Phelan wraps it up in bow with 830th win at Mount

49-year run ends at Knott, but celebration is national

March 02, 2003|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

EMMITSBURG - Game No. 1,354 started just as the first one did nearly five decades ago for Mount St. Mary's basketball coach Jim Phelan. He shook some hands, offered some words of encouragement, tied his trademark bow tie in the locker room, then walked onto the court and kissed his wife, Dottie.

Doing things any different just wouldn't have felt right.

Phelan, 73, closed the book on his record-setting career in style last night as Mount St. Mary's defeated Central Connecticut State, 60-56. The win was No. 830 of Phelan's career, third on the NCAA's all-time list for coaching victories.

"This has never been work for me," Phelan said. "It's been all fun and games for 49 years with a bunch of wonderful people. It's been a great ride, one I never dreamt of having."

For the sellout crowd of 3,196 at Knott Arena, last night was a chance to pay tribute to a man who has been a fixture in this small farming community since his arrival in 1954. Men and women, old and young, wore bow ties and chanted his name throughout the game, and when it was over he gave more handshakes and hugs than he could count.

Among the well-wishers was Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who wore a white bow tie and declared yesterday "Jim Phelan Day" across the state.

"Coach, you represent everything that is good and decent about college athletics," Ehrlich said in a post-game ceremony. "You've touched more lives than we could ever count. Thank you."

The feelings were not exclusive to Emmitsburg. All across the country, college basketball coaches donned bow ties, hoping to acknowledge a man who has coached in more games than anyone else in NCAA history.

"I looked like an 11-year-old kid," said Kansas coach Roy Williams, who wore a bow tie as did Bob Huggins of Cincinnati, John Calipari of Memphis and Jay Wright of Villanova, among others.

Phelan's opposing coach, Central Connecticut's Howie Dickenman, wore his father's bow tie, something he always has carried in his pocket at games but had never worn.

"Every time I'm watching TV today, I'm seeing guys wearing bow ties," Phelan said. "I guess that's what longevity does for you."

Phelan moved to the top of the most-games-coached list on Nov. 25, 2000, passing Clarence "Big House" Gaines. Only Dean Smith of North Carolina (879) and Adolph Rupp of Kentucky (876) have won more games among Division I coaches.

It hasn't always been about wins and losses, however. For Phelan, it's been about building a sense of community and breaking down barriers. Before Phelan arrived, only one black student had ever attended Mount St. Mary's College, but after he recruited Fred Carter in 1965, it helped change the face of the college. Eleven of the 14 current Mountaineers are African-American and Phelan has made this one-stoplight town feel like home to a kid from the city.

Carter, who went on to a successful NBA career and is now a sportscaster with ESPN and was among the former players at Knott Arena last night, said of Phelan, "I am who I am because of him."

Phelan shrugged off the praise.

"I always tried to let my players be men," he said. "I never did a bed check once in my 49 years here. If a player said he was going to be in bed by 11, I believed he would be. I just tried to help kids as they grew into adults."

"When we recruit kids, we can tell them this is a community they can feel welcome," said Mount assistant coach Milan Brown, who will take over for Phelan next season. "He really made this feel like a family."

Run into him in the streets and Phelan could always becounted on for a wave.

"He's an institution around here," said Eugene Myers, who grew up five miles down the road from the college. Myers and his friends started coming to Mount games in 1953, the year before Phelan arrived, but it was his honesty, his character and his up-tempo style of basketball that kept them coming back.

"He's always got a smile for everyone when he sees you," Myers said. "Back in the '50s and '60s, we'd follow the team on the road. We just kind of became attached to them. I hate to see him go."

The Mountaineers (11-16) won't qualify for the Northeast Conference postseason tournament, but Phelan's legacy has long been secure. His teams made five NCAA Division II Final Fours and two NCAA Division I tournaments. In 1962, the Mountaineers won the NCAA College Division national title.

One of the players on that team, Dave Maloney, now vice president for development at the University of Oklahoma, said Phelan's warmth and integrity set the tone for the whole school, not just the players.

"He knew all my friends as well as he knew me," Maloney said.

Maloney was among 160 guests at a pre-game reception hosted by Mount St. Mary's president George Houston. Like many guests, Maloney wore a bow tie borrowed from Phelan.

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