Jim Phelan left the neighborhood almost a half-century ago, but his memories of sneaking into the old Municipal Stadium for Army-Navy Games, eating cheese-steaks and hanging out on Chadwick Street have followed him through life.
Later this year, the legendary college basketball coach will have more time to visit the old neighborhood — because, after a record 49 seasons as Mount St. Mary’s College men’s basketball coach, he’s calling it a career.
"I am going to come up and visit," Phelan promised during a recent phone interview from his Maryland post. "[South Philly] was my life until the end of high school. It was a great place."
For almost five decades, Phelan, now 73, has been busy becoming one of the most successful coaches in college basketball history. His 825 wins are third all-time on the NCAA Division I career win list, which puts him behind only North Carolina’s Dean Smith (879) and Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp (876). His 49 seasons and 1,340 games are both NCAA records.
When the native of the 2400 block of Bucknell Street broke the retirement news, former players and friends asked why he wasn’t waiting until his 50th year to step down. It wasn’t because of health reasons or lack of interest, he told them.
"Fifty is just a number," he explained. "No one ever expected me to coach at one school as long as I did."
The coach did consider retiring a couple of seasons ago, when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but he wasn’t ready to step down.
"It cleared up quickly and I felt so good that I decided to continue on," Phelan said.
The year was 1953, and Phelan had graduated from LaSalle College High School. He was offered a three-year contract with Mount St. Mary’s, but initially signed on for only one year.
"I took a one-year contract and extended it to 49," he said. "It’s been a great run."
Phelan, who will turn 74 in March, has maintained his health and still loves the game of basketball, but building a winning Division I program requires a year-round commitment and a lot of traveling — all of which he’s now ready to pass on to the next coach.
College coaches spend their summers traveling to Amateur Athletic Union tournaments in Orlando and Las Vegas to get a first-hand look at the top sophomores and juniors in the country. These days, coaches also are provided with lists of the top 200 seventh-graders on the East Coast, but they aren’t allowed to start talking with potential recruits until the players are entering their last year of high school.
"Seventh-graders don’t even want to think about college until they are juniors," noted Phelan. "By the time those seventh-graders get to college, I’ll be 80 years old."
With an undergraduate enrollment of 1,400, Mount St. Mary’s is the fourth smallest among Division I institutions. Many of the better players usually end up at bigger schools like the University of Maryland, Duke or North Carolina. Phelan will leave his program in the hands of current associate head coach Milan Brown.
"He has great knowledge of the game and is able to get across to the players," he said of his assistant. "He has his eye on the goal and knows what he is after."
Right now, the goal is trying to get the team back on the winning track. Prior to Monday’s 69-58 win over St. Francis, Mount St. Mary’s opened the season with five straight losses and was 4-31 over the past 35 Northeast Conference games, which include nine straight conference games dating back to last year. But the team is going through a rebuilding phase, as four of its top six scorers are freshmen.
"We went out and recruited some players and we got ourselves some fine players," Phelan said. "Whether that will result in a championship season, I don’t know, but we are working like hell, I tell you that."
The team’s current record doesn’t take anything away from the coach’s career mark of 825-516. On Oct. 9, 1997, Phelan assumed the title of Winningest Active Coach in College Basketball. In his 49 seasons at the Mount, he has experienced his share of memorable moments, including beating Villanova at the Palestra in his second season and winning a national championship in 1962. That team finished the season 24-6 and earned Phelan national Coach of the Year honors.
In his previous 48 seasons, the coach guided 16 teams to NCAA tournaments, including five trips to the Division II Final Four.
Phelan also has enjoyed bringing his team back to Philly for games against La Salle. Maryland sure isn’t known for cheese-steaks, so the coach always made sure to acquaint his players with his childhood traditions.
"I tell the kids they are really going to get a real taste of a hoagie whenever they come up," he said.
Soon, he’ll have the chance to get that taste whenever he likes. He can take the four-hour road trip up Interstate 95, visit his cousins and friends who still live in the area, and enjoy a meal from the old ‘hood.
The coach also plans to play plenty of golf and spend more time with his wife Dottie Liddy, five kids and nine grandkids. Just last week, his twin granddaughters invited him for show n’ tell, where Phelan performed between dog acts.
In the near future, the whole family could be taking a trip to Springfield, Mass., to see Phelan get inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. In 1991, he was one of 15 nominees to pass the screening committee. For now, he’s the only college basketball coach to reach 800 wins without a plaque in Springfield. But it certainly doesn’t take anything away from his legendary career.
"At the end you look back and say, ‘That sure was great!’ I’ll miss the interaction with the players and the preparation. I’ll miss the basketball parts of it, really," Phelan said. "To all the players past and present, my thanks for everything you have done."