Mount's Phelan steps up legendary ladder

EMMITSBURG — EMMITSBURG -- Forty years ago, when Jim Phelan and his wife, Dottie, made the three-hour trek from their South Philadelphia home to Mount St. Mary's College, he thought it was going to be just a pit stop on his charted college coaching career.

"Actually, I think only two people applied for the job," said Phelan, 65. "Just me and Jack McCloskey, who I played against when I was at La Salle and he was at Penn.


"At the time, McCloskey was coaching high school ball in Haddonfield, N.J., and I had just finished my first year as an assistant to Ken Loeffler, my coach at La Salle.

"Jack Dillon [then Mount athletic director] hired me to coach basketball and baseball, and teach physical education, all for $4,500 a year. He convinced McCloskey he had too good a job to give up."


While McCloskey, now the general manager of the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves, has since held countless coaching and administrative jobs, Phelan has remained at the Mount, each year achieving new coaching honors and milestones.

On Wednesday, when his Mounts played Virginia Commonwealth, he coached his 1,106th game, replacing the late Hank Iba, the legendary Oklahoma State coach, as No. 2 on the all-time list behind retired Clarence "Big House" Gaines of Winston-Salem State, whose record of 1,275 games seems unapproachable.

Phelan (722-384), who will coach against his alma mater for the first time tonight, has no regrets about remaining at the Mount.

"I never missed what I didn't have," he said. "Before coming here, I'd had my taste of big-time basketball. At La Salle, I played against John Wooden's UCLA teams and Pete Newell, when he was at San Francisco. Then I was fortunate to have helped coach a La Salle team [starring Tom Gola] to the national title in 1953.

"I also got a chance to play briefly in the NBA with my hometown Philadelphia Warriors. I was a teammate of Jumpin' Joe Fulks and Neil Johnston. In my very first game, I got to play against the Celtics and Bob Cousy.

"If I hadn't done all those things, I might have second-guessed myself about missing something. But over the years, a lot of coaches have told me that they envy me, and that I didn't miss a thing not being part of the [big-time] circus.

"I'm very comfortable in this job. It's been a great place to plant roots and raise a family," said Phelan, who has five grown children and seven grandchildren.

Over the years, of course, attractive offers came from bigger colleges and also the then Baltimore Bullets after Paul Seymour quit as coach following the 1966-67 season.


"I talked to Rutgers, Virginia, Lafayette and Georgetown, before they hired John Thompson," said Phelan, who is second to Dean Smith in victories among active coaches.

"I even got a feeler years ago from La Salle. But word got back to me that someone in the school's administration didn't care for a coach who wore a bow tie. Funny thing was that back then, I didn't always wear a bow tie. But once I heard that, it became a fixture with me."

Looking back, Phelan said beating St. Francis (Pa.), starring Maurice Stokes, in his first year, and beating Villanova in his first meeting in 1957 were major highlights.

But his fondest memory remains capturing the NCAA Division II title in 1961-62 with a team led by John O'Reilly. The Mounts won the semifinal and championship games against Southern Illinois and Sacramento State by 58-57 scores.

Phelan also could look back proudly on integrating the campus in 1965 when Fred Carter, a product of Philadelphia's inner city, became the first black student at the Mount.

"That was a real breakthrough up here," Phelan said, "The school and community supported Fred from the start. We had some trouble when we played games down South that first year, but Fred's teammates made sure nothing got ugly."


Carter would go on to play in the NBA and later became head coach of the 76ers. But his pioneer days at Emmitsburg would open the doors to other black students and outstanding athletes.

There was pressure two years ago by then school president Robert Wickenheiser to relieve Phelan of his duties and head "in a new direction" with the basketball program.

But Phelan's record and tremendous popularity with area residents quickly ended such talk.

"I was going to get paid the last seven years of my 10-year contract not to coach," said Phelan, who outlasted Wickenheiser, who resigned in November.

"I could have played golf and gone to the racetrack. But I wasn't ready to retire. I still enjoy coaching and working with kids. Believe me, I'll know when it's time to quit."



I= The top five in college games as a head basketball coach:

Coach .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Games

Clarence Gaines .. .. .. .. .. .. .. . 1,275

*Jim Phelan .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 1,106

Henry Iba .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. . 1,105

Marv Harshman .. .. .. .. .. .. .. . . 1,103


Ray Meyer .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. . 1,078

* -- active