A Philadelphia native, Phelan starred on La Salle’s basketball team before coming to the Mount in 1954. He planned to stay only a few seasons as a coach before moving on, but he grew to love the cozy town of Emmitsburg and ended up sticking around.
“Coach Phelan is Mount St. Mary’s basketball,” said Dan Engelstad, the current coach of the Mountaineers. “I found out the news after dropping my daughters at school as I was driving to campus. I thought about how fortunate I am to coach at the place that Coach Phelan built and grateful that he built it on family. I get to share his desk and I get to coach in the gym that he changed lives in — what an honor.”
Shortly after seeing Carter play in Philadelphia, Phelan talked him into leaving the big city for Emmitsburg. Carter, who later played in the NBA and became coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, was the first Black student to enroll in the small, private Catholic school.
Toward the end of his career, when he was a good 45 years older than the players he coached, Phelan deftly handled the generation gap.
“When the players first get here, they seem to regard me as a dinosaur, a fossil,” Phelan said. “They usually spend the first part of their freshman season relating to the assistant coaches. Then, after a while, they realize that I’m not exactly a senile old grandfather.”
In addition to coaching basketball, Phelan coached the baseball team at Mount St. Mary’s from 1955-65 and served as athletic director from 1967-89.
“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 President Timothy Trainor said. “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.”
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