Phelan near milestone victory, but numbers just part of story MAN BEHIND THE MOUNT

January 28, 1993|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,Staff Writer

EMMITSBURG — Jim Phelan isn't consumed by milestones.

Phelan, 63, can win his 700th game as Mount St. Mary's coach against Wagner tonight in Staten Island, N.Y. The significance of this coaching feat -- accomplished by only seven others, all Hall of Famers, in college basketball history -- is not lost on Phelan, a legend in his chosen small corner of the world.

But there's more to Phelan's story than just a number of victories. His career at Mount St. Mary's has been built on family, faith, friendships, integrity and loyalty.

Energetic again

After two uncommonly dreary seasons, Phelan is energized again. The "goose bumps and tingle" have returned, and he is alive on the sidelines, working the officials, prodding his players.

For the first time since the school joined the Northeast Conference in 1989, the Mount can take the league lead with a victory tonight. Phelan is seizing the day, enjoying work again after a stretch when he felt his team was too passive.

Magic No. 700 is on the back burner.

"He hasn't mentioned a word to us about it," said sophomore forward Michael Watson. "I don't think he wants the players to think much about it. Then, when it comes, we can all enjoy the moment."

The players wanted to win the 700th at Knott Arena, so the community, the fans and the students could share the jubilation. But they would have to lose two straight road games -- tonight and Saturday -- for that to happen.

"We don't want it to happen at home now," said senior guard Kevin Booth. "We wanted to give the local people who come a lot something to look forward to, but we can't think about that now. We're in a title race.

"Coach just prefers that it not be a big ordeal. He tries to make everything simple."

Assistant coach Bob Flynn said his boss is "more excited that we finally started playing good basketball.

"It would be great for his family and friends if it happened at home, but, from a selfish standpoint, we'd have more time to share it with the players on the road. Here, we'd be inundated."

Country life

Phelan's migration to the sleepy Frederick County town he has called home for 39 years has been well-documented.

He grew up in a tough South Philadelphia neighborhood, was raised by his mother alone and became one of the nation's premier defensive players at La Salle.

Phelan then served a hitch in the Marines and spent a year as an assistant to La Salle coach Ken Loeffler. In 1954, Loeffler told Phelan of an opening at a small Catholic college near Gettysburg, nestled in the foothills of the Catoctin Mountains.

Phelan was offered a long-term contract, but signed for only a year, because he wasn't sure he'd like the place. His wife, Dottie, grew up on Philadelphia's Main Line and, he said, "had never even seen a cow."

Within a year, they had fallen in love with Emmitsburg, and, as the program prospered and the family grew, Phelan began to resist offers from big-time schools and even one from the Baltimore Bullets.

"I was surprised he never left," said Jack Sullivan, cornerstone of Phelan's first Mount teams and still the school's all-time leading scorer.

"But, as the years went by, it got to a point where you couldn't have got him out of there with a bomb."

Dottie, as effervescent as Jim is low-key, said that she was homesick when he first accepted the job.

"We were going to be here a couple of years at the most," she said. "But then it got to the point where every time someone called Jim with a feeler for a job, I would just hold my breath. I didn't want to leave."

"My wife wanted to go home every weekend at first," Phelan said. "But then the next summer we had our first child [of five] and visits to Philadelphia got few and far between," Phelan said.

"We were accepted here from the start. The people were great to us.

"Neither of us had ever known a farmer," he said. "That first summer, I was helping to make hay, and, when I got finished, I've never been so exhausted in my life. I never realized how hard those people worked, how strong they were."

"He just staggered down the lane that day," said Dottie. "The guy he was working with was going over to milk the cows. From that day on, he had total respect for the people here."

Family man

The Phelan home wasn't dominated by basketball.

The Phelans have five children, but they never pushed them hard toward athletics. Only Lynne, now the Mount's assistant athletic director specializing in the women's program, excelled on the collegiate level.

And Phelan was never one to bring a game home.

"One time, he came home from a double-overtime loss at home, which was so rare in those days," said Dottie. "The children were young and allhyped up. I told them not to bother their father.

"He looked at me and said, 'Dottie, the kids aren't bothering me, but you are.' "

Lynne Phelan said: "In the days before radio and videotape, he would call after every away game to let us know how they'd done. Mom could never tell if they'd won or lost until he told her."

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