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No. 5 in the Untouchables: Jim Phelan’s 49 seasons at Mount St. Mary’s

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Ex-Mount St. Mary's coach Jim Phelan enjoys one of his last days in his office before retiring in 2003 (AP)

The Untouchables is a 10-part series spotlighting college basketball's most unbreakable records. Up next is No. 5: Jim Phelan's 49 years coaching Mount St. Mary's.

When they left the bustle and bright lights of South Philadelphia in 1954 for the rolling hills of the northern Maryland countryside, newly hired Mount St. Mary's coach Jim Phelan and his wife Dottie could not have felt more out of place.

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Phelan, then 25, had never seen so many acres of farmland or orchards before. Dottie wondered where all the shops and restaurants were. They were so uncertain whether they could make tiny Emmitsburg, Md., their permanent home that Phelan chose not to sign the three-year contract school officials initially offered him.

"I told them I'd coach year-to-year," Phelan said. "Well, one year became two, two became three, three became four. Next thing you know, I'm here 10 years, I have tenure, I'm winning games and things are going well."

Indeed Phelan and his wife put down deeper roots in the rich Emmitsburg soil than he ever could have expected. When he removed his signature bowtie for the final time in 2003, he had coached a record 49 seasons at Mount St. Mary's, seven years longer than any other college basketball head coach has ever spent at one school.

In a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately era of college basketball dominated by ambitious coaches and trigger-happy administrators, it will be tough for anyone to challenge Phelan's mark. Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, Sacred Heart's Dave Bike and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski have coached 36, 34 and 32 seasons at their respective schools, but all three would have to work into their 80s to even tie Phelan.

"In today's college sports you don't see someone spend that long at one school ever because the culture is different now," said Jacksonville coach Cliff Warren, who played for Phelan at Mount St. Mary's from 1987 to 1991 and coached under him from 1994 to 1997. "He's got a bunch of kids and a bunch of grandchildren. Once his family started to grow, I think he just got settled and he loved what he was doing."

The secret to Phelan's longevity is the balance he achieved. He won consistently enough throughout his career to avoid being fired, yet he didn't become so immersed in his job that burnout or other health issues drained the fun out of it.

Phelan amassed an 830-524 career record, made the NCAA tournament a total of 18 times and earned national coach of the year honors in 1962 after leading Mount St. Mary's to the Division II national title. Along the way, he indulged in a variety of hobbies, from betting on the horses and greyhounds at the Charles Town racetrack, to afternoon tennis matches or rounds of golf, to spending time playing with his grandkids.

Milan Brown, Phelan's eventual successor at Mount St. Mary's, recalls his former boss suggesting the staff take a break from game preparation on unseasonably warm winter days to take advantage of the weather.

"If the sun popped out and it was 50 degrees in Maryland, it wouldn't be anything for us to jump in the car and get nine holes in," Brown said. "Sometimes I'd think, 'We shouldn't be doing this now,' but it helped him and it helped me too. It kept us sane and gave us another avenue to decompress."

As Phelan piled up victories and accolades at Mount St. Mary's, opportunities to land a more high-profile job sporadically popped up. He received interest from Georgetown, Virginia, Rutgers and the NBA's Baltimore Bullets, but he never left, sometimes because someone else got the gig and other times because Phelan would bow out before he could receive an offer.

The one school Phelan believes could have persuaded him to uproot his family was La Salle, where he starred for three years and later served as an assistant under coach Ken Loeffler on the 1954 NCAA championship team. It was a moot point, however, because the Explorers never so much as called Phelan about a job opening.

Of the schools that did call, the most tempting opportunity for Phelan was Rutgers, which was only an hour's drive from his native Philadelphia. Talks between Phelan and Rutgers became serious enough in 1963 that he returned home from his job interview and broached possibility with his family of returning to the Northeast.

"I told them, 'I'm afraid I may get this job,'" Phelan said. "Everyone started hollering at me. At that point I had five kids, all of them in school. Jesus, they were raising hell. They said, 'We don't want to leave here. We don't want to go to a different school.' I don't know if I would have gotten the job, but I withdrew my name."

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A sign touts Phelan's accomplishments during his final game as Mount St. Mary's coach. (AP)

It took almost another 30 years before the possibility of Mount St. Mary's having another coach on its sideline arose again, but this time it wasn't Phelan's choice.

Only six days before the start of practice for the 1992-93 season, school president Robert Wickenheiser sent Phelan a letter saying he wanted Phelan to retire at the end of the new season. Wickenheiser feared the game had passed the 64-year-old Phelan by after watching Mount St. Mary's struggle to a 14-41 total record the previous two years.

Phelan, stubborn and strong-willed as ever, refused to accept Wickenheiser's request to bow out gracefully. He won over the school board in part because he had six years remaining on a 10-year contract and in part because Mount St. Mary's finished a respectable 13-15 that season and built the foundation for the school's first Division I NCAA tournament berth two years later.

"I was startled because I thought Robert and I had a very good relationship," Phelan said. "I told him I was going to fight him on it, and he said, 'You'll be surprised how little support you have.' Well, it didn't turn out that way."

The day Phelan finally did coach his last game was a celebration of all he'd accomplished. Fans in the bleachers and coaches on both benches wore bowties in Phelan's honor, as did other prominent coaches such as Bob Huggins, Roy Williams and John Calipari during their games that day.

Although Phelan was healthy enough to return for the 2003-04 season at Mount St. Mary's, friends and colleagues found it fitting he retired after 49 seasons rather than sticking around for an even 50th.

"That's absolutely the person that Coach Phelan is," Brown said. "Why wouldn't you go for the round number and coach 50 years? He didn't care about things like that. He said it was time to go."

As Phelan reflects on a career in which he won more games than accolades and graced more graduation ceremonies than magazine covers, he insists he has no regrets about never leaving Mount St. Mary's for a more prominent school.

"I've seen so many people who jump at every opportunity, get relieved of their job and then the opportunity isn't there to jump anymore," Phelan said.

Phelan never made that same mistake. The pastures and rolling hills of Emmitsburg were plenty green enough for him.

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