Coach Bow Tie
Mt. St. Mary's Phelan making most of 2nd NCAA trip
Posted: Sunday March 07, 1999 08:29 PM
EMMITSBURG, Md. (CNN/SI) -- From the creaky confines of old Memorial Gym to his team's gleaming new home court across the road, Jim Phelan's triumphant sermon on the Mount has echoed for nearly five decades.
Even after 45 years on the job and more victories than any man in the college game today, the 69-year-old coach of tiny Mount St. Mary's College is renowned not for his historic wins.
But for his ties.
"That began back in college when my college coach Ken Loeffler, a great coach, Hall of Fame coach, used to come out and wear bow ties," Phelan said. "I remember coming down here and getting ready for a game and my wife said, 'What do you want to wear?' I said, 'Just lay out a tie.'
"I put a bow tie on and I wore it, and we won the opening game at home here against St. Francis of Brooklyn. Big win."
Phelan has had a lot of wins in his career -- 800 of them to be exact.
The venerable coach of the Mountaineers earned that magical win in grand style, clinching an NCAA Tournament berth for the second time with a win over Central Connecticut State in the Northeast Conference Tournament.
Chalk up another one for the bow tie.
"He wore a straight tie for one year," said Dot Phelan, Jim's wife. "I don't remember which year it was, but it must have been in the '70s and it wasn't a very good season. So I said, 'Jim, I don't care what the girls say. We're gonna lay out those bow ties again.'"
Raised in South Philadelphia, Phelan became the youngest head coach in the game in 1954 when, at 24, he took the Mount St. Mary's job. His first team went 22-3 and he has won nearly 65 percent of his games since, including the 1962 Division II national championship.
In all, more than 175 players have suited up for Phelan in more than 1,200 games, the second-longest tenure in history. When Dean Smith retired before last season, Phelan became college basketball's winningest active coach, ahead of such coaching luminaries as Bobby Knight of Indiana and Missouri's Norm Stewart.
"He's never talked about any of the numbers. Six hundred, 700 -- it has never mattered to him," Mt. St. Mary's assistant coach Don Anderson said. "It has always been, 'I just want to win these games, I want to be in the tournament. I want these players to be successful. It's not about me personally.' That is what he'd tell you."
A look inside Phelan's inner sanctum reveals a family man whose workaday career has spanned five children, nine grandchildren, and countless hours studying the game.
"You've got to go out there angry," Phelan said. "You've got to go out there ready to play hard. If you don't play hard there's absolutely no excuse for it. I mean, you simply have got to. Your college career is a short one. A lot of time's your time is limited. So you've got to play hard."
That philosophy is exactly what Georgia Tech ran into in December 1995 in one of the most memorable games of Phelan's career. That night, Phelan knotted his bow tie and steered his visiting Mountaineers to victory No. 741, upsetting the team led by All-America point guard Stephon Marbury.
"I knew I was in trouble when he came out in a yellow bow tie," Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins said. "I like to wear yellow ties, but a yellow bow tie, that really got us.
"Nobody respected them, nobody knew who they were. And he upset us in a great basketball game."
Phelan's 16th-seeded Mountaineers (15-14) will need a near miracle to pull off the upset of Michigan State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
But as sure as Phelan's career is long, you can expect the Mount to play hard.
"I've played against his teams a couple of times and they're well coached," said Georgia State coach Lefty Driesell, who ranks fifth on the active Division I wins list. "I don't want to play 'em anymore. They can play with anyone in the country right now."
After 45 years, though, the game still hasn't past Phelan by. Tenacity never gets old.
"His style is tough," senior guard Eric Bethel said. "He likes us to play real tough. He likes to see us bang, push. He hates to see us pushed around. He likes us to be the aggressor. He's a real tough guy, he's a tough character. He's feisty and that's the way he likes us to play."
Phelan surely could have been a contender in the big time. He interviewed at Georgetown and Rutgers after winning the title in '62.
There was even interest from the Baltimore Bullets of the NBA. But Phelan ultimately withdrew his name each time, opting for the simplicity of life at the Mount.
"I like the constant change and challenge of new people coming in," Phelan said. "I like the fact that everybody tells you that everybody is so much different. Then you get out there and they're not really that different at all. Because I treat them the same way that I treated them 45 years ago, and they seem to respond nicely."
Phelan is the third on the all time-wins list, behind Smith and Adolph Rupp, each of whom is enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
His name has been on the ballot since 1991 but he has not been elected. If Phelan is passed over again, he could become the only college coach with 800 wins who is not enshrined.
"He tells me, 'Dotty, some day when I stop coaching, they will say there was a guy that coached here once. I think he wore a bow tie and had a ditsy blond wife,'" Dot Phelan said. "He said nobody is irreplaceable. 'Remember that,' he tells me."And if, in time, Coach Bow Tie's real name does slip the mind? There will be at least one enduring reminder -- Jim Phelan's name etched in the record book.
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