Knotty problem

The Baltimore Sun

There are plenty of good reasons to root for Mount St. Mary's tonight. If the Mountaineers beat Sacred Heart in the Northeast Conference tournament championship game, they'll reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999, and the first time since a certain bow-tied iconic figure retired after 49 years at the school in 2003.

But Milan Brown, Jim Phelan's replacement and former assistant, has one more for you.

"If we're lucky enough to win [tonight] and advance," Brown said as he and his players bused to Fairfield, Conn., yesterday, "maybe it'll shine new light on the coach, and it'll make some people think, 'I don't know how we forgot about him, but we forgot about him.'"

By "people," Brown means whoever selects inductees for the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. Once again, they have forgotten to select Phelan, implying that they are not impressed by his 830 victories, his small-college national championship, his two National Coach of the Year awards, his groundbreaking and trailblazing, and the goodwill and respect he has fostered all over the country for a half-century.

To hear Phelan, who turns 79 a week from today, you would think he pays this all no mind. "I kind of like being the answer to a Jeopardy! question," he said, not entirely joking, from the Emmitsburg home he has lived in since taking the job in 1954. "'Who's the only coach with 800 wins who isn't in the Hall of Fame?'

"I don't care," he said, convincingly. "My wife [Dottie] cares, a lot of my friends care, but honestly, I don't."

Fred "Mad Dog" Carter cares -- a lot. Carter, the former Baltimore Bullet, is still the most instantly recognizable of Phelan's former players, thanks largely to his nearly 40 years playing, coaching and broadcasting in the NBA. Phelan brought him to Mount in 1965, integrating not only the basketball program and the athletic department, but also the entire school.

"I'm very disappointed in the people on the selection committee," Carter said. "These same knuckleheads, when he passes on, they'll vote him into the Hall of Fame then. Why not do it now when he can enjoy it, when he and his family can enjoy it? It's a disgrace."

Phelan was first nominated for the Hall in 1991, by now-retired Sun sportswriter and editor Seymour Smith; he made the final cut his first two years but not at all since. Because the selection process is so shielded from the public, one can only speculate on what keeps him out. The suspected culprit is a small-school stigma.

Ridiculous, say his supporters.

"The teams he beat then, the Georgetowns, the Loyolas, the Southern Illinoises, the Old Dominions, they all became Division I later," said Army women's coach Dave Magarity, a longtime foe at Marist in the 1980s and '90s. In those days, he said, "the Mount had such a great aura about it, and of course, it was all because of him."

The snub "is just a travesty," he added.

"In my mind, basketball is basketball," Brown said. "You just play who they line up in front of you. He did what he was supposed to do."

Phelan still holds records for most seasons coached at one school and most games coached overall. Just as Phelan pointed out, when another coach crosses the 800-win threshold -- as Mike Krzyzewski and Eddie Sutton did this season -- his name is on that still-short list.

His fellow coaches showed their admiration for him on the date of his last game, in 2003, wearing bow ties at their games in his honor. Even Clarence "Big House" Gaines, already retired after his own stellar career in the lower NCAA divisions at Winston-Salem, wore one in the stands when he watched his former team play.

Gaines entered the Hall in 1982. Krzyzewski made it in 2001. Entering since Phelan's 800th win in '99: Jim Calhoun, Jim Boeheim, Lute Olson, John Chaney, John Thompson and Roy Williams. It would be patently unfair to disparage their qualifications. But from now on, no coach should get in before Phelan.

Among the 2008 finalists, with winners to be announced Final Four weekend in San Antonio, is Dick Vitale. If he gets in before Phelan, it would rise from "disgrace" to "crime."

Just don't run any of that past Phelan. "I'm in a bunch of them," he said, naming all the state, college, high school and regional shrines to which he belongs. "But not the big one."

That should give you a big reason to root for Mount St. Mary's tonight.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Starting this week, David Steele appears Wednesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

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