It's not the kind of face you would chisel on Mount Rushmore. But Jim Phelan has made his mark on "The Mount."
Phelan, who has won 484 games in his coaching career at Mount St. Mary's College and is seventh on the list of active coaches, looks more like a character actor than a basketball coach. "William Bendix," said Fred Carter, a former NBA and MSM star.
For 27 years, Phelan has been living the life of Riley at Mount St. Mary's, the oldest independent Catholic college in the country. The school is 12 miles south of Gettysburg, four miles south of the Mason-Dixon line, eight miles north of Camp David, and five games away from finishing its 71st basketball season ranked No. 1 in NCAA Division II.
The Mounts are 20-1, going into tonight's game against Catholic University, a rivalry that once resembled a holy war. One year a Catholic University partisan threw a cherry bomb in the MSM locker rooms just prior to the game. But, most of the talk at "The Mount" now is about the crusade for the national championship. "Oh," said one of the school's 1,600 students, "you're here to write about the gods."
The "gods" are led by seniors Jim Rowe and Steve Rossignoli, who Phelan says are the "backbone of the team," and junior Durelle Lewis, the leading scorer at 15.5 points a game after 20 games. All three, Phelan said, could play in Division I.
Angelo Frazier, a junior center from Washington, is the leading rebounder (7.9) despite having missed six games with a sore back. Carter, who now coaches the women's basketball team, says Jay Bruchak and Lewis, a 5-foot-8 lightning bug at guard who went to high school with Maryland's Greg Manning, are good enough for the pros.
The Mountaineers have what Earl Weaver would call deep depth. All five starters from last year's 22-7 team are back as, of course, is Phelan.
In 27 years under Phelan, the Mounts have won the national championship once (in 1962), and the Eastern regionals three times. Eleven times his teams have won 20 or more games. He has had only three losing seasons.
Phelan, who is known as "Bow Tie" for the obvious reason, gave them up in 1971-1972 because his children told him to. He had two consecutive losing seasons, and started hearing cries of "Bow Tie must go." He now wears one to every game.
There are those who suspect that Phelan, 51, will someday be buried at midcourt. "Liable to be," he said. "I guess all coaches want to go out with two seconds to play, a three-point lead, and the ball."
Phelan hasn't always been the coach: it only seems like it. He graduated from LaSalle in 1951, where he was named to the all-Philadelphia team three times, and was asked to throw a game once.
"They said, 'We'll place a bank book on the seat of your car,'" he said. "I told them I wasn't interested. They said, "Okay, we'll give you $150 a week if you keep us advised about the married players, their problems at home.' Then they said, 'If you deliberately miss a foul shot, just pull up your socks.' For 10 years, I've been watching guys pull up their socks and wondering whether they are missing deliberately."
Next came a stint with the Marines, and then a briefer one -- four games -- with the old Philadelphia Warriors. One night, one of the Warriors was injured while being fouled on a play. In those days, the opposing coach was allowed to pick the substitute shooter. "Clair Bee, of Baltimore, walked down the bench squinting, looking for a substitute. Joe Fulks, one of our great players, started to take off his warm-up jacket," Phelan said. "Clair said, 'Sit down, Joseph, you're not taking those shots.'
"Clair picked me 'cause I was the only guy he didn't recognize. I was lucky. I went out and made the shots. It was the highlight of my pro career, that and the one or two other baskets I made."
Not long after, Owner Eddie Gottlieb, who was paying Phelan $5,200 a year, found someone who would take $5,000 and let Phelan go. "I was crushed," Phelan said. "Anyone who says they aren't is telling a lie. . . I felt I should have gotten a better shake. I wouldn't have made a lasting impression, but it would have been different."
A year later, the guy who taught he couldn't exist outside of South Philly found himself in Emmitsburg with a one-year contract and a quonset hut of a gymnasium, the only thing in the neighborhood that can't be called bucolic. He hasn't budged since. There have been feelers from other schools, his alma mater and Rutgers among them. He once talked to Abe Pollin about coaching the Baltimore Bullets, but his wife said, "You've got to be kidding."
Phelan's daughter Lynne, an MSM graduate who now coaches the women's track team, believes that he will never come down from the mountain, no matter what offers might come his way. "Forever and forever. Everyone says that, even my wife," Phelan said. "But you never say never and you never say always."
And whatever you say, you say it loudly. Phelan has a reputation as a screamer. Carter, who played for Phelan from 1965-69, said, "He's never had an ulcer and he's never had high blood pressure. To watch him coach, you'd think he had both."
Once during halftime, Phelan became so enraged at his players that he kicked a trash can. Unfortunately, his foot got stuck in it. He hopped around the locker room, screaming, while his players tried not to laugh. They won.
Frazier said, "It's like a vicious dog -- he can't stay vicious forever. But you don't want to get him mad because he might just have enough energy left to bite you."
"I used to be a real martinet," Phelan said. "Hard. Real hard. I tried to overwhelm them with assumption. You assume you have all the power. You don't claim it. It's a feeling, an aura. You're really a pussycat, but nobody knows it but your wife and kids.
"Football coaches are all MacArthurs, Pattons. That's the common denominator in all of them. You do it their way, or you don't do it at all. That's where I've changed. I've eased off. I guess it was age. But other people have said it coincided with my bad years."
Phelan still indulges in what he calls truth sessions, where "everyone gets ripped or no one gets ripped. . . But even the truth sessions aren't truly truth sessions. You limit the bad, and you eliminate the good. Half-truth sessions, that's what they are."
As a matter of fact, Phelan said before Tuesday's 65-61 victory over University of Maryland-Baltimore County, "We could use one now. We're more interested in looking good than in playing well. We're getting overly fancy. Most people say that we play team ball, meaning we have a complete team effort. We pass the ball. Hit the open man. But you can overdo it. Try to thread the needle with an impossible pass. We've had some of those problems against teams that appear weaker."
Phelan says his players are still "all afraid of me. It's just my appearance. My fuzzy eyebrows and wrinkles. There is one sophomore who hasn't spoken two sentences to me in two years."
Rossignoli shook his head in disbelief. "Afraid? What do you mean afraid? If we were afraid of him, we wouldn't be 20-1."
Rowe said, "He tells you he's not a motivator. . .But sometimes when you're just going through the motions in practice, you need a kick in the rear."
Carter says his former coach is "not the Knute Rockne type, go out and win one for the Gipper. He's out of the old school. You have a job to do, go out and do it."
Frazier said, "He's worked more on the inside of me than on the outside. By the time you get to college, you have it or you don't. You may have it on the inside but be afraid to do it. He helps you get it from the inside out of you. I thought I could get 10 rebounds a game. Now I know I can.
"If I say anything about him, I'll probably be leaving something out," Frazier said. "He's a friend, he's a coach, he says things that make you think. You gotta have respect for someone whose been coaching longer than I am. I just wonder why he doesn't get bored with it."
Lewis said, "He treats us like men. He's not like a policeman, checking up on us every Friday or Saturday. He lets you be on your own. He's not babying us up. We don't have to eat together and sit together like some teams. He gives us our own self-respect." t
If they have nothing to fear, including fear itself, what accounts for the 20-1 record? For one thing, Rossignoli said, "In the beginning, our schedule wasn't too demanding."
Phelan has a different answer: "There was some problems early on with style of play, and the constant penetration (by Lewis). One night, Durelle was responsible for 18 straight points. The other team called a time-out and Jim Rowe said, 'That little guy is something else.' They've matured. They respect each other."
Rowe said, "Durelle played at Steelton, where they played run-and-gun. Some of us were used to a patient, slow-down offense. Last year, when he penetrated, we froze. This year, his shooting percentage from the field is much better. He feels respect from every member of the team."
What about their coach? The players respect Phelan's reputation but, as Rossignoli said, "His past doesn't do nothing for us."
Sixty-two is a long ways back," Rowe said of the school's last championship team. "I read that he said that he had 10 teams better than this one but that he wasn't putting us down, that the reason we're good is that we have a lot of bench strength. I don't know. I think we have a pretty good team. But he's seen them all. I haven't."
Phelan shrugs at the mention of the word legend. John Wooden was the Wizard of Westwood. As for himself: "The Idiot of Emmitsburg," he says laughing. But, he insists, "It's not a case of being a big fish in a small pond (where) you want to remain a big shot, so you stay where you are and schedule teams that you can go out and beat. I don't think of it that way. People still call and ask what time the game is and I say, "'8 p.m., just like the last 27 years.'" CAPTION: Picture 1, no caption; Picture 2, Jim Phelan; Picture 3, no caption, Photos by Richard Darcey; design by Carol Porter -- The Washington Post