Mount St. Mary's Coach Jim Phelan warmly embraced each of the program's seniors before last night's game, all the way down to the cheerleading team's manager. He reasoned it was their last night, too.
"That's who Coach is," said former NBA player and coach Fred Carter, one of dozens of Phelan's former players in attendance last night. "That's why he's so special."
The longest coaching career in NCAA history came to a close on a poignant note, as Phelan's Mountaineers came back to defeat Central Connecticut State, 60-56.
"It couldn't have ended any better," said Phelan, 73, whose career record improved to 830-524. He has coached in more games than any college coach.
As coaches around the nation paid tribute similarly, the majority of the 3,196 at Knott Arena in Emmitsburg -- including Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the Central Connecticut coaching staff -- wore bow ties, Phelan's signature since his rookie season as a head coach in 1953-54.
Ehrlich led a 45-minute postgame ceremony, the college delayed spring break by a day, a line of cars trying to get in almost reached Route 15 and Knott was sold out for the first time in seven years.
Through it all, Phelan himself seemed unfazed by the fuss.
"Before the game, we had a photographer in the locker room, and Phelan turns to the guy and asks, 'What's the big deal?' " said Milan Brown, a Howard alumnus and Phelan's successor. "Are you kidding me? You can't fake being the kind of person he is."
Phelan's career includes five Division II Final Fours, a 1962 national title, two Division I NCAA tournaments and one NIT, and more victories than any college coach other than Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith. Although Phelan has not been inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame, the bow tie he wore last night is Springfield-bound.
"This bow tie thing has given me more miles than anything I've ever done," Phelan said. "I've bet they've sold more of these across the country in the past few days than they have in years."
Mount St. Mary's had lost four in a row entering last night, keeping them out of the eight-team Northeast Conference tournament. That afforded the Mountaineers (11-16, 6-12) the chance to send Phelan out with a victory at home.
After falling behind early and rallying late in the second half, the Mountaineers retook the lead on a dunk by Nick Dodson with 4 minutes 25 seconds left and hung on for the remainder.
Chris Sumner, a Gonzaga product and one of the four-member freshman class that formed the backbone of this year's team, went to the free throw line three times in the final 30 seconds. Sumner made 3 of 6 shots to keep Mount St. Mary's ahead but made Phelan sweat out the final victory.
Only when Central Connecticut guard Justin Chiera's open three-pointer bounced off the front of the rim with two seconds left could Phelan relax.
"I'm thrilled with the end," Phelan said. "They could have made it easier on my nervous system."
Early in the game, as the Mountaineers fell behind 11-2, a fan in the front row yelled for a timeout. A friend gently corrected him.
"C'mon, man," he said, "Phelan knows how to coach."