The winningest active coach in college basketball looked at his watch, nodded at his assistant coaches and walked to the center jump circle. His players followed, surrounding him as he spoke quietly about the season opener, which was 48 hours away. Practice had lasted only a little more than an hour. Most coaches preparing to start their season on the road at the end of a week in which the team's best inside player has been lost for at least three months would have been in a frenzy, refusing to leave the court until the last possible second.
Of course most coaches haven't won 800 games or coached at the same school for 46 years. In fact, there have been exactly four coaches -- Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp, Clarence "Big House" Gaines and the man with the watch, Jim Phelan -- who have won 800 games, and exactly two -- Gaines and Phelan -- who have stayed in the same place 46 years. Phelan's place is Mount St. Mary's, the second-oldest Catholic college in the United States, a tiny (1,400 students) place that straddles Route 15 in Emmitsburg, Md., 20 miles north of Frederick, 10 miles south of Gettysburg.
"Ken Loeffler, my old college coach, used to tell me, `Always leave them wanting a little bit more,'" Phelan said as he walked out of the gym. "I'd rather have them practice hard and short than long and dragging."
It was also Loeffler who pushed Phelan to interview for the job at the Mount in the spring of 1954. Phelan had graduated from LaSalle in 1951 and had spent two years in the Marines before making the Philadelphia Warriors roster in the fall of 1953. "I started in the opener in the Boston Garden against the Celtics," he said. "Guarded [Bob] Cousy. He was okay."
Cousy went on to the Hall of Fame. Phelan landed at LaSalle that winter, working for Loeffler after the Warriors cut him. LaSalle won the national championship that year, and Mount St. Mary's, which had gone through six coaches in eight years, called and asked Phelan, who was 25 at the time, if he wanted to interview for the job.
"Ken told me not to even go unless I was planning to take it," Phelan said. "He told me it was so pretty down there that I'd fall in love with the place, stay forever and no one would ever hear of me. How about that?"
Loeffler was almost 100 percent correct -- but not quite. Phelan has stayed so long and coached so well that people in basketball have certainly heard of him. In 1962 he won the national championship of what was then called the NCAA College Division (now divided into Divisions II and III). Since the Mount moved up to Division I in 1988, he has built the program to the point that the team has gone to two NCAA tournaments and one NIT in the last five years.
Phelan may be the only thing about the Mount that hasn't changed since he first arrived. Back then the school was all male and all white. Phelan took an important step in integrating the school when he recruited Fred Carter out of Philadelphia in 1965. "In those days you could pick a recruit up and bring him to campus," he said. "I drove Fred up . . . and as we moved from city to suburbs to farmland his eyes kept getting wider. Early in the trip I said to him, `Now Fred, you know we don't have very many black students at the Mount.' He just nodded. About 30 minutes later he looked at me and said, `Coach, exactly how many black kids do you have at this place?' I said, `Look in the mirror.'"
Carter came anyway (there had been a couple of black commuter students before him but none living on campus) and the black population jumped to six the next year. Women arrived in 1972. That was the year after Phelan's daughters, Lynne and Carol, talked him into giving up the bow tie he had always worn during games, another of Loeffler's legacies. "They were 14 and 12 at the start of that season and they came to me and said, `Dad, you look awful in the bow tie. You have to wear a real tie.' I did. We went 6 and 17 and played worse than that. I went back to the bow ties. I'd rather win than look good."
With all the wins, he has never thought of himself as a BMOC even though the road ringing the athletic facilities is now called Jim Phelan Way. He likes coaching kids, he insists the key to his success in recent years has been hiring good assistants and likes to joke about the familial tremor he's had for several years that has occasionally started rumors that he has Parkinson's disease. "My wife gets very upset when I spill something," he said. Some alumni have wondered during down years if the time for Phelan to step down has come. "One guy will decide when Jim Phelan retires," said Athletic Director Harold Menninger, "and that's Jim Phelan."
Phelan says he'll keep coming back as long as he's healthy and has a team he feels can compete. He thought this year's team might be special until 6-10 sophomore center Melvin Whitaker broke his ankle in practice on November 8. Still, he thinks this team will be good -- just not as good as it might have been. Although he began the season with exactly 800 wins, he insists he has given no thought to Smith's all-time record of 879. "I get letters from people in Kentucky telling me to keep going," he said. "They're mad because Dean broke Rupp's record. I'm not Dean, I'm not Rupp. Never wanted to be."
He smiled. "But I've had fun."
Which is not a bad thing to say about a life.