If you were to build a Mount Rushmore of basketball icons to represent the state of Maryland, you’d be hard pressed to not include Jim Phelan.
There are plenty of others who would be worthy of consideration, particularly for a basketball-rich state such as Maryland, from top professional and college players to other coaches. But with 830 career wins and a Division II national championship during a 49-year career as men’s basketball coach at Mount St. Mary’s, there would be no one more deserving.
The bow-tie clad, gentleman Phelan, who made the Emmitsburg school his basketball home in 1954, died Tuesday morning at the age of 92. He had retired from coaching in 2003 and was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008.
The loss is not only being felt on campus and in Emmitsburg, but throughout the national basketball community. Current Mountaineers coach Dan Engelstad may have best summed up how those in the profession felt about Phelan.
“Coach Phelan is Mount St. Mary’s basketball,” he said. “I found out the news after dropping my daughters at school as I was driving to campus. I thought about how fortunate I am to coach at the place that Coach Phelan built and grateful that he built it on family. I get to share his desk and I get to coach in the gym that he changed lives in — what an honor.”
Phelan took the Mount to 14 NCAA Division II tournaments, including five trips to the Final Four and that national championship in 1962. Five years later, he also took on the role of athletic director for the school, holding down both positions until the basketball team moved to Division I.
He resigned from the athletic director’s post at that time to focus solely on being the basketball coach. He then led the Mountaineers to two more NCAA tournaments.
Outside of Emmitsburg, Phelan had a following as well, particularly among other coaches who understood the demands of the job. It wouldn’t be unusual for Phelan’s name to be mentioned alongside other coaching greats such as Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski or North Carolina’s Dean Smith.
At his retirement, coaches from other schools around the country wore bow-ties to honor him. He left the court after his final game as the fourth winningest coach in all of college basketball (he’s now ninth).
At the time, University of Maryland Hall of Fame coach Gary Williams had this to say about the Mount coach and another long-time Maryland coach, Lefty Driesell.
“I think that what Coach Phelan did, and what Lefty did — when people look back on that it is just incredible. To have longevity like that is incredible,” Williams said. “This is a tough game, it takes a lot out of you. To have the endurance and toughness to last that long says something about those two guys.”
Still with all of this success, Phelan wasn’t exactly a household name to the casual basketball fan nationally. To that, a 2012 Bleacher Report story on the 10 Greatest Coaches in NCAA history, had this to say:
“There are likely some younger college basketball fans that aren’t even vaguely aware of whom Jim Phelan is. They’d be wise to do their research on a man who most definitely deserves his rightful place on this list.”
For the local community and, in particular those at Mount St. Mary’s, there is no doubt to his importance. Just to make that clear, the school named its basketball court at Knott Arena after him.
Jamion Christian, a former team captain for Phelan and now the head coach at George Washington, told reporter Greg Swatek on Wednesday that Phelan was much more than a coach.
“He is a giant in our heart and in our minds,” Christian said. “I would hear [Phelan’s] voice in my head, even on the tough days,”
Phelan’s passing will bring about more tough days for those who knew him. But if there is any consolation, it’s that we know his legacy will echo for generations to come.