For Phelan, The Dance is real ball

March 07, 1995|By BILL TANTON

EMMITSBURG -- In its 187-year history, Mount St. Mary's has never created excitement like this.

The Mount is the oldest independent Catholic college in the United States. It has produced countless successful alumni. In basketball, it won the NCAA Division II championship in 1962.

But not until Sunday, when Mount St. Mary's defeated Rider, 69-62, to win the Northeast Conference championship and a spot in the NCAA Division I tournament -- and did it before a national television audience on ESPN -- did the Mount create a sensation from coast to coast.

You don't believe it? You should have been in coach Jim Phelan's office yesterday.

TV crews were rolling in and setting up equipment for interviews. The night before, Phelan received some 50 congratulatory phone calls at home. One came from Jim Schmidt, who played ball with Phelan in the Marines in 1952. The two hadn't seen each other in 40 years.

"Schmidt went on and played for the Minneapolis Lakers," Phelan said. "He told me their entire bonus pool for winning the NBA championship was $75,000 and George Mikan and Jim Pollard got $60,000 of it."

Yesterday radio stations literally from all over the country were calling for interviews.

To a guy in Portland, Ore., Phelan had to explain where Mount St. Mary's is.

"We're 10 miles from Gettysburg," Phelan said, "50 miles from Baltimore, 60 miles from Washington."

To a woman sportscaster in Seattle, first name Babe, the frisky Phelan said through an ear-to-ear grin: "What do you say, Babe? This is the first time I ever called a woman Babe without getting slapped. You're not going to slap me, are you?"

Not every call was complimentary. A man called New York Vinnie said he had watched the game and was struck by the appearance of the 65-year-old Phelan.

"Bill Bendix?" Phelan said in disbelief. "I started out looking like Paul Newman. Now I'm William Bendix."

Ego has never been a problem with Phelan. He learned when he was cut by his hometown Philadelphia Warriors in 1954 how easily he could be replaced.

"Why should I pay you $4,500 a year to throw the ball in to Neil Johnson?" The Mogul, Eddie Gottlieb, who owned the Warriors, said to Phelan, "when I can get Danny Finn to do the same thing for $4,000?"

That sent Phelan into coaching. That first year, he was an assistant to his old La Salle coach, Ken Loeffler. La Salle won the NCAA championship.

"Worst team -- talent-wise -- ever to win the NCAA championship," Phelan said. "But we had Tom Gola."

The next year Phelan came to Mount St. Mary's for what he thought would be a year or two. Forty-one years later, he's still coaching the Mount. Now he has the team in the Division I tournament for the first time in the school's history.

That's the story line that appealed to ESPN -- the balding, great guy coach who, after 41 years at the same school, goes to The Dance for the first time.

That, as Phelan has learned since Sunday evening, is the HTC scenario that touched people all over America.

"We're ESPN's new favorite team," Phelan was saying yesterday. He couldn't wipe the smile off his face.

Few people realize how close this dream came to being dashed.

In the fall of 1992, Mount St. Mary's president Dr. Robert J. Wickenheiser sent Phelan a letter that traumatized the college and much of the town.

Wickenheiser said in it he wanted the coming season to be Jim's last. The president had given Phelan a contract that would pay him until he reached the age of 70. The contract, Wickenheiser said, would be honored in full even though Phelan would no longer be coaching.

Phelan refused the letter. Extreme bitterness ensued.

In this tiny college community -- the Mount has only 1,400 students, graduate and undergraduate -- the president's kids babysit the coach's kids. They all go to Sunday Mass together.

There would be no more of that after Wickenheiser's letter.

L "One of them has to go," a Mount supporter said at the time.

He was right. And the one who left was Wickenheiser, who is now the president at St. Bonaventure.

At the same time, the college's trustees were considering dropping back to the NCAA's no-scholarship Division III. Fiscally, it made some sense to play in a league with nearby schools such as Gettysburg, Western Maryland, and Franklin and Marshall. The trustees decided to stay the course in Division I.

"That decision," Phelan said yesterday, "was made for the students. Basketball is an important part of what Mount St. Mary's is. It's one of the things that attracts students to this school."

If the president's plan to sideline Phelan had taken effect, or if the trustees had decided to quit Division I, the Mount and Phelan would have been denied the joy that pervades the campus this week.

Now the school awaits the announcement of Sunday's 64-team tournament draw. At the conclusion of the Rider game, a Mount St. Mary's student held aloft a sign that said: "We Want UCLA."

Yesterday the school's sports information director, Eric Kloiber, cringed at the thought.

"I don't want UCLA," Kloiber said. "I want Florida International."

Phelan smiled again.

"The hardest part, getting to the tournament, is over," he said. "I told our kids to just enjoy it now, no matter who we play. We'll play either a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed and the pressure will be on them."

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