Mount survives tough year

Bill Tanton

March 11, 1993|By Bill Tanton

Jim Phelan hates to hear the disagreement between himself and the president of Mount St. Mary's this winter described as "a power struggle."

A struggle, by definition, is a fight. After 39 years as basketball coach, Phelan has too much affection for the Mount to want to besmirch it by conducting a public fight with its leader.

What actually happened is that the president, Dr. Robert J. Wickenheiser, sent Phelan a letter six days before the start of practice -- horrendous timing, by the way -- saying he wanted this to be Phelan's last year.

Phelan, strong-willed South Philadelphia Irishman that he is, did not accept the president's letter.

Why would Wickenheiser want to get rid of a coach who has been at the school 39 years and taken 14 Mount teams to NCAA tournaments, including a College Division national championship in 1962?

Wickenheiser looked at Phelan and saw a 64-year-old in a young man's field, a coach who had won only six games last year and eight the year before that. The president felt it would be best for everybody -- Phelan included -- if a change were made.

Wickenheiser already had given his coach and friend a contract at age 60 that would pay him full salary to the age of 70 -- whether he coached or not.

Some felt Phelan was crazy to want to continue the non-stop recruiting and scouting, the wearying bus trips and heart-breaking losses (the Mount had lost 41 games in the previous two seasons).

But Phelan is a basketball coach, pure and simple, and he believed he could bring the team back to respectability.

One man close to the situation described the Phelan-Wickenheiser thing as "an honest difference of opinion between two honorable men."

Wickenheiser backed off.

"Jim Phelan is a legend at Mount St. Mary's," the president said. "I don't want to get in a power struggle with Jim. If he wants to stay, he can stay. Most of all I want to see him get his 700 career wins."

Going into this season Phelan needed seven wins to reach 700. Dick Vitale, for one, said: "My old friend Jimmy may not get 'em this year."

But Jimmy got 'em, and he got six more besides to finish with a 13-15 record.

Last week Phelan was named the Northeast Conference's co-Coach of the Year with Rider's Kevin Bannon, whose team won the conference tournament Tuesday night and now moves on to the NCAAs.

Ironically, on the very day that Phelan was honored by the conference Wickenheiser announced his resignation effective May 10.

On the surface it looked as if Phelan had trounced Wickenheiser, but even those who sided with the coach know it was not that simplistic.

Wickenheiser has been president of Mount St. Mary's for 16 years, twice the current national average for college presidents. The political reality is that every time a president makes a tough decision, he loses some supporters. In 16 years, that can leave him without a lot of support.

Wickenheiser clashed with his faculty, some of whom wanted to turn the Mount into another Harvard or Stanford. Wickenheiser felt that was impractical. The college, with upgraded academic requirements, was starting to have trouble getting students admitted -- and then retaining them. In the autumn, Wickenheiser fired a popular dean, alienating many of his faculty members.

Wickenheiser, though only 50 years old, had had health problems, including gallstones, and had missed a lot of time. The unpleasantness with Phelan didn't help, but that alone didn't cause the president to resign. And it was his decision.

Phelan, meanwhile, is breezing along toward age 65 and looking forward to his 40th season as coach, which doesn't surprise those who know the family. Jim's mother was a jogger until she died in her son's arms two years ago at the age of 86.

"Things look pretty good for next year," Phelan says. "We've got a 7-footer coming in [Randy Edney, from New Jersey]. We play our first four games at home [the team played its first four on the road this year and started off 0-4]. Then we go on the road and play Georgia Tech and Florida State."

Due back for three more years is Chris McGuthrie, the 5-8 point guard who led the Mount in scoring this year with a 19.8 point average.

For Phelan, it sounds like business as usual. For Mount St. Mary's, there probably will be an interim president appointed in another month. A search committee will be formed that will spend a year choosing a permanent successor for Wickenheiser, who is credited with having brought Mount St. Mary's through a difficult financial period, when small colleges were struggling or failing.

This has been a tough year for the Mount. Traumatic may not be too strong a word.

But we're talking about the oldest independent Catholic college in America. In its 185-year history, it has survived many disagreements between its key people. No doubt, it has survived a few power struggles as well.

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