January 20, 2003

LEAVE IT to Jim Phelan, ever the coach, to turn his resignation announcement last week into a teaching moment. Reflecting on his record-setting tenure as Mount St. Mary's basketball coach, Mr. Phelan characteristically offered some common sense:

"I got to do something I liked and enjoyed. I got to continue doing something I started in the second grade."

Coach Phelan displayed that joy for a remarkable 49 straight seasons at the small Catholic college in rural Frederick County, along the way racking up the national collegiate record for the most games coached (1,339), the fourth-most wins (824), 16 trips to NCAA tournaments, and a national College Division championship (in 1962). Players on his first seven teams are now eligible for Social Security.

All this from a guy whose first impression of the Mount was that it looked like a prison and he'd never stay there very long. There have been rough times, of course, including a few flaps with past Mount presidents and a battle with prostate cancer. The NBA and bigger colleges came calling, but Mr. Phelan was never wooed away.

In the end, at 73 years old, if there's anything of which he's grown weary, Mr. Phelan says, it's the often sordid business of recruiting players - which now starts in middle school and brings top high-schoolers Hummers and NBA contracts. "It's gotten absolutely insane," he says.

Unlike so many other Division I coaches, Mr. Phelan doesn't have a shoe contract. His team's games aren't on TV. But the Mount also hasn't suffered even the suggestion of an NCAA recruiting violation.

In his trademark bow tie and with his noticeable absence of ego, Mr. Phelan casts a quiet image. Outside this region, few fans know his name, let alone his accomplishments. But year in, year out, through dramatic changes in society and the game of basketball, he's tried to get the best out of his players - on and off the court. Anyone with children playing sports, from recreation leagues to major colleges, ought to seek out just such coaches, teachers who love their games.

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