Basketball Coaching Legend
Talk about your iron man. Even Cal Ripken Jr. would have to tip his cap to Coach Phelan. No one has coached more college basketball games than Jim Phelan. He has, hands down, stood on the sidelines as a college basketball head coach for more games than anyone else in history.
“Jim Phelan is truly a one-of-a- kind coach,” said Bill Self, the head coach of Kansas. “No one, and I mean no one ever again, will probably coach at one school as long as he has. It is absolutely remarkable.”
When Phelan retired in 2003, he had coached 49 years at Mount Saint Mary’s University. During that time, he amassed 830 wins (overall record of 830-524) in over 1,300 games in all divisions. Currently, he resides fifth on the all-time list behind Bobby Knight, Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp and Mike Krzyzewski. He also surpassed the legendary Clarence Gaines and holds the record in games coached with 1,354 across all NCAA divisions.
“Jim Phelan committed his life and his career to one school,” wrote Dave Faucher, a former head coach at Dartmouth. “He has done a great job and the school has appreciated it. This is a rare thing in college athletics today.”
Growing up in Philadelphia, Phelan was one of the top players in the city. Among his grade-school teammates, and a player he also would play with later in the Marine Corps, was NBA Hall-of-Famer Paul Arizin. At LaSalle College High, he made the All-Catholic team in 1946 and 1947 and was named to the All-City squad.
As a player at LaSalle University, he made the All-Philadelphia team for three straight years. After graduation in 1951, Phelan enlisted in the Marine Corps and led the Marine Cagers from Quantico to the All-Marine Championship, where he was named the MVP. After his discharge, he played briefly with the Philadelphia Warriors of the NBA and the Pottstown Packers of the old Eastern League. Realizing his playing days were over, he returned to LaSalle College.
After spending one year as an assistant at his alma mater, Phelan made the move to rural Maryland to coach at Mount Saint Mary’s. “I only anticipated staying there for a short time,” recalled Phelan. “And I ended up staying 49 years.” With 69 wins in his first three seasons and a third-place finish in the National College Division Tournament, he was persuaded to give the Mount a little more of his time.
A few years later, Phelan was back in the national tournament, placing fourth in 1961 and then winning the school’s first-ever NCAA Championship in 1962. That team went 24-6 and earned him National Coach of the Year honors.
The late sixties brought another string of 20-win campaigns, but it wasn’t until 1981 that the team returned to national prominence. The 1981 edition, though not as talented as some of his other squads, recorded a school-record 28-3 mark, losing to Florida Southern in the NCAA Division II Championship game. Again, Phelan was named the National Coach of the Year.
That 1981 squad set the stage for what has to be one of the top decades of college basketball at any level. Eight of the ten teams during the eighties won at least 20 games; the 1985 group returned to the Final Four, going 28-5 and finishing third in the country; and the 1986 and 1987 teams each logged 26 victories.
Of course, it was that successful surge and the fact that Phelan was also Mount St. Mary’s Athletic Director, which led to the school’s 1988 move to Division I.
After his retirement, Collegeinsider.com renamed its coach of the year award the “Jim Phelan National Coach of the Year Award.” “Coach Phelan is an inspiration to so many people,” said Collegeinsider’s Joe Dwyer. “He represents all that is good about college basketball.”
Mount St. Mary’s also renamed its court “Jim Phelan Court”, complete with his years coached and his signature bow tie painted on each end of the court.
He was inducted into the La Salle University Hall of Athletes in 1964. In 2008, Phelan was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.
Willis Wilson, the head coach of Rice University, put Phelan’s career in perspective when he said, “Jim Phelan is class and consistency. He has stood the test of time as a teacher, and coach, and there are no two greater words to be called than those.”