Notre Dame’s Flashy, Frenetic, Fully Electric Basketball Coach

Author: Jerry Kirshenbaum

Digger Phelps Ring Of Honor Digger. Photo by Matt Cashore ’94

Editor’s Note: Digger Phelps turned 80 earlier this month, prompting this flight of memory back to a 1979 Notre Dame Magazine profile of the young coach lighting up college basketball who received a carnation for every occasion.

Heads turn in the parking lot of the Matterhorn Restaurant as Digger Phelps, the Elkhart, Ind., Rotary Club’s guest speaker, climbs out of his 1979 Toronado. Entering the restaurant a moment later, Phelps asks a gray-haired waitress, “Which way to the Rotary meeting, hon?” The older woman doesn’t seem to mind being called “hon” by Notre Dame’s 37-year-old basketball coach. With a smile, she directs him to a banquet room that is quickly filling with Rotarians and their guests.

Soon Phelps is at the head table, where he polishes off a fruit cocktail but passes, thank you, on the pasta and meat balls. As he explains it, he weighs 218 pounds but prefers to be down around 210 during the basketball season. “Otherwise, I look fat on TV,” he confides.

After some announcements about car washes and Salvation Army donations, Phelps is introduced to the audience and somebody pins a green carnation on the lapel of his pinstripe suit. Phelps makes a practice of wearing a carnation at Notre Dame games and he tells his 150 listeners that as a consequence, he can’t attend a banquet these days without being on the receiving end of some floral tribute or other. “Being an undertaker’s son, I’m always homesick,” he says. The audience howls.

The rest of Phelps’ talk is a hit, too. He flatly predicts that soccer will soon “take over this country,” boasts that a lot of his players have made it to the NBA (“More guys come to me on welfare and go out as millionaires . . . ”) and complains about having to meet Kentucky in “neutral” Louisville, allowing that he would rather play the game in “neutral” Elkhart. He listens attentively when a gent in the rear of the room asks why Notre Dame doesn’t have a more attractive home schedule this season. Slyly, Phelps asks, “Anybody want to buy this man’s tickets?”

As hands shoot up around the room, the questioner laughs along with everybody else.

It was a perfect squelch and Phelps will still be savoring the moment on the ride back to South Bend. “It works every time,” he says with a chuckle.

Chalk it up as a routine triumph for Richard Frederick “Digger” Phelps, who in seven years at Notre Dame has utterly changed the University’s balance of athletic power. Notre Dame fared well enough in basketball in earlier times, once going three full decades — from 1924 to 1955 — without suffering a losing season. But television hadn’t yet taken over collegiate sports, the Irish still played in the school’s dingy fieldhouse, and everybody understood that basketball was merely something to keep Notre Dame fans occupied through the winter until the gridiron thawed. Things began to change under Phelps’ predecessor, Johnny Dee, whose teams won 20 or more games four straight seasons before he retired in 1971 and who presided over the opening in 1968 of the new 11,345-seat Athletic and Convocation Center. But UCLA was dominating college basketball in those days, and Dee was overshadowed on his own campus by football’s Ara Parseghian.

Phelps seemed unlikely to change the situation when he arrived from Fordham for the 1971-72 season. A 29-year-old upstart with exactly one year of head-coaching experience in college, he endured a nightmarish 6-20 record that season which included a 94-29 loss to Indiana and a 114-56 shellacking by UCLA. After the Irish stumbled to a 1-6 start the next season, however, the situation changed in a hurry. Recovering dramatically, Digger finished his second season with an 18-12 record and made it to the NIT finals before losing a 92-91 overtime heartbreaker to Virginia Tech. Phelps’ teams have enjoyed five straight winning seasons since then, earning bids to the NCAA tournament each year — a school record. Last season Notre Dame made it to the NCAA championship round in St. Louis, its first appearance in the final four since the tournament began in 1939.

The effect of all this has been impressive. Traditionally a strong draw on the road, Notre Dame’s basketball team has been packing in bigger crowds than ever around the country and has become a major television attraction. As a result, rivals grumble that Notre Dame gets too much TV exposure just as they gripe that the Irish are blessed with all the blue-chippers and are favored by the refs. These, of course, are the same things opponents have been saying about Notre Dame football for years. Equally significant is what is happening at home, where Notre Dame fans routinely fill the ACC and have begun to speak openly about a shared dream. Having celebrated 10 national championships in football, they reckon the time has come to win their first in basketball.

Such rising expectations might send another coach ducking for cover. But Digger Phelps is an ebullient spirit whose ever-improving record at Notre Dame — 137-66 at the start of this season — is matched only by his love of pressure and his affinity for center stage. There Digger is, haranguing a pep rally until his voice cracks. Or charging about at courtside as he leads Irish fans in cheers. Or going nose-to-nose, Leo Durocher style, with officials. Or outfitting the boys in yet another outlandish getup.

“How come the lime-green uniforms, Digger?”

“Well, I was drinking wine one night and. . . .”

As he goes merrily about his business, Phelps leaves the impression that he can’t help himself, that he is just a little out of control. Shrugging his husky shoulders, he says, “I believe in being different, but I also think you should be yourself. I’m an emotional guy who likes to have fun. I lead the crowd in cheers because I am a cheerleader. And at pep rallies, I really do get into it. There’s nothing phony about it.”

But there is more method to Phelps’ madness that he sometimes lets on. If he rouses the home crowd to a frenzy, it is also, of course, in the calculated hope that this in turn will fire up the team. He achieves the same thing — or tries to — by putting the boys in those flashy uniforms. And it is no accident that Digger cannily saves his most conspicuous ref-baiting for the road, thus earning the enmity of fans. “If they’re booing me, they leave my players alone,” he explains. “I want everything centered on me.

“We’re in the entertainment business,” Digger continues. “People want a good show and TV wants a good show. If it’s on the tube, it better be exciting.” Notre Dame’s weight-conscious coach knows that if Notre Dame regularly puts on an exciting show, it will appear on TV more often, which helps in recruiting. In that respect, those rivals may have good reason to grumble.

Whatever the explanations for Phelps’ flamboyance, the quality is appreciated by many Notre Dame students — and he knows it. He tells excitedly about the nights — usually cold and snowy nights — when he and his team return in the wee hours from conquests in Milwaukee, Los Angeles or other distant points and are greeted by hordes of waiting students. “The student body here is electricity,” Phelps likes to say. “All you have to do is turn them on. Before a big game people are four feet off the ground. You can feel the excitement in the air. It’s the most mesmerizing place I’ve ever known.”

When Phelps gets to talking like that, it sounds as those he is competing in some “what-Notre-Dame-means-to-me” contest. Yet his sentiments evidently are heartfelt. He goes to great lengths to allay any suspicions outsiders may have about the school’s academic standards. When midterm exams kept six of his players away from a recent practice, Phelps was not bashful about letting the fact be known. “See that,” he said, motioning toward the court, where just seven players were going through their paces. “People say, ‘Oh, you know, Notre Dame guys don’t have to study.’ But they do. The books come first here.”

Phelps places great stock in what is sometimes referred to as the Notre Dame family. Styling himself a “people’s coach” — he says it without blushing  — he makes the rounds of the University’s administrative offices, distributing religious medals and bantering with secretaries as though they were so many aunts, cousins and nieces. He seeks out family members away from campus, too. Besides speaking to the Elkhart Rotarians and to high school banquets and anybody else who wants to hear him, he frequents Polish bars and churches on South Bend’s West Side and kibitzes with the merchants and housewives at the Farmer’s Market. “Those are our fans,” he says. “You’ve got to make them feel a part of it.”

The working people Phelps woos in South Bend bear a strong resemblance to his onetime neighbors back home in Beacon, N.Y., a tough ethnically mixed river town across the Hudson from West Point. Digger’s dad still owns the Hignell Funeral Home in Beacon and he and Digger’s mother still live behind the mortuary. Digger, who owes his nickname to the nature of the family business, recalls, “When things got crowded we’d sometimes have a casket in the living room with a body in it. I’d go to my friends’ houses and wonder why they didn’t have caskets in their living rooms. Being around a mortuary, you learn about people. You learn that losing somebody hits everybody in different ways, but it hits them. When you see people at their lowest point like that, you’ve got to love them.”

During sandlot football games most boys in Beacon identified with Blanchard and Davis, the heroes at nearby Army, but Catholic lads like Digger Phelps pretended to be Lujack or Hart. Digger remained a Notre Dame fan while attending Rider College in Trenton, N.J., where he earned a B.S. and M.A. in business administration and was a “left-handed, pigeon-toed and knock-kneed guard” on the basketball team. In 1965 Phelps, then 24, was hired as basketball coach at Saint Gabriel’s High, a parochial school in Hazleton, Pa. That fall, even before he had coached his first high school game, he sent Ara Parseghian what was either (1) a fan letter or (2) a very audacious job application. In the now-celebrated letter, which Roger Valdiserri, Notre Dame’s sports information director, extracted from the athletic department files years later, Phelps wrote, “I like the essence of what makes Notre Dame what it is, and someday I hope I might be a part of it.”

Phelps 1978 Final Four Team
Phelps and his 1978 Final Four team commemorating their tournament run. Photo by Matt Cashore ’94

Phelps took St. Gabriel’s that season to a 20-6 record and the Class C Catholic state championship. He then spent four years at Penn State as freshman coach and chief recruiter for head coach Dick Harter. On one of several trips to the Midwest in ultimately successful pursuit of Corky Calhoun, a high school star who became a Penn standout, Phelps stopped in South Bend for lunch with Notre Dame athletic director Moose Krause. “I wanted to let him know I was interested in case an assistant’s job opened up,” Digger recalls. “It was my first visit to Notre Dame and when I got off the toll road and saw that dome, a chill went up my spine.”

In 1970, after having helped Penn achieve national prominence, Phelps became head coach at Fordham, whose record the previous year was 10-15. The Rams had no player taller than 6 feet-5 inches but Phelps, relying on quickness and a devastating full-court press, guided the Rams to a 26-3 record, including a 94-88 win over Notre Dame in Madison Square Garden. When Dee resigned at the end of that season, Phelps called Krause and asked for the job. No screening committee was set up, nor were any other aspirants interviewed. “We were completely sold on Digger,” says Krause. “He was the one we wanted.”

Before he could switch to Notre Dame, Phelps had to persuade Fordham to release him from his contract, which had three years yet to run. That circumstance has haunted him ever after. When he brought Notre Dame into Madison Square Garden to play his old Fordham team for the first time, cries of “carpetbagger” — and worse — filled the air. Fordham’s basketball fortunes have since declined, and officials at that school still blame Phelps’ abrupt departure for their troubles. As recently as last year one Fordham administrator publicly referred to Phelps, witheringly, as “a jumper.”

Phelps defends his move to Notre Dame as something he simply had to do. “That’s the job I always wanted,” he says. “If I’d turned down Notre Dame, I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself.” He tries to further exonerate himself by claiming Fordham officials had reneged on a promise to build a new gym.

“Contracts go both ways,” Digger says. “I’ve seen coaches fired under contract, too.” Indeed, Fordham did something last season that may finally take some of the heat off Digger: it fired head basketball coach Dick Stewart midway through a three-year contract.

When Phelps arrived seven years ago, Notre Dame fans knew only that he was young and eager. They soon found out that he was also something of a wit. He demonstrated that after suffering through that dismal 6-20 first season. “If you think I feel bad,” he said breezily, “what about those six coaches I beat?”

Phelps has also distinguished himself at Notre Dame as a flashy dresser, a sartorial superstar even by the dazzling standards of college basketball coaches. Sitting in his office with his feet on his desk, Notre Dame Dean of Students Jim Roemer, one of Phelps’ cronies, motions to his stylish black shoes. “Digger’s hand-me-downs,” he says. “We both wear size 13, and when he gets done with a pair, he gives them to me.” Business Prof. John Houck, another of the coach’s pals, says, “When Digger is yelling on the bench, you know what he’s really saying? He’s saying, ‘Is my tie straight? Do my slacks match my shirt?...” And Houch goes on, conjuring up the image of a manic Phelps fussing over every detail of his splendid ensemble.

Another Phelps trademark is his ability to lift his players to giddy heights, the result of being a string of Notre Dame upsets. There was the showdown in 1974 against No. 1-ranked UCLA which arrived in South Bend with an NCAA-record 88-game win streak. Digger prepared Notre Dame, which was 10-0 and No. 2, by having his players practice cutting down the nets — “to give them confidence,” he explained. Outscoring UCLA 12-0 in the last three minutes, the Irish won 71-70 and assumed, for one heady week, the top spot in the national polls. Two years later Notre Dame stunned UCLA 66-63 in Los Angeles, the Bruins’ first non-conference loss at Pauly Pavilion in 15 years. Later in the same 1976-77 season, the Irish played host to San Francisco, which was 29-0 and No. 1 in the country. At a pep rally the night before Phelps led fans to chant “29-and-one, 29-and-one.” Next day, after his team whipped the Dons 93-82, NBC Sports gave its MVP award to Notre Dame’s charged-up student body.

Then there was last season’s big game with No. 1-ranked Marquette. When the players entered the dressing room, they were shocked to find that Phelps had replaced their white socks with green ones. They protested but the coach made them wear the accursed new socks and after trailing the defending NCAA champions 39-25 at halftime, Notre Dame won 65-59. The Irish wore green socks without complaint during the NCAA playoffs.

“Those socks were the ugliest things in the world,” says Kelly Tripucka, Notre Dame’s sophomore standout. “But we decided if we’re going to wear them, we may as well win in them.”

“You’ve got to stick your neck out a little,” says Phelps. “Sometimes things work and sometimes they don’t.” One occasion when things didn’t work was last fall’s preseason game against the Soviet national team. In an emotional pep talk (“It was ‘win-one-for-the-Gipper’ time,” says Tripucka), Phelps said national prestige was at stake in the game and pleaded with his men not to let their country down. Alas, the Irish came up flat and lost 90-75.

For all his vaunted flamboyance, Phelps also has a demonstrably conservative side. While he puts his players in uniforms as colorful as a bowl of Fruit Loops, he also schools them in a no-frills brand of basketball that emphasizes balanced scoring and the sober satisfactions of wearing down the other team. Phelps barks at his players in practice and insists on discipline — especially on defense. “These kids are so talented with the ball that all you have to do is organize them a little and let them go,” he says. “But defense, that’s all discipline.”

Phelps also is hard-nosed about his athletes’ academic responsibilities, a subject he touches on in seemingly every public utterance. “We don’t bend our standards at Notre Dame because if you bend, you break,” he says. “People would be amazed how many boys we can’t touch academically who wind up playing elsewhere. We don’t redshirt, we don’t go after transfer students, and Gary Brokaw is the only guy who’s played for me who hasn’t graduated. Now that Gary’s done with pro ball, I’m hoping he’ll come back and get his degree, too. I want the guys to know that there’s more to life than basketball.”

All this is also part of Digger Phelps’ recruiting pitch. “Digger doesn’t B.S. you,” says Tripucka, who was one of the country’s most sought-after high school players two years ago. “He puts his marbles on the table and says you’re expected to study here.” Rather than expect them to take his own word for this, Phelps makes a practice of sending visiting prospects for breakfast at the Morris Inn with David Link, dean of the Law School. Link gives the high school hotshots the facts of academic life. “Digger asks me to tell them what their academic responsibilities will be in college and how important it is for them to get a degree,” he says. “It’s just the opposite of a sales pitch.”

In keeping with his conviction that there’s more to life than basketball, Phelps skis, goes to art galleries — he “digs” Van Gogh — and collects stamps. He also is active in the Heart Fund and South Bend’s Logan School for the Retarded. He says, “When my guys have a bad practice or something, I tell them ‘Hey, listen, you think you’ve got troubles, you should go over to Logan or to the Children’s Hospital and see some of those kids.’”

Phelps lives in a comfortable house just south of campus with his wife Teresa and their children, Karen, 13, Ricky, 11, and Jennifer, 9. Terri cheerfully meets the demand among Notre Dame’s basketball players for her blueberry pie, but otherwise as one friend puts it, “She’s not your ‘Digger-how-did-practice-go-today’ type girl.” She is finishing her doctorate in English at Notre Dame (title of her thesis: “Images of the Feminine in David Jones’ Poetry”) and she teaches a seminar and recently edited an issue of the Notre Dame English Journal. “Terri’s devoted to Digger, but I know better than to introduce her as Digger’s wife,” says Jim Roemer. “She’s Terri Phelps and not afraid of it.”

“Terri’s an intelligent woman and she’s her own person,” says Digger. “I wouldn’t want her living in my shadow.”

Digger seldom brings basketball home with him — not so it’s noticeable anyway. After practice one evening, he had a quick dinner with his family, during which the conversation touched on Ricky’s upcoming hockey game, Jennifer’s school play and Terri’s observation that nouns were being used increasingly these days as verbs — as in the word “parenting.” The subject of basketball never came up.

After the meal, Digger changed into casual attire — designer jeans, a fawn sweater and a rakish Gatsby cap — and went off to Dillon Hall, where he talked with 75 students in the chapel. The subject of basketball did come up. But so did a lot of other subjects, including the coach’s belief that his listeners should remain loyal to Notre Dame. “Loyalty is something we’ve lost in this country,” he said. “People ought to live and die for their school.”

The next morning over poached eggs in the coffee shop at the Farmer’s Market, Phelps spoke of a success that has so far eluded him. “The one thing we haven’t won is an NCAA championship,” he says. “That’s my goal now, to win it all.”

As Phelps sat there, women with shopping bags walked by doing double takes upon recognizing him. At one point a man in work clothes stopped to ask him about the basketball team. And this much was clear: while Johnny Dee was overshadowed by Ara Parseghian, Digger Phelps is not eclipsed as a Notre Dame celebrity by Dan Devine or anyone else.

When the man in work clothes left, Phelps returned to the subject of a national championship. Notre Dame’s basketball team, he freely admitted, had gone from giant killer to giant. Which, he hastened to add, was only as it should be. “There’s one thing I’ve felt all along,” Digger Phelps said. “I’ve always felt that anything Notre Dame can do in football, it can do in basketball.”

Jerry Kirshenbaum is an associate editor of Sports Illustrated magazine.