Phelan unknots his 49-year tie

Coach: No. 3 in wins but No. 1 in neckwear, Mount St. Mary's revered basketball boss takes a final bow tonight after 49 years - and possibly 830 victories.

March 01, 2003|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

EMMITSBURG - The line on Jim Phelan: 829 victories, 524 defeats and about 70 ties. Bow ties, of course. Retro neckwear in a rainbow of colors, a swirl of patterns. Game-day garb for the gray-haired Phelan, the basketball savant at Mount St. Mary's College for nearly half a century and the third-winningest college coach of all time.

Now, after 49 years, Phelan is calling it a night. The man with the bow ties takes his final bows this evening in a sendoff against Central Connecticut State. And when the game ends, the tears subside and the lights go out at Knott Arena, Phelan will slip off his cravat and stash it in the corner of his underwear drawer with his other bow ties.

Someone with a bigger ego might create a shrine to his distinctive neckwear. Not Phelan. Last week, Wagner (N.Y.) College officials presented the Mountaineers coach with a keepsake, a framed bow tie mounted under glass. "How sweet," Phelan's wife, Dottie, said. "Do you want to take it out and wear it, Jim?"

His peers were to salute him today. From coast to coast, coaches planned to dress for their games in typical Phelan- esque fashion. Even Clarence "Big House" Gaines, retired coach of Winston-Salem State, whom Phelan passed on the all-time victories list last week, vowed to honor his old adversary at a weekend tournament in Raleigh, N.C.

"I'm going to go through my drawers, find a bow tie and wear it in honor of Jimmy boy," Gaines said.

`It's been a great run'

Phelan's legacy is legend, almost Ripken-like. He has coached more college games (1,353) than anyone. When he arrived at the Mount in 1954, gasoline cost 21 cents a gallon, Elvis Presley was cutting his first record and the modern Orioles made their big-league debut. That was 10 U.S. presidents ago. Since then, Phelan, 73, has missed four games, two of them in 2000 while battling prostate cancer.

An acquaintance quipped: "Jim, you've been coaching so long, you came in with [bandleader] Harry James and you're going out with [high school basketball phenom] LeBron James."

Phelan shrugged off his permanence, saying: "It just happened. I'm sure Cal [Ripken] feels the same way. You go with the flow; it's just what you do."

His team took the NCAA College Division national championship in 1962, winning two of its final three games in overtime. All told, Phelan's charges won 11 conference titles, made seven NCAA tournament appearances and reached the Division II Final Four five times. Twice, he was selected National Coach of the Year (1962 and 1981); on six other occasions, Phelan was named top coach in the region or conference.

"Someone once said, `When your livelihood depends on 18-year-olds wearing short pants, you're in for lots of ups and downs,' " said Phelan, who will be succeeded by assistant coach Milan Brown. "There's no secret to coaching; it's who you are. The time has flown by, and it's been a great run."

Thirty-five times, Phelan's teams posted winning seasons, though this year's team is 10-16. Only two coaches in history have managed more career victories: North Carolina's Dean Smith (879) and Kentucky's Adolph Rupp (876).

Players swear by their mentor long after they leave the Mount. "I'm 67 years old, and I still call him `Coach,' " said Jack Sullivan, the school's all-time scoring leader. In 1960, three years after graduation, Sullivan coaxed his fiancee into driving 100 miles to the campus to meet Phelan. Only after they wed did Sullivan reveal that he'd gone to seek the coach's blessing.

Luis Grillo ('70) is aware of his roots every time he sets foot on the court to referee a pro game. "Coaches come over and ask about Jimmy. They know a ref's pedigree, his basketball DNA," said Grillo, an NBA official for 15 years. "Because I played for Jimmy Phelan, coaches know that when I miss a call, it was an honest mistake, nothing personal, and that I'm not trying to screw them. That's the comfort zone [Phelan] put me in.

"He was an excellent coach and the most unpretentious human being I ever met. Tell you what, if it was up to me, any coach who doesn't wear a bow tie [today] would get hit with a technical foul."

Phelan the player

Phelan was a typical basketball child of the 1940s. Growing up in an Irish-Italian enclave in South Philadelphia, he arrived at La Salle College in 1947 and immediately impressed teammates - not with his shooting and dribbling, but with his defense. Bob "Ace" McCann remembers Phelan's knees, which were frequently embedded in his own as he tried to drive.

"Best defensive player I ever saw," said McCann, the other backcourt star for La Salle's postwar national power. "Jim was a strong guy who liked to play you with his knees. He'd get right up on you and push his knees into your legs. I'd never seen anyone do that.

"We called him `Hawk' because he never gave up. That first scrimmage, I told him, `You won't last a game, the way you harass guys.'

"Well, I think Jim fouled out of one game in three years."

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