Mount's Phelan travels gently in climb to pinnacle

March 08, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

As much as Jim Phelan stands out among the fraternity of college basketball coaches for what he has done in 41 years at Mount St. Mary's, the real beauty of his career is what he hasn't done.

What he has done, of course, is win 737 games, more than all but six coaches in college basketball history. He has taken five teams to the Final Four of the small-college division and Division II, winning the title in 1962 and losing in the final in 1981.

Now, with the Mount's victory in the Northeast Conference tournament over the weekend, he has taken a team to the pinnacle of today's college game, the Division I tournament.

Yet it is what he hasn't done that makes him truly special.

He hasn't sold his soul. A top college coach. Imagine that.

Unlike so many coaches today, he hasn't succumbed to self-promotion or accepted lower ideals for the sake of furthering his career.

He hasn't averted his eyes from a string of academic atrocities committed in the name of getting more TV exposure, or succumbed to the over-coaching bug, making substitutions at every whistle and generally making the game a lot more complicated than it really is. (Attracting attention in the process, of course.)

He hasn't resorted to begging for the favor of 18-year-olds with jump shots, or jumped from job to job just to climb incrementally higher on the coaching ladder every few years, leaving behind a string of broken contracts, broken promises and confused underclassmen.

He hasn't seen the need to transform himself into a sweating, cursing, purple-veined cartoon on the sidelines, or become a self-important, little general unable to look anyone in the eye.

The lesson in his long and splendid career is that you can still make it to the top without compromising yourself in the many ways that so many coaches do these days.

You can find immense self-satisfaction without selling off any part of yourself.

You can be a normal, family-first person and still succeed. What a concept.

"He has done it the right way for four decades, and even with all the pressure in the game now, he hasn't changed," said Bob Flynn, a Loyola High School graduate who was Phelan's assistant from 1984 to 1994, and is now the head coach at St. Mary's College. "There are things that are wrong with college basketball, but Jim is everything that is right. Forty-one years without a hint of an NCAA investigation. A 96 percent graduation rate. It's incredible."

Flynn drove six hours each way to be there Sunday at Rider University when Phelan made it to the Division I tournament for the first time. For anyone who knows Phelan well, the moment was too big to miss.

"I was on the bench with him when he won his 600th and 700th games, but this was the ultimate," Flynn said. "Not that he had to have it to feel satisfied or anything. He was satisfied with his career a long time ago. He keeps coaching because he likes it and he's still good at it."

There is no doubting that last point, as anyone who saw Sunday's game on ESPN can attest. After his team was limited to 16 points in the first half, Phelan made two critical changes at halftime, going to a half-court trap and using different offensive sets to open up some jump shots. The result was a 53-point second half and a win.

"Jim out-coached Rider like crazy," Flynn said. "It was perfect for him to win that one that way."

Not that his style ever changes too much. He has always used a motion offense and a pressure defense, and had encouraged his players to shoot jumpers. He is loath to call timeouts, and lets his players play.

In other words, you don't have to micro-manage your players on the court to get somewhere as a coach . You really don't.

For a while back in the '60s, he thought about leaving for the brighter lights, but he was too comfortable in Emmitsburg, as was his

family. He raised five children there. Now, there are grandchildren all over the place.

And yes, he has had his tough times. He went 16-31 over two years in the early '70s, and was 6-22 three years ago, when the Mount was reeling from moving to Division I and had to wait three years to become eligible for postseason play.

"People said then that the game had passed him by, but that was crazy," Flynn said. "He just didn't have the players."

In 1993, the school's president gently suggested that he retire. That president is now at another school. Phelan is going to the Big Dance.

It's a beautiful story, no less than that. Phelan's profession went crazy a long time ago, but he refused to play along. He sat back and told jokes about "the [coaches] in the business suits who used to wear leisure suits," and kept running the same plays and winning.

Sure, he has done his share of barking on the sidelines and fretted like anyone else over his losses. But he has dared to be normal. To keep it all in perspective.

"When I talk to other coaches," he said in an interview a few years ago, "some of them and all of their wives tell me, 'You were the luckiest of us all. You got to do what you wanted to do and accomplish what you wanted to accomplish, but you got to be with your family and you didn't have to go through the circus.' I agree. I think I was the luckiest one of all."

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