For Phelan, 800 victories a milestone, not millstone
By By Ken Rosenthal
Mar 02, 1999 | 3:00 AM
NEW YORK -- Hip-hop music blared from a player's room. Cheerleaders spread hand-painted signs throughout the hallway. And Jim Phelan laid on the bed of his New Jersey hotel room 3 1/2 hours before last night's Northeast Conference final, wearing a white undershirt and Philadelphia Eagles sweat pants, resting his head in his hand.
His bow tie could wait. Eight-hundred wins could wait. Forty-five years as a head coach, and a man is entitled to relax, even before a big game.
Phelan was on the verge of two milestones -- his second Division I NCAA tournament bid, and his 800th career victory. The bid, he wanted for his Mount St. Mary's players. Eight hundred, he wanted just the way it unfolded. As almost an aside.
"Coach didn't worry about it," tournament MVP Gregory Harris said.
"He wouldn't let us talk about it," center Melvin Whitaker said.
"I didn't really think much about it," senior guard Eric Bethel said.
It was almost midnight now, and Mount St. Mary's had defeated Central Connecticut State, 72-56. Phelan and his three players were answering questions at a news conference. And when Bethel talked about putting the team goal ahead of the coach's milestone, Phelan pumped his right fist.
"We were playing for the conference championship -- that really helped," Phelan said. "It got all the attention off 800. That was extraneous totally irrelevant. The whole team was going for the right to go to the NCAA tournament. That was more on their minds than anything else."
Their minds, perhaps, but not everyone's. The Mount's loyal fans waved several clever signs in tribute to Phelan -- "1-800-BOW-TIES" was one; "CCS 800, Duke 801" was another. And they roared when Phelan accepted a special award from the conference with his 4-year-old granddaughter tugging on his leg.
Dean Smith. Adolph Rupp. Clarence "Big House" Gaines. That's the company Phelan joined last night, and of that group, he's the only one not in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Maybe now that injustice will be corrected. Then again, if it's fame that Phelan was seeking, he would have left Emmitsburg long ago.
"We tried not to even think about it or talk about it," Phelan said of No. 800 before the game. "It just sticks in my mind the problems that Lefty had going for his 500th at Maryland. They couldn't seem to get it. It gets to be a mental thing after a while -- when is it going to happen? Lefty really didn't care. All he wanted to do was get it over with. That's my feeling exactly."
The truth is, Phelan expected to reach 800 well before last night. His team had been picked to win the conference, and had a chance to secure Nos. 798, 799 and 800 at home. Instead, it dropped those final three home games, and entered the tournament as the sixth seed.
"We wanted it to happen at the Mount, but it wasn't meant to be. It was meant for the whole world to see," said Newton Gayle, sounding like someone out of the Wizard of Oz, not a 6-foot-8 senior forward.
Did the players feel the pressure? Phelan hoped not, but he couldn't be sure. The seniors knew they would not get another chance to share the milestone with their coach. The players spoke with anticipation about No. 800 when they had the chance to do it at home. Maybe they spoke too soon.
Indeed, the subject was virtually taboo as the Mountaineers gathered last night for their pre-game meal at a buffet restaurant in Edison, N.J. Phelan, who turns 70 later this month, was not present. As is his custom, he was taking a pre-game nap.
"He doesn't say a word about it," senior Tony Hayden said. "That's the best part about Coach Phelan -- he never puts any pressure on you. He doesn't want to put that pressure on us. I know that. Basically, we're just thinking about Central Connecticut State."
Hayden said he was so excited, he couldn't sleep. Bethel called No. 800 "the cherry on top, the championship being the cake." And Gayle played 17 minutes off the bench after getting his left knee drained yesterday morning. He had appeared in only four games all season following arthroscopic surgery.
Sitting in his hotel room, Phelan didn't try to deny the milestone's significance, referring to Smith, Rupp and Gaines as "exalted company." But at dinner, assistant coach Don Anderson revealed Phelan's true character, recalling an NEC tournament game at Monmouth from five years ago, when the team was ready to get on the bus and the coach was nowhere to be found.
"It's snowing. It's like a blizzard," Anderson said. "We've gone through the preparation. We have a set time to get on the bus. That times comes. And we can't find him. It's like, `Oh my God, where is he?' We knocked on his door, there was no answer. We were thinking about getting the room key. Well, everyone gets on the bus, and a car pulls up. It was him. He had been at the track."
Phelan didn't go to the track yesterday, but 3 1/2 hours before the game he was in his undershirt and sweats, talking to a reporter, his television turned to CNN. He was so at ease, he seemed fully capable of coaching long enough to approach Smith's all-time record of 879 victories.
"No, I don't think so," Phelan said. "I'm not Duke. I'm not Carolina. I don't have the machine. That's the difference. We can't reload as quickly as the big-name schools. Ours is pot luck."