Like Jim Phelan before him, 72-year-old Jim Deegan is set to cap a noteworthy 50-year coaching career in Emmitsburg

At Mount, one final lap

May 05, 2006|By PAUL MCMULLEN | PAUL MCMULLEN,SUN REPORTER

EMMITSBURG — EMMITSBURG-- --Jim Deegan was multi-tasking and networking decades before the terms appeared in a dictionary.

In summer 1956, Mount St. Mary's hired Deegan to coach cross country, soccer and track and field. He is completing his 50th and final school year at the university, although he will remain in some capacity, in straw hat and sandals, fiddling with a sprinter's form or debunking some of the tales told about him.

Deegan stories will flow at a dinner in his honor tomorrow, and his farewell is the main reason the Northeast Conference championships are being conducted here this weekend.

Deegan, 72, is older than the grandparents of some of his runners. He has guided a half-century's worth of athletes - and left many confounded by his unwillingness to use a cell phone or his impatience behind the wheel.

"Deegan was driving the van to a meet my freshman year [2001], and he was wearing a pole vault helmet," said Jay Phillips, an assistant coach who ran for the Mountaineers. "He explained that he was taking blood thinners, that `if I get knocked around and hit my head, we're done for.' I still don't know if he was serious."

Open-heart surgery in 1992 brought a premature end to Deegan's tenure as the soccer coach, but his spirit remains willing, and he's as unpretentious as the day he first set foot in this Frederick County town near the Pennsylvania state line.

When Deegan arrived, the Mount was an all-male institution and Dwight Eisenhower was a first-term president. John Unitas had yet to throw a pass for the Baltimore Colts, no American had broken four minutes in the mile and after the ball crossed the sideline in a college soccer game, the restart came via free kick, rather than a throw-in.

Fresh from his own college days as a goal scorer and half-miler at West Chester (Pa.), Deegan bonded with a fellow fast talker from Philadelphia.

Deegan and Jim Phelan were the Lewis and Clark of Mount St. Mary's athletics. With an international roster built on word-of-mouth recruiting, the Mountaineers produced 27 NCAA track and field titlists. Peter Rono became a surprise Olympic champion. Phelan coached basketball for 49 seasons, from 1954 to 2003, and was the athletic director for a good chunk of that time.

"Jim was the first person I'd go to after an NCAA convention," Phelan said. "Whenever I was looking for a loophole to get around a new rule, I'd ask Deegan."

Phelan is godfather to Deegan's children, and vice versa.

The two split the Mount's physical education classes and shared a desk dotted with mice droppings at old Memorial Gymnasium. In his first 11 autumns in Emmitsburg, Deegan coached cross country and soccer. In his second year, he added an indoor track and field team.

In 1977, basketball recruit Becky Lovett lamented that Mount St. Mary's didn't have a women's track team, so Deegan promised to start one in time for her freshman year.

There wasn't a track on campus until 1963, forcing Deegan to improvise, often to the dismay of the late Jack Dillon, the athletic director who hired the two Jims and became the Mount's first lay president.

One spring, Deegan jetted the track team to Jacksonville for the Florida Relays, unaware that the university is in Gainesville. Some of his guys hitchhiked the 75 miles. He did an end run around Dillon in 1968 and took the track team to Panama. A year later, when his 440-yard relay team earned a spot out of the Division II championships in the NCAA's Division I meet, Deegan readied his sales pitch.

Deegan: "Jack, we're going to Tennessee!"

Dillon: "We don't have the money."

Deegan: "I already bought the tickets."

Baltimore native Bill Johnson, who had run for Poly, was the Mount anchor. Checking his takeoff mark in Lane 2 in the semifinals in Knoxville, he recognized an imposing figure in Lane 3. It was San Jose State anchor John Carlos, nine months removed from a bronze medal at the 1968 Olympics and his role in a famous Black Power protest in Mexico City.

"No big deal, let's see if we can win," Johnson remembers saying to himself. "Deegan always kept us loose."

Deegan saw campus crazes range from how many people to cram into a single car in the 1950s to streaking in the 1970s.

Deegan lost more than he won in 38 seasons as a soccer coach, but much of that time was spent in the old Mason-Dixon Conference, where the competition had the resources to win NCAA Division II championships.

"There were times we had no idea what he was thinking," said Tom Gosselin, Class of '92 and now the women's coach at McDaniel College. "One rainy day, Deegan said, `Kick the ball as far as you can and run like hell.' Nobody was playing kick and run anymore, but we were faster than the other team, the ground was wet and we won, 6-1. The guy coached from his gut."

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