Nice guys finish . . .

March 14, 1995

The story of Mount St. Mary's, the tiny college in Emmittsburg that earned a bid to play in the national men's collegiate basketball championship this month, has something for everyone.

Lovers of underdogs will be attracted to the story of a school of 1,400 students, the oldest independent Catholic college in America, making it to the coveted, nationally televised tournament for the first time in its 187 years. (Mount St. Mary's only began competing in the top Division I a few years ago.)

Students of the game will be drawn to the professorial style of bow-tied Coach Jim Phelan, whose 737 career wins rank as the seventh most in college basketball history.

Older workers who are feeling discriminated against by a youth movement in the workplace will relish the tale of Mr. Phelan's being urged to retire by the college president to make room for younger blood a few years back -- and the president, in turn, being pressured to resign.

Americans who fret over the loss of "family values" in society will take succor from the coach's pride in having been there for his children, and now his grandchildren, rather than being driven to climb the ladder to higher-profile, more pressurized coaching posts.

And sports fans suffering indigestion from a diet heavy on pampered professional athletes, college sports factories and outsized coaching egos will savor this exception.

In fact, a perennial joy of college basketball's annual "March Madness" is the handful of little known schools who qualify by virtue of winning their small conference titles and get to take a David-esque whack at felling the game's Goliaths.

Cheers will reverberate off the Catoctin Mountains when the tournament commences Thursday with Mount St. Mary's scheduled to play the renowned University of Kentucky team in the Southeast bracket. (The players said they were thrilled to get to travel to Memphis for the game; had they been placed in the East grouping, they would have enjoyed only a bus trip to the Baltimore Arena, which is hosting the first two rounds in that region.)

It is abundantly evident that Coach Phelan has inspired and shaped legions of young people who have passed through the Mount in his 41 years there. The school's exciting tournament bid aside, that is the essence of Jim Phelan's contribution -- and you can bet he knows it.

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