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EMMITSBURG -- Retirement communities are selling out just on the other side of the Pennsylvania border, a tax haven of sorts for card-carrying members of AARP. Then there's the cemetery that was built last year on the campus of Mount St. Mary's. It has no vacancies.

"If we built another one, I think that would sell out, too," said George R. Houston Jr., the school's president for the past four years. "My sense is that a lot of older people want to come up here. It's a beautiful part of the country in which to live." They come for the scenery of the Catoctin Mountains and for the serenity of living in this Western Maryland town.

Mount St. Mary's basketball coach Jim Phelan didn't come for those reasons when he packed up his bride of two weeks and moved here from Philadelphia 43 years ago.

"It was a hard sell," Phelan said recently. "My city-bred wife had never seen a cow before."

Jim and Dottie Phelan have never left.

More than four decades after his arrival, Phelan has gone from being a relatively unknown 24-year-old assistant coach from La Salle to a relatively well-known, 68-year-old institution. In the process, he has won 772 games and, last month, quietly became the winningest active coach in Division I.

When Dean Smith retired, Phelan moved to the top of the list. The way he found out, and how he reacted to his new found status, was typical of a coach more famous for wearing bow ties than taking bows.

Phelan had been pursuing one of his favorite pastimes, going to the racetrack that night in Charlestown, W.Va., and came home to the news that Smith had called it quits after 36 years and 879 victories at North Carolina.

"My wife said, 'You're the winningest coach,' and I asked her, 'Did he die?' " recalled Phelan, who will return to his alma mater tomorrow when Mount St. Mary's plays the Explorers in a 1 p.m. game at the Spectrum. "All I had to do was get up the next morning.

"It feels awfully strange to gain something like that by attrition. You didn't do a thing except be alive and just be active. I never thought Dean would retire. I thought he would go for 1,000. But the pressures there are so much greater than they are here."

Not that the locals don't take their basketball seriously around here. Early in Phelan's career, some disgruntled fans hung him in effigy, just as some fans in Chapel Hill did during Smith's second season. "We turned around and won 23 of the next 24 games," said Phelan.

Phelan never really came close to leaving, passing up opportunities to coach at Rutgers and Georgetown in the years after his 1961-62 team's College Division national championship. He even talked to the Baltimore Bullets about a head coaching job.

"The only one he would have wanted would have been La Salle, but they never called for some reason," Dottie Phelan said.

Then there was the falling out with former college president Bob Wickenheiser.

It happened before the 1992-93 season. Wickenheiser had called Phelan to his office for a meeting a few months earlier, after the team had finished a horrendous 6-22 season. Wickenheiser mentioned that he wanted to talk about the future.

This time, Wickenheiser's secretary merely sent the coach a letter stating that Phelan was entering his final season.

"His comment was, 'You'll be surprised at how little support you have,' " said Phelan. "I said, 'We'll see about that.' "

A difficult time

It was to be the last time Wickenheiser and Phelan spoke. A few months later, on the same day Phelan was being honored as the Northeast Conference co-Coach of the Year after the team finished 13-15 overall, Wickenheiser left to take a similar position at St. Bonaventure.

"It was a hard time," said Phelan. "I had a 10-year contract. I wasn't ready to retire. I don't know why it ever came up. He had been very supportive since he came here in '77. We had some glory years. He didn't understand that recruiting is very cyclical."

Phelan gets little satisfaction out of this memory, because his wife was the godparent of one of Wickenheiser's children. And he eventually will have to retire. His current contract runs out at the end of next season.

Asked about his plans, Phelan was a little coy. Maybe a tad evasive.

"It's TBD," he said.

Joked Dottie Phelan: "I'll probably retire before he does."

Whether it's ABD (already been decided), athletic director Cappy Menninger is also mum. He promised Phelan when he came in four years ago from Fairfield University that he wouldn't discuss Phelan's contract publicly. "Mount St. Mary's will honor the contract," said Menninger.

But Menninger doesn't have to look far to see Phelan's likely successor. Assistant coach Don Anderson, 41, has been at the Mount nine years and was a head coach at nearby Gettysburg College for three. He, too, doesn't like talking about taking over.

"He's still got a lot of fight in him," Anderson said as Phelan was getting ready to begin a recent practice. "I think he'll continue to coach as long as we continue to win."

When his players look at Phelan, they don't see a grandfatherly type who has watched the game pass him by.

Asked what it is like to play for a 68-year-old coach, A. J. Herbert, a freshman guard from Randallstown, smiled. "I didn't know he was that old until you mentioned it," said Herbert, who met Phelan when his sister played here from 1989 to 1993.

Few coaches are so closely identified with a program as Phelan. North Carolina won a national championship before Smith arrived. Only the legendary Clarence "Big House" Gaines coached longer at the same school -- 45 years at Winston-Salem State -- than Phelan.

"Jim and Dottie have been so much a part of the fabric of the Mount St. Mary's community for so long," said Laughlin, who came here after spending most of his professional life at Georgetown and lives on the same street as the Phelans.

Family first

One of the reasons Smith decided to retire was that he had spent only one weekend in the past year with his grandchildren. Perhaps the biggest reason why Phelan never pursued any big-time jobs was because his family always came first.

It's evident in Phelan's office. The pictures of his five children and nine grandchildren are scattered about his cluttered desk. "They knew nothing else but living up here," he said. "It was a tough sell even to my city-bred wife, who had gotten used to the hills."

In fact, it's Dottie Phelan's new passion -- golf -- that could keep her husband coaching a little longer. Since taking up the game last year, Dottie Phelan has become hooked. In fact, she passed up tomorrow night's game for a golf trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C.

"He wants to know, 'Is the woman who used to cook coming back?' " Dottie Phelan joked earlier this week.

It was Dottie Phelan who came to her husband's defense a few years back, leaking the information about the plan to oust him to the local media. She has also been his strongest supporter in his bid to make the Basketball Hall of Fame. Phelan has been nominated twice, but never elected.

"That doesn't bother me like it bothers my wife," he said. "I find it very difficult to miss something I never had."

Sort of like the world of big-time college basketball. A man with a bigger ego might feel that his resume, not to mention his life, was lacking in that regard. When he was offered the job, Phelan thought Mount St. Mary's was a place to stop for a couple of years before moving on and up.

Phelan remembered what Jack Dillon, the athletic director who hired him and later became the school's president, told him when he took the job. "He said, 'It's a beautiful place to live. You're going to love it. You're never going to leave.' "
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