The hype leading up the Mount St. Mary’s men’s basketball game at Wagner on Jan. 28, 1993, centered on Jim Phelan potentially becoming the eighth coach in college basketball history to win 700 games. And while the Mountaineers celebrated after securing a 69-64 victory to help their coach join that exclusive club, he took it all in stride.
“I remember being on the road, and he couldn’t wait to get back to Emmitsburg,” recalled Kevin Booth, who was a redshirt senior shooting guard on that team and is ranked eighth in school history in career points (1,741) and second in 3-point field-goal percentage (.459). “For all of the hoopla around it, if you know Coach, he was unfazed by it. For him, it was really just another game. That kind of just sums him up and who he was. He was great, but enjoyed the simple things in life.”
Phelan, who spent 49 years as the head coach of the Mountaineers and is one of the all-time winningest coaches in NCAA history, died in his sleep Wednesday morning at his home in Emmitsburg, the university announced Wednesday. He was 92.
Mr. Phelan’s death reverberated throughout social media.
His passing was especially tough for some of his former players, including Luis Grillo, a shooting guard who ranks 19th in career scoring (1,387 points), sixth in points per game (17.3) and eighth in free throws made (353) from 1967 to 1970 and was an NBA official for 15 years.
“It’s a tough day for a lot of us,” Grillo said, his voice swelling with emotion. “He was a good man, a great man.”
“It’s been a rough day,” said Cliff Warren, who was a point guard, graduate assistant and assistant coach for Phelan for a total of nine years. “I’ve laughed and I’ve cried all day.”
To those who knew him, Phelan was simply “Coach” – a moniker that signified the respect he had earned from players, colleagues and those who followed him in the sport.
“He’ll always be Coach,” current Mount St. Mary’s coach Dan Engelstad said. “That’s what he was. He was before his time, but he was a teacher of life. I think everybody calls him Coach, to be honest with you. I never called him Jim or Mr. Phelan. He always will be Coach to me.”
“There are very few people in this world that I will call Coach,” former Mountaineers coach and current George Washington coach Jamion Christian said in an interview in 2014. “They’re Coach Phelan, Coach [Shaka] Smart [of Marquette], Coach [Pat] Flannery [of Bucknell], Coach [Bob] Johnson [of Emory and Henry, a Division III program]. I call them ‘Coach’ because they taught me more than just how to run a basketball program. They taught me how to influence lives, and they influenced me in that process.”
A native of Philadelphia and a 1951 graduate of La Salle, Phelan made the All-Philadelphia team for three straight years. He then went into the Marine Corps and led the Marine Cagers from Quantico to the All-Marine Championship. He was named the Most Valuable Player in the Corps. After his discharge, Phelan played briefly with the Philadelphia Warriors of the NBA and the Pottstown Packers of the old Eastern League.
Phelan left his hometown in 1954 to become head coach at Mount St. Mary’s College. Forty-nine years later, he guided 16 Mount teams to NCAA tournaments, including five trips to the Division II Final Four and the College Division national championship in 1962.
Nineteen of his teams reached the 20-win plateau, while just 10 have suffered losing records. Phelan led two NCAA Division I tournament teams and earned one National Invitation Tournament bid. In 1967, he was named the school’s athletic director. He served dual roles over the next 22 years, helping to lay the groundwork for the Mount’s move to Division I in 1988. Once the move was made, however, he resigned as AD to devote his full attention to the basketball program.
In the Northeast Conference championship game on March 1, 1999, Phelan became the fourth person to coach 800 college basketball victories, and led his team into its 16th NCAA basketball tournament.
When he retired in 2003, only North Carolina’s Dean Smith, Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp and Winston-Salem’s Clarence Gaines had logged more victories than Phelan, who won 824 games at Mount St. Mary’s. Phelan ranks ninth on the all-time list in Division I men’s basketball history.
Warren, who led the Mountaineers to their first winning season in Division I as a senior in 1989-90 and was an assistant on Phelan’s staff when the head coach, guided the program to its first NCAA tournament in 1995, said Phelan was famous for “Phelanisms” such as “Semper fi,” (“always faithful”) “being in a foxhole” and “showing some stomach.”
“Because he was a Marine, I observed every day those qualities of toughness,” Warren said. “He was always true to his word, to everybody around him. He meant a lot of things to a lot of people.”
Engelstad, who first met Phelan 14 years ago as a 22-year-old assistant on Milan Brown’s staff for the Mountaineers, said Phelan enjoyed attending games in person and met with Engelstad and Dave Reeder, the director of financial aid at the university, for lunch every Monday until the coronavirus pandemic struck.
Mr. Engelstad said what he appreciated most about Phelan was his unwavering loyalty to the program.
“He was with me during the lean years,” Engelstad said. “He would keep me up by being able to crack a joke or talk about his lean years and pick me up. If you’re not winning, it’s a tough gig, and he was always one to put life in perspective and help me get out of those personal ruts. I’ll forever be grateful for that.”
Christian, who was a shooting guard for Phelan from 2000 to 2003 and helped Mount St. Mary’s reach the NCAA tournament in 2014 and 2017, remembered a meeting with Phelan two days after an 86-72 loss at Long Island University on Jan. 12, 2013, in his first season as the coach.
“Coach usually came in on Wednesday, but he had such a great feel, great timing,” Mr. Christian said. “I was kind of muddling through in my mind what was happening with the team, and he came in and sat down. I said, ‘Hey, Coach, how are you?’ and the first thing he said to me was, ‘Well, Jamion, a lot better than you are.’ I looked at him and thought, ‘He’s exactly right.’ So I said, ‘Coach, you’re right.’ And then he said, ‘But you’ll find a way to beat them. Now let’s go to lunch.’ It was just one of those things where in that moment, that was exactly what I needed to hear. There were several moments like that when I played for him and after playing for him when he would just have the perfect timing to say the thing that I needed to hear. He had a little bit of humor and a lot of truth, and it’s really hard to find people who have that kind of quality.”
Phelan has been inducted into 12 Halls of Fame, including the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame (2008), the Northeast Conference Hall of Fame (2010), the Mount St. Mary’s Sports Hall of Fame (1988), La Salle University Hall of Fame (1964), the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame (2010), the LaSalle College High School Hall of Fame (2010) and the Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame (2010). He was honored with the Lapchick Character Award in 2011 at Madison Square Garden in New York.
The court at the Mount’s Knott Arena is named “Jim Phelan Court,” and the NEC Coach of the Year Award and the CollegeInsider.com Coach of the Year Award are named in his honor.
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Phelan is survived by his wife, Dottie; four children, Jim of Rockville, and Lynne, Carol and Bobby, all of Emmitsburg; 10 grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. Funeral and burial details have not been announced.