49 years later, Phelan set to call it a career

Mount St. Mary's coach announces he'll retire at end of the season

Legend, 73, plans to `sleep in'

More recruiting demands factor into his decision

coach has 824 victories

College Basketball

January 17, 2003|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

EMMITSBURG - Citing fatigue caused by increased recruiting demands, Mount St. Mary's men's basketball coach Jim Phelan announced yesterday that he would retire from coaching after this season, his 49th at the Frederick County school.

If the Mountaineers don't make it to the NCAA tournament, Phelan, 73, has six weeks of coaching left before he hands the reins over - probably to assistant coach Milan Brown - and becomes a consultant for the college.

"Sleep in. Not worry about grades," he said of what he would do with his time after basketball. "Spend more time with my grandchildren."

Only North Carolina's Dean Smith, Kentucky's Adolph Rupp and Winston-Salem's Clarence Gaines have logged more victories than Phelan, who has won 824 games at the Mount in a career that stretches from the Eisenhower administration to the current era of baggy shorts.

But after all that time, the last thing the coach wanted was a major production of his departure. "He just wanted to just go away," said Dottie Phelan, who married the coach two weeks before the couple came to Emmitsburg in 1954. "He's a quiet man. He wanted to allow the alumni to say goodbye."

This wasn't like the recent retirement of Charles "Lefty" Driesell, who woke up one day, decided that he didn't want to coach basketball anymore and immediately quit his job at Georgia State. Phelan acknowledged that the announcement was the only part of his decision that was new - part of a process months old and finalized earlier this week.

In the summer, he had approached athletic director Harold Menninger about the idea of stepping down, mainly because the recruiting component had worn him down. Much of those duties went to Brown and fellow assistant Kirk Saulny.

"I didn't have the energy for the AAU championships and everything that this has developed into," he said, though he added that his energy in general wasn't a problem. "I feel good. I feel almost like I can get out there and play, but I'm going to pass on that."

Phelan broke the news to his players Wednesday evening. Some were surprised by the announcement more than others, said junior guard Jamion Christian.

"It was hard to believe, because he doesn't like press-related events," Christian said. "We're glad because after 49 years of service, he deserved to go out with a last hurrah."

"He did it now to give everyone a good chance to come to a game before the end of the season," said Cardinal Gibbons coach Bob Flynn, who was an assistant under Phelan for 10 years before moving on to coach St. Mary's College. "All the tough long road trips are over. He didn't do it before the season because he didn't want a rocking chair retirement tour."

Flynn said he has remained close to Phelan and attended yesterday's news conference and subsequent reception. "I was all choked up. It just reaffirms the passage of time. It will be strange to look over on the Mount St. Mary's bench and not see Jim there.

"He had an amazing career. I mean 49 years and not even a sniff or hint of a recruiting violation. I enjoyed a private moment with Jim in his office before he went down to the press conference. He called me two days ago to tell me he was going to do it."

A Philadelphia native, Phelan had barely finished his playing days when he came to the Mount, after he'd played at La Salle College for one year and served there as an assistant in 1954 under Hall of Fame coach Ken Loeffler.

He remembered visiting with Dottie and thinking that the campus looked like a prison. He arrived with the hopes of doing his time in this rural environment before moving on to bigger things.

Yet, in a 1999 Sun article, he remembered what Loeffler told him about the job. "He said, `You'll win a lot of games, you'll stay a long time and nobody will know who you are.' How prophetic."

Despite getting offers from Rutgers and Georgetown during the 1960s, Phelan led the team to 14 NCAA tournament appearances, including a national championship at the College Division in 1962, before the school upgraded to Division I in 1988.

One of the notables to play for him in his early years was Fred Carter (1966-69), who went on to a playing and coaching career in the NBA.

"He's a great character and a great people person," said Carter, now an NBA analyst for ESPN. "It's hard to relate to kids in different decades, and he was able to do that."

Carter and the Mount's leading scorer, Jack Sullivan (1954-57), also made the trip to Emmitsburg for yesterday's announcement.

Over the past eight years, the Mountaineers have earned a pair of berths in the Division I tournament.

The game that put him into the Division I championships for the second time, the Northeast Conference final in 1999, was his 800th victory. That milestone perhaps was enough to put him in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Smith and Rupp are the only other members of the 800 club, and both are in the Hall. Phelan is not. Yet the man with the trademark bow tie said that snub stopped bothering him a long time ago.

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