NEW YORK - Dottie Phelan wanted to make the trip to New York last night to see her husband, Jim Phelan, coach his record 1,276th game for Mount St. Mary's. She said a win wasn't important, but reaching the milestone was. Phelan thought it would be best for Dottie to miss the journey to the Big Apple.
As it turns out, Dottie Phelan didn't miss much, at least not after Phelan was honored for staking his claim as the NCAA's all-time leader in games coached. His Mountaineers fell to Columbia, 56-44, at Levien Gymnasium.
"It's a very disappointing loss. We were not doing anything right," said Phelan, whose team shot 35 percent from the floor. Even though Columbia (2-2) committed one more turnover (21-20), poor shooting and sloppy play caused the Mountaineers (0-4) to let a 25-22 halftime lead evaporate. All Phelan could do was watch.
"I never for a minute thought it was going to be easy, but we were not doing anything right. Offensively, we were awful," said Phelan, who was presented with the basketball after the tip-off. The loss, however, made the record-breaking appearance bittersweet.
"To make the milestone, all I had to do was show up," said Phelan, 71, who passed former Winston-Salem State coach Clarence "Big House" Gaines in the record books. "It's nice to get a ball and have something written on it, but it would be better to have a win."
Not that he doesn't have enough. Phelan's 809 victories make him the winningest active college coach. He's among the most successful in the game, only trailing legends Dean Smith (879), Adolph Rupp (876) and Gaines (828). Those three are no longer strutting courtside, but they are in the Basketball Hall of Fame, a place Phelan has yet to be invited. Even with last night's loss, Phelan was able to put a positive spin on the Hall of Fame oversight.
"It's a good trivia question," Phelan said with a smile. "Name the only coach with 800 wins who's not in the Hall of Fame. But it doesn't bother me. I don't miss what I don't have."
Entering his 47th season with the Mountaineers, Phelan may not have the Hall of Fame. But, add up all the active minutes of games he's coached - including the 66 five-minute overtime periods - and Phelan has spent slightly more than five weeks of continuous basketball action on the hardwood. Not bad for a man who originally planned to spend just one year at the rural Emmitsburg school.
"I took a one-year contract instead of three because I wasn't sure my wife would like it in the country," said Phelan, a Philadelphia native who was a newlywed when he signed with Mount St. Mary's in the fall of 1954. After the first season, Phelan and wife, Dottie had their first of five children and decided to stay another year. Eventually, one more year became two and so on.
One of Phelan's five children, Lynne Robinson, did make the trip from Emmitsburg with three of Phelan's nine grandchildren. Robinson said the pre-game presentation was moving.
"Coaching and his life are meshed together and it's been a part of all of our lives," said Robinson, waiting for her father outside the visiting locker room. "We were just hoping they could put a win together for him."
Phelan said he never dreamed he'd coach this long. His current players, who were born as Phelan hit his third decade with Mount St. Mary's, realize that they're playing for a legend.
"We were at our pre-game meal and we were in awe of how long he's been around," junior guard Esmond Marvray said of Phelan, who is currently undergoing radiation treatment for prostate cancer, but shows no signs of slowing down. "It's amazing. I've learned a lot under him because he's been through everything."