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Phelan's 49-year run to come to an end

Long-time Mount coach will retire after this season.

Long-time Mount coach will retire after this season.

January 17, 2003|by BOB PARASILITI

bobp@herald-mail.com

EMMITTSBURG, Md. - For 49 years, Jim Phelan has weathered the winds of change in men's college basketball.

It took just short of a half century, but on Thursday, Mount St. Mary's legendary coach decided to come in from the rain.

Phelan announced his retirement from the small NCAA Division I school at the end of the 2002-03 season before a gathering of family, media and well-wishers, ending a career that was packed with professional triumphs and personal changes on the road to success.

"I don't know what happened. It all seems like yesterday," Phelan said at the noon announcement at midcourt in Knott Arena. "Here it is, it's 49 years later and I'm still on a basketball court, worrying about today's practice and what we are going to do in the next game. It's been an incredible run."

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The 73-year-old Phelan, who has an 824-515 record, will end his reign as the nation's winningest active coach come March. He is presently fourth on the all-time coaching victories list, four short of overtaking Winston-Salem College's Clarence "Big House" Gaines for the third slot. That would only leave Kentucky's Adolph Rupp and North Carolina's Dean Smith ahead of him.

Phelan is one of only six coaches - including Tennessee women's coach Pat Summit - to win 800 college games.

The amiable Phelan, complete with his trademark bowtie, proved nice guys don't always finish last. He guided the Mountaineers to the 1962 NCAA college division (Division II) title and has averaged 17 wins over his tenure, which has split its time between the Division I and II levels.

Finally, the ever-growing magnitude to be a college coach finally caught up with Phelan. The competition to recruit has turned the profession from seasonal into a year-round endeavor.

"I don't have the energy for Las Vegas, Orlando, the AAU (offseason recruiting)," Phelan said. "If you don't do it, you don't feel like you are doing your job. What used to be your offseason is no longer your offseason. That to me was the hardest part of the job - the offseason."

Mount St. Mary's hired Phelan at a time when it had gone through six coaches in eight years and found the man who added more than stability to the program.

Phelan has coached in a record 1,339 games and has taken the Mountaineers to 16 NCAA tournaments, including five Division II Final Fours, two NCAA Division I berths and one NIT tournament appearance. One of his most memorable moments came in 1965 when he helped Fred Carter, a former NBA player and now ESPN analyst, start integration on the Mount campus.

"This is probably the first press conference I have ever been at where everyone knows what's going to happen before it starts," Mount athletic director Harold "Chappy" Menninger said. "Without question, this is a bittersweet day for Mount Saint Mary's."

Phelan's life changed once he came to Mount St. Mary's back in 1954, leaving his Philadelphia roots behind for rural Maryland.

"I had never seen a farm until I came here," Phelan said. "This has been a remarkable run of 49 years that wasn't supposed to be that long. I have been asked why I didn't leave. I've had opportunities but I found a place where the quality of life is so great and the neighbors and friends are great, you hesitate. It all happened for the best. Life has been enjoyable."

In honor of the coach's accomplishments, Menninger delayed naming Phelan's successor until today at another noon press conference. Mount's associate head coach Milan Brown is the probable successor.

Phelan will also be honored at this spring's graduation commencement ceremonies when school president George R. Houston will present him with an honorary doctorate degree.

Phelan said he had contemplated retiring for a while and talked with his wife Dottie, his family, friends and the Mount's administration about his decision. One family member tried to talk him out of it and others wanted him to stay for a 50th season.

"I knew it had to end. Some ask why not try for 50 years. Fifty years and 800 wins are just numbers. The time was right," Phelan said. "Numbers are numbers. It doesn't mean a thing to me to get this number or that number. You see that movie every Christmas ... It's a Wonderful Life. I've had a wonderful life."

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