The basketballs still bounced in Memorial Gymnasium on the campus of Mount St. Mary’s University on Thursday evening less than 48 hours after the passing of legendary head coach Jim Phelan. The sneakers still squeaked, the jumpers were still on target, and the players still competed. The defending Northeast Conference Champions were competing in a mid-week pickup game in the old gym where Phelan had built the Mountaineer program. They competed just as hard as Phelan had coached for the 49 years he was the head coach on the beautiful campus just south of the Mason-Dixon line.
All of it just the way Coach would have wanted it.
Phelan won 830 games at the Mount in a career that spanned 49 years from 1954 until he retired after the 2002-03 season. Remarkable in any era and downright preposterous in today’s revolving door coaching world, Phelan coached them all at Mount. St. Mary’s. When Phelan took over in the spring of 1954, the program had won 471 games in its 45 seasons under 16 different head coaches. By the time Phelan coached his last game, the school had a basketball identity. The win total had nearly tripled under his guidance to 1,301.
At the time of his passing, no one has won more games at Mount St. Mary’s than Jim Phelan. That is not overly surprising considering he ranks 13th all-time on the NCAA wins list. But what I meant to say was that Jim Phelan has more wins at Mount St. Mary’s than everyone else – combined. His 830 victories are 112 more than the other 21 coaches have racked up.
Along the way, his teams reached the NCAA Division 1 Tournament twice, the NCAA Division 2 Final Four on five occasions, winning the national championship in overtime in 1962 over Sacramento State.
As mind-blowing as those numbers might be, they aren’t the most impressive numbers or the most important numbers. Those numbers lie in the 217 student-athletes that he coached and guided through the years. Doctors, lawyers, investment bankers, school administrators among them, many kept in close contact with Phelan throughout the years.
“I consider it one of the great blessings of my life,” former Mountaineer Tony Hayden said of playing for Phelan via telephone from his Philadelphia area home late this week. “I think his flexibility with people was something. He didn’t coach everyone the same way. He recognized some people needed more urging than others, and some you had to back off a little bit. He was a player’s coach.”
Phelan grew up in Philadelphia, had a standout career at LaSalle, and played briefly for the Philadelphia Warriors in the NBA before becoming a coach. His first coaching job was at his alma mater as an assistant for one season in 1953-54. LaSalle won the national championship that season. Phelan headed to Emmitsburg shortly after that and never left.
Hayden joined the team a year after the Mount made its first trip to the NCAA Big Dance, facing Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament the year before. In those press conferences before the tournament action, fans got to see a part of Phelan that Hayden thinks might have often been hidden, the fact that Phelan was “funny, really funny.”
His sense of humor was on display during the pre-tournament press conference. Matched up with the daunting task of playing the top-rated Wildcats, Phelan quipped, “Kentucky has ten McDonald’s All-Americans. I have ten guys that eat at McDonald’s.”
Always viewed as an offensive coach, players were more likely to earn a spot on the bench for the shot they failed to take rather than the one they missed.
Silas Cheung shot the 1995 team into the NCAA Tournament, lighting up Rider’s Alumni Gymnasium with 5 second-half trifectas en route to a 19-point NCAA bid NEC Tournament MVP producing effort.
“He’d say, ‘Silas, if you’re not going to shoot it, you might as well be next to me. That’s why you’re in there.” Cheung recalled.
Cheung also talked about a recent visit he shared with Phelan and his wife Dottie about a month and a half ago.
“He’s just so genuine. They both are just great people. Dottie is always so sweet. I am very thankful I got to see them recently.”
He recalled Phelan’s efforts and noted that he always made time for his players and that he led by example as much as with his words.
“He just wanted to make sure that he helped turn you into a good man, a good father, a good person. He helped you through things. If you fell, you got up. He always made sure he had the time for you,” Cheung said.
As word of Phelan’s death spread on Tuesday, many who knew him, played for him or against him, coached with him or on the opposite bench, took to social media to express their memories, sadness, and admiration for him. Among them was one of the Mount’s all-time greats Riley Inge, the starting point guard against Kentucky in that NCAA Tournament game. Inge shared a pair of stories that he had kept to himself until now about Phelan’s profound impact on his life. A summary of Inge’s Facebook post is included here with his permission:
Inge recalled that he joined the Mount mid-season during the school’s second semester and that he was joining classes midstream and, in some cases, continuations of first semester courses. He noted that his professors had concerns about the situation, and a meeting between Mount President Robert Wickenheiser, Phelan, himself, and various department heads occurred. He recalls being uncomfortable and feeling unwanted when Phelan says, “I get paid to coach and win basketball games. You all get paid to teach students. Riley’s a student here now. Teach him what he needs to know, and I guarantee you he will graduate with a degree from Mount St. Mary’s.”
The words gave Inge chills. He admits that at that moment, he had no intention of graduating. He was thinking about going to the NBA, having a productive career, and becoming a coach.
“But when he guaranteed my graduation, I felt like I couldn’t make him a liar and let him down.”
Inge graduated in 1998. Inge also noted that his graduation came two years after his eligibility expired but that Phelan made sure he had the opportunity even when he was no longer scoring baskets and winning games for him. A promise Inge said Phelan had made to his Inge’s mother. Inge concluded his post with the following,
I’m telling y’all he cared about his people and he was a special guy. If you were fortunate enough to know him or be coached by him, you were a lucky person. Again, thank you coach for believing in me when I didn’t believe in myself. — Inge
Regardless of ability, frequently walk-ons don’t get much playing time on a college basketball team. Without a Division 1 scholarship offer upon graduating from St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia, Hayden received the same opportunity Phelan gave his players on scholarship — to earn his playing time. An option that might not have occurred with another coach. Hayden started from day one.
“He did things a little differently,” Hayden admitted. “He certainly charted his own course. Like with the bowtie.”
Ah, yes, the bowtie. Phelan’s signature bowtie. Out of respect for his college coach Ken Loeffler who wore a bowtie, Phelan wore a bowtie in his first game. The Mount won. So he wore it the next game. The Mount won again, and the tradition was born. He wore the bowtie for all but one season. He gave it up when his daughter said it was “gross”, but an uncharacteristic losing season brought the bowtie back the following year.
I always find that when you talk to coaches, particularly those nearing the end of their career or already done coaching, they remember the losses more than the wins. Those are the ones that are hard to shake. Phelan had a way of turning the page and moving on.
With Phelan that always seemed to be deeply tied to his love and devotion to his family. His wife Dottie and his five children have always been at the center of the equation for Phelan. It’s a fact that all of the players I spoke with in the recent days brought up.
Jamion Christian played for Phelan’s final three teams. Christian’s first head coaching job came at Mount St. Mary’s and he will enter his third season as the George Washington head coach this season. He said he attempts to bring many of the same things he saw with Phelan to his players.
“As a coach the way you live your life around your players and in front of your players is important. When you look at coach, the relationship he had with his family and the way he incorporated you within that family. He cared tremendously about you and cared about what was best for you. He would fight for that for you.” George Washington head coach Jamion Christian said.
My roots to the Mount are deep. Phelan’s 1981 team was a glorious group that hooked me. The offensive style and the excitement of Memorial Gymnasium, particularly the night of March 7, 1981 reeled me in. Two weeks shy of my 8th birthday, I was impressionable. And the sights that unfolded that evening were unreal.
Playing in the NCAA Division II South Atlantic Regional final against Elizabeth City State, the Mount saw a late lead evaporate and trailed by one with 2 seconds left and needed to go the length of the floor and score to survive and advance.
As Mark Purdy wrote in The Gettysburg Times on Monday following the win:
Coach Jim Phelan had a plan. So did (Dennis) Dempsey.
As the story goes, Dempsey wanted to attempt to draw a foul on the inbounds play by getting the defender to run into him. Phelan was simply designing a play to hope that a half-court heave fell in. Dempsey, who had unsuccessfully tried the play in practice earlier in the week, convinced Phelan it was worth a whirl. He was right. The Elizabeth City State defender plowed into Dempsey and the referee called the foul. Dempsey calmly made both free throws and a devastated ECSU team called a timeout it didn’t have. The Mount made more free throws and ran out the clock.
“We didn’t call the play. He called the play,” Phelan said of the heroics afterwards.
That made me a Mount fan.
But it’s that family culture that has kept me. A culture of family that Jim Phelan used to build his basketball program. It’s something that every individual I’ve talked to about Phelan in the last few days has at the front of their minds.
A family culture that is truly special. A family culture that is truly infectious. A family culture set in motion by a Hall of Famer in every way. A family culture that will continue.
“Our family culture is something that has been passed down at the Mount,” current head coach Dan Engelstad said on Friday. “Coach Phelan passed that down to Coach (Milan) Brown and gave him his blessing and he in turn passed that down to me. The family dynamic has always been important here. I want to keep that. Because a closer family makes for a more enjoyable journey. I want to make him proud, not just in words, but in the way I live it.”
Someday, and it might be sooner than later based on what I saw in that pickup game, the Mount will win for the 1,661st time in school history. With that win, all of the other coaches will finally have more wins than Jim Phelan.
As Mount St. Mary’s fans, we’ll do what we do with wins.
We’ll put a bowtie on it and remember how we got there.