There were 29 seconds left in Monday's game at Pittsburgh-Johnstown when the Mount St. Mary's basketball players walked over to congratulate their coach, Jim Phelan, on his 600th career victory.
During the sentimental moment, Phelan said he didn't change his expression. "No," he said, "they wouldn't recognize me if I did."
What the players noticed was a man whose only real concern is winning nine more games, which would give Division II Mount St. Mary's (21-3, 7-1 in the Mason-Dixon Conference) the Division II championship.
"It was nice to get it over with," said Phelan, 56. "As far as the team is concerned, the next game is the important game. Let's say I would like to win nine consecutive games."
"I think the reason he has won so many games is that he takes it one day at a time," said forward Paul Edwards.
Mount St. Mary's 98-66 victory Monday night put Phelan into elite company; only 12 other college coaches have won that many games. The list includes John Wooden (667), Phog Allen (771), Ray Meyer (724) and Adolph Rupp, who is the leader with 875. Winston-Salem State's Clarence (Big-house) Gaines (762 through Monday) is the only active coach who has more victories than Phelan.
Since 1954, his first year, Phelan has had only three losing seasons at Mount St. Mary's. His team won the Division II championship in 1962 and was runner-up in 1981, when he recorded his best seasonal record, 28-3.
"It's just a milestone of longevity," said Phelan, whose nickname is "Bow Tie," because he has worn one every game. "When I think about it, geez, there were a lot of people who contributed. I say to myself that it's something to be proud of. Having an ego like anybody else, I like to join a select group of peers."
Longevity is something Phelan didn't expect when he took the job 32 years ago and led the team to a 70-18 record in his first three seasons. The Rev. Msgr. John L. Sheridan, who was president of the school during 1936-61, wanted Phelan to sign a four- or five-year contract. But Phelan, who didn't want to be obligated, agreed to sign only one-year contracts.
"I never would have dreamt this, because they had a problem with coaches before me," said Phelan. "There were four coaches in five years. They wanted to get some continuity. But he Sheridan is probably turning over in his grave. He's probably saying, 'Here I hired Phelan, and he's here longer than I was.' "
After all the games, Phelan vividly remembers his first. It was against St. Francis (Pa.), which won fourth place in the National Invitation Tournament that year. After the game, Phelan decided Mount St. Mary's was his home.
"I remember the fanaticism of the fans at the time," he said. "The place was mobbed. I had just gotten out of the Marine Corps and La Salle College. The spirit was so much better at the smaller level."
Phelan said he has survived because the times were different when he started. Today, he said, there is too much pressure to succeed right away. The only real criticism directed at him occurred during his sixth year, when a dummy, with his name attached, was hung from a tree at the entrance of the school the day after a loss.
"I think the thing about lasting so long is that the season starts and ends so quickly," he said. "Can you believe it's happened to me 32 times?
"My daughter told me all I need is 180 wins, or whatever, to catch Adolph Rupp. I said, 'Yeah, from my wheelchair.' "