Courtesy: Mount St. Mary's Sports
Ten Straight and Title
By Andy Warner
The team finished loadin g up, found their seats and the door shut. The Mount's bus pulled out of the parking lot and drove towards I-95, heading north back home to Emmitsburg, Md. It was February 16, 1962 and the Mount had just suffered back-to-back conference losses, first to American two days earlier and this time to one of their biggest rivals in the Mason-Dixon Conference, Randolph Macon. The season was not nearly over yet and it was the sixth loss of the season for the Mount, one more than the previous year's total and as many as the year before that.
"We were in a mid-season slump and we had just lost to Randolph Macon," said head coach Jim Phelan as he reminisced back on the season. "We had fallen to 14-6 on the year and on the way home the team had a meeting at the back of the bus."
Jim Henneman, at the time a sports writer for the News Post, Sunday American and Catholic Review, quoted coach Phelan as saying, "I told them on the bus coming back from Randolph Macon that the only way we could have a great season was to finish 24-6. I knew how many games we had left and how many we'd have to win to get this [national championship] far. So the only possible way we could have a great year, not just a good year but a great year, was to finish 24-6 and win the NCAA small college title."
It only took a meeting at the rear of the bus and the time to travel from Ashland, Va., back to Emmitsburg for them to figure out what they needed to do.
"When we got back to the Mount," Phelan recalls. "The team told me we are not going to lose again. I said great, 10 consecutive wins and we are national champions. Low and behold 10 wins later there we were."
The plan for success sounded easy, just win 10 straight. In actuality it was a tough road for the Mount, as those next 10 games produced vigorous contests, seat clinching moments and thrilling victories.
In the proceeding games following that all important meeting, the Mount beat Western Maryland and in overtime knocked off American before sweeping through the Mason Dixon Conference Tournament, getting their revenge in the championship game against Randolph Macon, all the while picking up what could have been their biggest asset in the final weeks, a sixth man.
Clancy the Cobbler, a four inch statue of a Leprechaun, who still today sits in showcase at Knott Arena with the 1962 trophy, joined the Mount bench in their overtime win over American.
"The Leprechaun started with John O'Rielly's mother," said Phelan. "She put it on the bench and we won, and continued to win and so it soon became part of our traveling party. Everywhere we went so did the Leprechaun."
Clancy became the Mount's sixth man, bringing the luck of the Irish to the little Catholic school that sits afoot a mountain. According to the Mount Alumnus, a campus magazine published in the spring of 1962, Clancy sat on the Mount bench for nine consecutive victories, only leaving to join the team in the locker room at halftime.
"John O'Reilly had put him on his own little seat," said O'Reilly 's teammate Jack Campbell. "We started winning and never lost. All the sudden we all became very Irish and the papers were making names that were not Irish into Irish names. All the sudden they were calling players like Ed Pfeiffer, O'Pfeiffer."
With Clancy on their bench and a Mason Dixon Title, the Mount, who was also deemed as the Iron Men for their lack of substitutions, went off to the NCAA Eastern Regionals, traveling to take on Albright in Albright's hostile 3,500 seat gymnasium.
Sticking with the same quartet through two regulations and four overtimes, coach Phelan's squad had defeated Albright 67-64, capturing their sixth straight win. Extending their win streak to seven, the Mount handed Hofstra a stunning 66-51 defeat the next night as John O'Reilly tallied 21 points to lead the Mount to an Eastern Regional Title and a bid to the NCAA finals in Evansville, Ind.
Continuing to prove naysayers wrong, the Mount captured victories eight and nine of their win streak, defeating Wittenberg, who knocked the Mount out the previous year and was the defending national champion, and Southern Illinois, 58-57, on Ed Pfeiffer's winning basket.
The Mount now had a spot in the national championship game the following night, March 17, exactly one month and one day since that turning point bus ride coming home from Randolph Macon. The Mount had won nine straight games and to keep their promise to their coach in the bow tie they needed just one more win. Prior to the game the Mount already felt they had an upper hand. It was St. Patrick's Day and Clancy had not failed them yet.
As the Mount Alumnus put it, "It was inevitable that Clancy would lead the Mounties to the coveted treasure of the NCAA title." After holding a six point halftime lead, the Mount allowed Sacramento State to comeback and tie the game at the end of the second period, 55-55. Playing their third overtime game of the season, the Mount edged out the Hornets 58-57 to win their first ever national championship.
"That season we learned that coach Phelan knew what he was talking about in basketball," said Campbell. "We were undersized and outmanned but we would fool them with our defense. They would call a timeout and coach would change defense and keep them off balance. It was such a great experience. I'll never forget pulling down that final rebound in overtime and realizing we did it."
The Mount had done it as Jim Phelan's squad of 13 overcame all odds and hoisted the trophy all the way back to Emmitsburg.
"We had great chemistry," said Dave Maloney, who was one of the Mount Iron Men that never seemed to leave the floor. "Everybody had a role and they played that role well."
That night as Jim Phelan won his 168th career game he said, "when it was all over and we had won it you could see the kids were having a hard time believing it. You had the feeling of where do we go from here." Just 41 more memorable years and over 650 more victories.