EMMITSBURG, Md. (WDVM) – Mount St. Mary’s lost a giant of the game last week in legendary men’s basketball coach, Jim Phelan, who passed away peacefully in his sleep on June 15th.
“When you’re talking Mount basketball – it all starts with Jim Phelan,” said current Mount St. Mary’s men’s basketball head coach, Dan Engelstad.
Phelan was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and played college basketball at La Salle University where he graduated from in 1951. In 1954 he began coaching at Mount St. Mary’s where he spent the entirety of his impressive 49-year career. In those 49 years Phelan collected 830 wins through 1,354 games, and took 14 of his teams to the NCAA Division II Tournament, with his 1962 team winning the NCAA Division II National Title.
“Everything that he accomplished here from a winning standpoint…830 wins, being at one school for 49 years, the loyalty that he had to this place, the loyalty that he had to everyone around him – his family, his friends, his coaches – that’s what he symbolizes,” said Engelstad.
Loyalty, success, and a huge heart all wrapped up in a bow-tie that he famously wore every game.
“As great as he was a coach, he was an even better person,” recalls former Mount coach, Milan Brown, who Phelan handed his program over to upon his retirement in 2003.
“He always knew how to make you laugh,” said Engelstad. “He’s as smart as they come. He’s as witty as they come. His storytelling…it would put you in a good place and he was a big part in helping my team and myself get through my first couple of years here.”
Mount St. Mary’s became a Division I program under Phelan in the late 1980s at which level he lead two more teams to NCAA Tournament appearances in 1995 and 1999.
Phelan started a tradition of excellence at Mount St. Mary’s that Milan Brown compares to the great American basketball dynasties.
“It’s a sense of pride. It’s more of [on a] smaller level, but I feel like it’s a Duke or a Carolina type thing.”
Winning and success at the Mount not only becomes about national recognition and getting contracts extended, but it becomes about honoring Phelan and the legacy that he left behind. Engelstad and his team saw much success this past season, winning their conference title and earning a NCAA tournament birth. National media became infatuated with the small little school in Emmitsburg, but the most meaningful part of the ride was being able to share it with the guy who started it all.
“Being able to share that with him, the patriarch of this program…to be able to share that trophy with him and see the smile on his face…he was able to tell me how proud he was of the guys and the program and myself and that was so cool. On the last year of his life we got a chance to bring him some joy with that trophy and I know he’ll be looking down on us going forward.”
Dan Engelstad sits at Phelan’s old desk as the current head coach of the program and him and others feel a sense of duty to make sure whoever comes after him, knows what that means.
“You just want to make sure that everybody understands what chair you are occupying [and] whos name you are trying to uphold,” said Brown. “It’s not just Mount St. Mary’s. It’s Mount St. Mary’s and Jim Phelan.”
In Dan’s words, “he’s our legend.”