“Well, Jamion,” Phelan said. “I guess they’re just a lot blanking better than you are right now.” He paused a moment and then said: “But don’t worry. You’ll figure it out.”
Mount St. Mary’s ended up beating LIU in the rematch later that season.
“That was always Coach,” Christian said Wednesday after hearing Phelan had died at age 92. “He always loved you, he always believed in you, and he never gave up on you.”
What a perfect epitaph that is for Phelan, a gentle soul who always had a twinkle in his eye. He hadn’t been feeling great for the past couple of years but never lost his sense of humor.
“I tell people that I’m in great shape for the shape I’m in,” he would say with a laugh.
Phelan grew up in Philadelphia and played at La Salle under Coach Ken Loeffler when the school was a national power. The Philadelphia Warriors selected him in the eighth round of the 1951 NBA draft, but he also was drafted by the U.S. Marine Corps. He served for two years during the Korean War then returned home to play briefly for the Warriors, getting into three games.
“I can say I played in the NBA,” he said a few years back. “Fortunately, people don’t usually ask how much I played in the NBA.”
When Phelan’s playing career ended, Loeffler hired him as his assistant coach for $600 a year. By then, Loeffler knew his former player had an eye for talent: He had recommended Loeffler recruit Tom Gola, who went on to lead La Salle to the 1954 national championship.
That spring, Mount St. Mary’s, a tiny Catholic school in Emmitsburg, Md., was looking for a coach. Loeffler recommended his 25-year-old assistant. The rest is history. Phelan won the D-II national title in 1962 and went to five D-II Final Fours. He coached the school through its transition to Division I in 1988 and reached two NCAA tournaments and one NIT. When he retired, his 830 wins put him fourth in NCAA victories. Even now, he’s 14th on the list.
Phelan wore bow ties as an homage to Loeffler, who always wore one when he coached. One of Phelan’s is now in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Somehow, though, Phelan is not.
Two years ago I wrote a note to Jerry Colangelo, the chairman of the Hall of Fame, who wields almost absolute power over the place. I recounted Phelan’s record on the court and his life off it and pointed out that he was 90. “Please,” I implored. “Fix this injustice while Jim is still alive.”
I got a note back from Colangelo that said, “I am well aware of Coach Phelan’s achievements.”
Evidently he needs to take a closer look.
Phelan and his wife, Dottie, lived in the same house about a mile from campus for 62 years. They had five children and 10 grandchildren and were married for almost 67 years. Dottie often told the story about Jim calling her 10 minutes before tip-off of the 1962 championship game because someone had mentioned to him that his daughter Carol had been sick for a couple of days but was doing better.
“He was furious with me for not telling him,” Dottie remembered a couple of years ago. “I told him she was fine and I had everything under control. He told me, ‘Don’t ever not tell me if something’s wrong with one of the kids, no matter what I’m doing.’”
Carol was fine. The Mount won the game in overtime.
In 1965, Phelan recruited Fred Carter, a talented guard from Philadelphia. Phelan and Carter often tell the story about the drive from the train station in downtown Baltimore to Emmitsburg, which was far more rural than anything Carter had ever seen.
As one farm after another flashed by, Carter turned to Phelan and said, “Coach, how many Black students are there at this school?”
Phelan smiled. “Look in the mirror, Fred,” he said. “You’re looking at the first.”
Carter starred at the Mount for four years and then played in the NBA for nine years. Phelan never thought twice about recruiting him to an all-White campus.
To reach Knott Arena, you turn off Route 15 onto Jim Phelan Way. Once you get inside the building, you watch a game played on Jim Phelan Court. After he retired, Phelan was a regular at home games, sitting in the top row of the stands next to the concourse, hoping he could watch the games in peace — which, of course, he couldn’t.
“People are fantastic to me here,” he told me once. “But they don’t understand that when I’m watching us play, I’m suffering on every possession. The only good thing about it is that I now understand how Dottie felt watching all those years.”
Two years ago I went to see the Phelans at their house, so we could talk quietly without being interrupted by all the well-wishers. We sat in a den filled with awards and photos — among them plaques from the 13 Halls of Fame that did induct him. But when we stood to move into the kitchen for lunch, Jim walked instead into the room next to the den. A rocking chair sat there. It had a plaque on it which read: “From Foe to Friend.”
“They gave that to me the last time we played at Loyola,” he said. “We were in the same conference for a long time, pretty intense rivals. That meant a lot to me.”
The Mount was struggling that day through a 9-22 season under then-first year coach Dan Engelstad. I asked Jim how he felt about where the program was headed.
“Dan’s a good young coach,” he said. “The athletic director made a good hire.”
The athletic director was sitting directly across from him at that moment; she was Phelan’s daughter, Lynne Robinson. This past season, Engelstad’s third, the Mount won the NEC tournament and, with the automatic bid, played in the NCAA tournament March 18, one day before Phelan turned 92.
Just like Jamion Christian, Engelstad figured it out. Phelan’s faith was rewarded again.
He was a Hall of Fame coach. More than that, he was a Hall of Fame person.