for the last four years. Little brother Dave is a red-shirt freshman.

Rare is the man who can both punt and kick in Division I, which Dan did magnificently. At this point it looks as if Dave's leg is fine for kicking but not strong enough for punting. Maybe it's too much to expect one family to provide a school with its punter and kicker for eight years.

* A lot of parents go out of their way to attend their sons' and daughters' games. Not many go as far out of their way as George Plomaritis does, however.

George, a general contractor in St. Petersburg, Fla., is the father of Dickinson College running back Alex Plomaritis, who came to Baltimore last weekend and scored four touchdowns in a 32-0 win over Johns Hopkins.

George Plomaritis was there. He's always there, no matter where the little Carlisle, Pa., school plays. When Dickinson opened the season at Hobart Sept. 12, George Plomaritis walked into the stadium 20 minutes before kickoff, suitcase in hand. He had just arrived from the airport.

The son, Alex, is an outstanding Division III back. He ran for 195 yards here. He is realistic, however, when it comes to defining his limits. Says he: "I'm right where I belong in Division III. I'm too slow for Division I."

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