Trip down memory lane a great ride for fans of Phelan

January 17, 2003|By MIKE PRESTON

EMMITSBURG - In about 90 minutes yesterday, Jim Phelan gave us one more trip through his 49-year coaching career at Mount St. Mary's. Oh, what a wonderful ride.

He marched in Eisenhower's inaugural parade in the 1950s as a Marine and won a national championship at La Salle. He took us through seven college presidents, 10 U.S. presidents, about a dozen assistant coaches, five children and 11 grandchildren.

We laughed when he talked about overcoming prostate cancer and how Fred Carter became the first African-American at the school. We heard tales about Jack Sullivan averaging 32 points a game, and how the bow tie became Phelan's trademark.

As the stories flowed, it was hard to imagine that Phelan wasn't going to be telling them on this court much longer as head coach. The man who brought decades of national prominence to this small, Frederick County college announced yesterday that he was going to retire at the end of the season.

The mood was bittersweet. No one has coached more college games (1,339) than Phelan, 73, whose 824 career victories are the most among active coaches. Phelan is fourth all-time behind Dean Smith (879), Adolph Rupp (876) and Clarence "Big House" Gaines (828).

This day wasn't totally about wins and losses, but the end of a lifelong commitment that we may never see again in college sports. Phelan didn't have a shoe contract, a TV deal, a radio show or any major endorsements, just a love affair with his sport and the community.

It just seems so pure in this day and age.

"You expect Coach to keep coaching and coaching and coaching," said former Mount St. Mary's standout Carter, now a basketball analyst with ESPN. "That's been his life. I don't think people really know and understand the impact Coach had on Mount St. Mary's. The Mount was just a glitch before he came along. People worldwide know Mount St. Mary's. When I think of this school, I think of Jim Phelan.

"Most coaches die out, they fall off the vine, fall off the branch. He withstood the test of time, and left on his own terms."

Carter said Phelan was never interested in race, but in success. He sold The Mount like it was a new, hot, red Porsche. And he sold it with humor.

Phelan recruited Carter at an all-star game in Philadelphia. Carter had never been out of the city until Phelan brought him to Emmitsburg.

"He asked me if I would like to come to Mount St. Mary's, and I told him I didn't, but I'd like to see it," Carter said. "So he picked me up, drove me down to The Mount. I could see trees, cows and grass. I was used to the concrete jungle. I said, `How many blacks in the school?' He said, `Freddie, look in the rear-view mirror and that's the only one you will see.' "

Phelan didn't fall in love with The Mount instantly. He tells the story of his first visit on a rainy day when his wife, Dottie, thought the school looked like the state penitentiary in Pennsylvania or New York. But Phelan liked the lifestyle.

He liked the farms and the cows. He liked being able to leave his house unlocked, and the farmers towing him out of snowstorms with his tractor. Plus, his kids wouldn't let him leave. They liked it here, too.

Phelan had other job offers, including one to join the NBA.

"When you find a place, where the quality of life is good, and then the friends and neighbors are great, then you are hesitant to leave," Phelan said. "Time came and time went. The time for leaving went with it. But I've been blessed with great players and great people over 49 years. It's been a remarkable run."

Phelan has always been a straight shooter, one who doesn't want the spotlight. He wanted to make his retirement announcement at the end of the season, but changed upon urging from family and faculty members.

If Phelan had his way, he'd coach his last game and just walk out the door.

He feels the same way about not being in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

"I think numbers are numbers," Phelan said. "I think Bobby Knight, perhaps, is going to stay on long enough to get [past] Dean Smith. It just doesn't mean a thing to me. I just know who I am, what I am, and I just don't try to do anything different."

Then Phelan smiles.

"Who is the only coach with 800 wins not in the Hall of Fame? It's a nice trivia question," he says.

Phelan brought a lot of laughter to the room yesterday.

Before even being asked about his battle with prostate cancer that was first diagnosed in 2000, Phelan said: "The PSA [Prostate Specific Antigen] is 0.5. People our age, that's all we talk about when we get together. `What is your PSA?' "

When asked if he just woke up one morning and decided to retire the way Lefty Driesell did recently, Phelan replied: "No. Lefty has his way of doing things. I have my own way of doing things. He is different than I am. He is very good basketball coach. He has a better stomp than I have. I have better control of the vulgarities."

Phelan has never taken himself too seriously. All he ever wanted to do was coach basketball, and he found his niche early at The Mount.

"He definitely belongs in the Hall of Fame," Carter said. "Those knuckleheads that are voting have got to recognize every criteria, that he is fourth overall in victories, third in Division I. So what are they going to do, wait until he is gone? Why not vote him in now and let him enjoy it."

It really doesn't matter to Phelan. He has been enjoying himself for the past 49 years.

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