The bow tie was his brand, but also a disguise. Jim Phelan grew up in South Philadelphia, St. Monica’s parish. He’d been a double-digit scorer his last two seasons at La Salle. He was a Marine. Away from games, “I’m a no-tie guy,” Phelan once told me sitting in his office at Mount St. Mary’s.
Phelan, who died Tuesday, age 92, was a Philadelphia basketball lifer who just happened to spend most of his life in Emmitsburg, Md. An astounding 49-season run as the men’s coach at Mount St. Mary’s put him on the short list of memorable hoop figures, and put him in the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.
That’s a different hall than the Naismith one in Springfield. Phelan was often up for discussion for the Naismith, and the fact he’s always been a near-miss doesn’t take a single thing away from his accomplishments. (The Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame got it right, inducting him in 2010.)
» READ MORE: A 12-team college football playoff makes sense
I showed up in Emmitsburg in 1995 when Phelan, who at the time won more games than any Division I coach except North Carolina legend Dean Smith, made it to the Division I NCAA Tournament for the first time. He’d made it in D2, had even made the Final Four five times, and won a national title in 1962. But 1995 was special since it put him on the biggest stage.
Before leaving for March Madness, Phelan sat in his office and told the old stories, including how he came to wear the bow tie.
His great La Salle coach, Ken Loeffler, had worn bow ties. It was in Phelan’s thoughts that he might one day coach his alma mater. But, he explained, every time the job opened up, he never heard from La Salle.
He heard years ago that he never would, and that one of the reasons was that a powerful alumnus who was instrumental in picking coaches hated those bow ties.
“My wife heard, and she said, ‘I can’t believe it,’ ” Phelan said that day in 1995. “She said, ‘Don’t ever wear anything but a bow tie.’ I said, ‘OK.’ After that, it became a matter of honor.”
In 1954, after his brief stint playing for the Philadelphia Warriors — four games, 33 minutes, 3 points, all from the foul line; plus 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 9 fouls — Mount St. Mary’s offered Phelan a three-year contract to take over its program. Phelan said he would take one year. He was not sure he wanted to stay much longer.
“I think they’d had six coaches in six years,” Phelan told me. “They said they wanted a little continuity. They must be turning in their graves now.”
Nope, 49 seasons was not the plan.
“We used to come home [to Philadelphia] every weekend,” Phelan said. ’'Then, it was twice a month. Then twice a year. Then they had to come see us.”
That backbone that led to the bow tie tradition showed up again in the ’90s after the Mount’s president tried to get him to retire after a down season. Nope, he wasn’t going out that way. He outlasted that president.
“It was a struggle,” Phelan said. “I wasn’t ready to resign. I particularly wasn’t ready to resign after a 6-22 season.”
The Mount made the NCAA Tournament twice out of the Northeast Conference before Phelan retired in 2003.
» READ MORE: Jay Wright's first coaching stop was in Division III
His tenure bridged basketball generations. He’d played grade-school ball with Paul Arizin. In 1956-57, his Mount team beat Villanova by 16 points at the Palestra. He beat Georgetown that year, too. Among the five teams that beat the Mount in 1956-57 were Steubenville and St. Vincent’s.
Back when Mount St. Mary’s beat Villanova, there wasn’t any radio coverage of the game. Phelan remembered how his friend Bob Vetrone, another St. Monica’s guy, then writing for the Philadelphia Bulletin, had given Phelan’s wife the phone number at press row so she could check the progress of the game. The phone rang more than a couple of times, until Vetrone could report her husband was up 15 with 30 seconds to go.
“I’m enjoying myself a lot,” Phelan said in 1996, the day before the Mount played Villanova again, this time at the Pavilion “It’s still fun to go out there and be with them. I notice how little they’ve changed. Certainly, you run into your problem children, but you always did. I still get tensed up before the games. I get those butterflies. When you stop getting them …”
He never stopped getting them, for 49 seasons, and never stopped wearing his brilliant disguise. A school just looking for a little continuity got the bargain of a lifetime, a coach who was a Hall of Famer by any definition, regardless of the one discussed by a committee up in Springfield.