Family man holds court

College basketball: For Jim Phelan of Mount St. Mary's, his role as the winningest active Division I coach in the country takes a back seat to his role as husband, father and grandfather.

From the perimeter

February 20, 1999|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

EMMITSBURG -- Looking at Jim Phelan's cluttered office at Knott Arena, it is difficult to tell that he is the winningest active Division I coach in the country or that he's on the verge of doing something only three others have accomplished in their careers -- win 800 games.

There are more family photos than team pictures, more references to Phelan's life as a husband, father and grandfather than to his now legendary 45-year career at Mount St. Mary's. "If he has a bad side," said his wife, Dottie, "it's that he doesn't promote himself."

You have to take the trip to the home Jim and Dottie Phelan bought some 40 years ago for $13,000, the home in which they raised their five children and still live, presiding over an extended family that includes nine grandchildren and more than four decades' worth of friends.

Only by going into the well-appointed family room does one come to understand the depth of Phelan's success.

"My shrine," Phelan, who will turn 70 next month, facetiously tells a visitor one morning last week.

The curator of this museum is Dottie Phelan, who married her husband two weeks before he left his job as an assistant coach at LaSalle and their native Philadelphia to come to a place that was a lot more rural than it is now.

The family room is a photo album come to life.

It also includes a few of the more treasured mementos from his coaching achievements. The game balls from his 400th, 600th and 700th wins are on prominent display -- "I don't know what happened to No. 500," said the curator -- along with the plaque he received last year as the winner of the Claire Bee Award for lifetime achievement.

"He's made me put away a lot of things," said Dottie Phelan. "None of his playing trophies are out here, but they are really old."

The number of pictures, like the family itself, keeps growing. The Phelans are an aberration in this age of the nuclear family. Lynn Phelan Robinson and her three children will soon be moving into a house two doors away.

Sticking together

It has always been this way. Jim and Dottie, who were both only children, built an addition on the house after their mothers were widowed and brought them here to live. One of their grown sons recently moved back into one of the apartments.

"For us growing up, it was so nicely blended," said Phelan Robinson, who works across the hall from her father as the school's assistant athletic director and compliance officer. "Maybe that's why it's worked so well for so long for him."

Phelan Robinson can recall her mother sending the kids out of the house for a five-minute walk to the old campus gym. She can recall her father having to stop practice to break up a scuffle or two between her brothers.

Some things haven't changed. A few weeks ago, Dottie Phelan held one of her other daughter's 4-year-old twins on her lap during a game. "Erin wanted to go see `Pop', but I told her `Pop' was working," Dottie Phelan recalled. "She said, `Pop's not working, he's just sitting there.' "

Though neither of them could say with any certainty, Jim Phelan believes his wife has been to more home games than he has, since he missed two, once after being involved in a head-on crash during a blinding snowstorm and another time because of a kidney stone.

Asked if those games count among the 797 victories, Dottie Phelan doesn't give her husband a chance to answer.

"It counts because I was there," she said.

Dottie Phelan never went to many road games, what with three of the kids born within the first four years of their arrival here. In the years when the games were not broadcast on radio, she would wait for the telephone to ring.

"I could never tell whether we won or lost," she said. "He would say, `Good,' or `No good,' and then go on and say something about the game."

Dottie Phelan recalled sitting by the telephone another time, a couple of years ago when her husband had been nominated for the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. He was out playing tennis at the time.

The phone call never came.

"I told myself I'd never do that again," she said.

Will Hall of Fame call?

Jim Phelan doesn't figure that even his 800th victory will guarantee him selection, though the other three coaches who've won that many are all members. He doesn't have the kind of profile you get coaching at North Carolina and Kentucky, as Dean Smith and Adolph Rupp did. Nor does he have the personality of `Big House' Gaines, the larger-than-life former coach at Winston-Salem State.

"I kind of like being the only one with 797 wins not to be in," said Phelan. "Once they started putting women and foreigners in, and with the pro bent to the Hall of Fame, I knew it would be difficult for a coach from one of the non-power schools to get it. If it happens, it happens."

He remembers what another Hall of Famer, La Salle coach Ken Loeffler, told him about the Mount St. Mary's job.

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