Former Mount St. Mary’s basketball coach and athletic director Jim Phelan passed away in the overnight hours of Wednesday morning, June 16, at his home in Emmitsburg.
Phelan arrived at the Mount in 1954, accepting a one-year contract to lead the team as the youngest coach in college basketball. Forty-nine years later, using fierceness, fearlessness, and humor, he had guided the efforts of the Mountaineers’ men’s basketball program to 830 career victories and 16 trips to the NCAA Tournament. Along the way, he led the Mount to the 1962 College Division National Championship and Final Four appearances in 1957, 1961, 1981, and 1985.
His all-time win total stands 13th all-time in NCAA men’s basketball history, and he was the winningest active coach in the sport from 1997 to 2003, following the retirement of Dean Smith at North Carolina. Beginning his career as the youngest coach in 1954, Phelan ended as the oldest active coach, retiring at the age of 73. His 49 seasons at the helm in Emmitsburg are the third-most for any coach in one single location.
“For 49 seasons, Coach Phelan formed student-athletes who embodied the Mount’s mission statement by having a passion for learning, being ethical leaders, and serving God and others,” Mount St. Mary’s University President Timothy Trainor said in a statement. “Everyone who met Jim loved him, especially his student-athletes and his family. He touched the lives of thousands of Mounties and summer basketball camp attendees.”
His coaching had a direct impact on hundreds of student-athletes, both on the court and in the classroom, over the years. Notable success stories include the school’s all-time leading scorer Jack Sullivan ’57, two-time All-American and 1962 national champion John O’Reilly ’63, and 2,000-plus point scorer Chris McGuthrie ’96. All three players have had their jerseys retired at the Mount, along with a symbolic “830” for Phelan. Fred Carter ’69 also has a jersey that hangs from the rafters at Knott Arena. A future NBA standout and coach for the Philadelphia 76ers, Phelan’s recruitment of Carter to Mount St. Mary’s was instrumental in integrating the college.
Along with his duties as head men’s basketball coach, Phelan took on administrative duties as athletic director. He served in that post from 1967 until 1989, when the Mount moved to Division I, and coached the baseball team from 1955-1965.
A member of 13 Halls of Fame, Phelan has received induction in the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame, the Northeast Conference Hall of Fame, La Salle University Hall of Fame, the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame, the Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame, and the Mount St. Mary’s Hall of Fame, to name a few.
Two awards for excellence in coaching are named in his honor: the Jim Phelan National Coach of the Year Award, presented by CollegeInsider.com, and the Northeast Conference’s Jim Phelan Coach of the Year. His home court of Knott Arena, where he monitored from the sidelines for 16 years following the opening of the facility in 1987 to his retirement, is named in his honor, immortalized by a logo bearing his signature bow tie, which Phelan wore for almost every game he coached.
Following his final game on the bench, he remained in the Emmitsburg area for the rest of his life and was a regular attendee at Mount St. Mary’s games and events.
Originally from Philadelphia and a 1951 graduate of La Salle, Phelan served in the Marine Corps during the Korean War and was drafted into the NBA in 1953. Following a brief career with the Philadelphia Warriors and an assistantship at his alma mater, he assumed coaching duties in Emmitsburg.
Phelan is survived by his wife, Dottie; four children: Jim, ’78, Lynne, ’79, Carol, ’81, and Bob, ’90; 10 grandchildren, one great-grandchild, and extended family. He was preceded in death by his son, Larry, ’87.