Phelan stands the test of time Winner: Forty-three years after coming to Mount St. Mary's, the victories keep coming for Jim Phelan, college basketball's winningest active coach.

November 28, 1997|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

EMMITSBURG — Mount St. Mary's College President George R. Houston Jr., was incorrectly identified in an article in yesterday's Sports section.

The Sun regrets the errors.

EMMITSBURG -- Retirement communities are selling out just on the other side of the Pennsylvania border, a tax haven of sorts for card-carrying members of AARP. Then there's the cemetery that was built last year on the campus of Mount St. Mary's. It has no vacancies.

"If we built another one, I think that would sell out, too," said George Laughlin, the school's president for the past four years. "My sense is that a lot of older people want to come up here. It's a beautiful part of the country in which to live." They come for the scenery of the Catoctin Mountains and for the serenity of living in this Western Maryland town.


Mount St. Mary's basketball coach Jim Phelan didn't come for those reasons when he packed up his bride of two weeks and moved here from Philadelphia 43 years ago.

"It was a hard sell," Phelan said recently. "My city-bred wife had never seen a cow before."

Jim and Dottie Phelan have never left.

More than four decades after his arrival, Phelan has gone from being a relatively unknown 24-year-old assistant coach from La Salle to a relatively well-known, 68-year-old institution. In the process, he has won 772 games and, last month, quietly became the winningest active coach in Division I.

When Dean Smith retired, Phelan moved to the top of the list. The way he found out, and how he reacted to his new found status, was typical of a coach more famous for wearing bow ties than taking bows.

Phelan had been pursuing one of his favorite pastimes, going to the racetrack that night in Charlestown, W.Va., and came home to the news that Smith had called it quits after 36 years and 879 victories at North Carolina.

"My wife said, 'You're the winningest coach,' and I asked her, 'Did he die?' " recalled Phelan, who will return to his alma mater tomorrow when Mount St. Mary's plays the Explorers in a 1 p.m. game at the Spectrum. "All I had to do was get up the next morning.

"It feels awfully strange to gain something like that by attrition. You didn't do a thing except be alive and just be active. I never thought Dean would retire. I thought he would go for 1,000. But the pressures there are so much greater than they are here."

Not that the locals don't take their basketball seriously around here. Early in Phelan's career, some disgruntled fans hung him in effigy, just as some fans in Chapel Hill did during Smith's second season. "We turned around and won 23 of the next 24 games," said Phelan.

Phelan never really came close to leaving, passing up opportunities to coach at Rutgers and Georgetown in the years after his 1961-62 team's College Division national championship. He even talked to the Baltimore Bullets about a head coaching job.

"The only one he would have wanted would have been La Salle, but they never called for some reason," Dottie Phelan said.

Then there was the falling out with former college president Bob Wickenheiser.

It happened before the 1992-93 season. Wickenheiser had called Phelan to his office for a meeting a few months earlier, after the team had finished a horrendous 6-22 season. Wickenheiser mentioned that he wanted to talk about the future.

This time, Wickenheiser's secretary merely sent the coach a letter stating that Phelan was entering his final season.

"His comment was, 'You'll be surprised at how little support you have,' " said Phelan. "I said, 'We'll see about that.' "

A difficult time

It was to be the last time Wickenheiser and Phelan spoke. A few months later, on the same day Phelan was being honored as the Northeast Conference co-Coach of the Year after the team finished 13-15 overall, Wickenheiser left to take a similar position at St. Bonaventure.

"It was a hard time," said Phelan. "I had a 10-year contract. I wasn't ready to retire. I don't know why it ever came up. He had been very supportive since he came here in '77. We had some glory years. He didn't understand that recruiting is very cyclical."

Phelan gets little satisfaction out of this memory, because his wife was the godparent of one of Wickenheiser's children. And he eventually will have to retire. His current contract runs out at the end of next season.

Asked about his plans, Phelan was a little coy. Maybe a tad evasive.

"It's TBD," he said.

Joked Dottie Phelan: "I'll probably retire before he does."

Whether it's ABD (already been decided), athletic director Cappy Menninger is also mum. He promised Phelan when he came in four years ago from Fairfield University that he wouldn't discuss Phelan's contract publicly. "Mount St. Mary's will honor the contract," said Menninger.

But Menninger doesn't have to look far to see Phelan's likely successor. Assistant coach Don Anderson, 41, has been at the Mount nine years and was a head coach at nearby Gettysburg College for three. He, too, doesn't like talking about taking over.

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