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Phelan, retired coach at Maryland's Mount St. Mary's University, dies at 92

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BALTIMORE — Early in the 1995-96 college basketball season, tiny Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg, Md., upset Georgia Tech, a member of the mighty Atlantic Coast Conference.

As was his post-game custom on the road, Coach Jim Phelan called his home in Emmitsburg to check in with his wife, Dottie, who was drowned out by a raucous celebration in the background, courtesy of some of their five adult children. His own spirit sounded muted, however, and Dottie asked him what was wrong.

"I think I just cost a coach a job," Phelan answered.

Bobby Cremins was just fine in Atlanta, as the Yellow Jackets rebounded to reach the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament that season, but the exchange typified Phelan's concern for his fellow man, regard that was reciprocated in Emmitsburg and across college basketball June 16, after he died in his sleep at the home he shared with his wife of 67 years. Phelan was 92.

An afternoon memorial service was held June 24 on the Jim Phelan Court at Mount St. Mary's Knott Arena.

Few laymen matched his contributions to the Mount, as its known, which gave Phelan a one-year contract to coach in 1954. It turned into 49 uninterrupted seasons on the same campus, the third longest in the history of the sport. His 830 career victories made him the game's winningest active coach when he retired in 2003, at age 73. It still ranks him 13th all time.

His 1962 team won a national championship in the College Division, one of five Final Fours the Mountaineers reached in what is now Division II. Phelan was inducted into a dozen Halls of Fame, but his influence on the Mount went beyond basketball and his signature bow tie.

"For 49 seasons, Coach Phelan formed student-athletes who embodied the Mount's mission statement by having a passion for learning, being ethical leaders and serving God and others," Timothy Trainor, president of Mount St. Mary's University, said in a statement. "Everyone who met Jim loved him, especially his student-athletes and his family."

As athletic director from 1967 to 1989, Phelan added programs for women's teams after the college went coed; began its move from Division II to Division I; and oversaw the construction of the Knott Arena complex.

As a coach, Phelan recruited the first Black student who resided on campus, in 1965. Fred Carter went on to play for the Baltimore Bullets in the NBA. Jamion Christian and Cliff Warren not only played for Phelan, but returned to Emmitsburg to coach. When he retired, Phelan was succeeded by Milan Brown, an assistant coach and another man of color.

This past winter, Mount St. Mary's returned to the NCAA tournament under Coach Dan Engelstad. Upon returning to Emmitsburg, he took the Northeast Conference trophy to the Phelan household. 

"How fortunate I am to coach in a place Coach Phelan built and grateful that he built it on family," Engelstad shared on Twitter. "I get to share his desk and coach in the gym that he changed lives in. ... His friendship and mentorship were a true gift in my life. He lifted me up during some lean years."

The only child of a single mother, Phelan hailed from Philadelphia. He grew up in St. Monica Church and in school was a year behind Paul Arizin, who went on to a fine NBA career.

"St. Monica had to be the only parish team to have two kids who would play pro basketball," Phelan said in a 2008 interview with the Catholic Review, Baltimore's archdiocesan news outlet. "Basketball was a rough and tumble game at the parish level, and I learned how to play a little bit scared. That's also where I learned about loyalty."

Phelan played for La Salle College High School and then La Salle University. During the Korean War, he served a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps (1951-53). He played one season (1953-54) for the Philadelphia Warriors of the NBA.

As their coach, Phelan's early teams dominated the old Mason-Dixon Conference, where its rivalry with what was then Loyola College constituted what some described as a "holy war." He had a 56-28 record against the Greyhounds, believed to be his most victories against an opponent.

In 1961, the team was unbeaten in the conference and reached the Final Four. A year later, the Mountaineers won the NCAA championship. They were a Division II power into the 1980s, reaching the NCAA championship game in 1981 and the Final Four in 1985.

Following all its old rivals up to Division I, Phelan guided the Mountaineers to NCAA tournaments at that level in 1995 and 1999.

Phelan was inducted into the National College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008.

The Mount St. Mary's athletic brand revolved around Phelan and the late Jim Deegan, who led a track and field program that produced numerous Olympians, including a gold medalist.

Their support of women's athletics began in the home, as Phelan's included Lynne Phelan Robinson, a 1979 graduate of the Mount who has been its athletic director since 2007.

"Dad and Deegan wanted to get their daughters into sports when that wasn't always easy," said Robinson, who, like her father's players, benefited from his counsel. "Dad always taught me, 'What more can you ask of a coach than fairness?' That's a core foundation."

"He also wanted all of us to figure out the work-life balance. He felt that you have to find that," she told the Review.

Phelan worshipped at St. Joseph Church in Emmitsburg.

"Jim and his wife, Dottie, are people of very strong faith, who passed that on to their children," Vincentian Father Vincent J. O'Malley, then pastor of St. Joseph, told the Review in 2008. "Jim provides a wonderful role model for everyone in our parish. He took the talents God gave him and developed them to their fullest."

Phelan also coached Mount St. Mary's baseball for 10 years. He enjoyed thoroughbred racing, and taught his children how to read the Daily Racing Form. Robinson describes her father as being very well-read and an astute student of politics.

Phelan's many honors include the Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame. CollegeInsider.com's National Coach of the Year Award is named for Phelan, as is the Northeast Conference's Coach of the Year honor.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021