Jan. 18, 2014
By Tim Bourret
The week after the University of Notre Dame’s 29-3 football victory over Navy on Oct. 30, 1965, Irish head football coach Ara Parseghian received a letter from a first-year high school coach at a small Catholic school in Hazelton, Pa.
The letter from the 24-year-old basically told Parseghian that he wanted to be the head basketball coach at Notre Dame some day. Even though he had never seen the campus, it was his dream job.
Parseghian received a lot of letters like this from football coaches interested in getting into his chosen profession, but never had he received a letter from a basketball coach about being the Notre Dame basketball coach. At least this guy wasn’t after his job.
Parseghian had a file for such correspondence called “Crazy Letter File”–and that is where he placed it.
Less than six years later, in May of 1971, a now 29-year old Richard “Digger” Phelps, the author of that letter, joined Parseghian as basketball coach on the head coaching staff of legendary Notre Dame athletics director Moose Krause.
Phelps qualified as the first Notre Dame men’s basketball coach who was not a Notre Dame alumnus since 1943, yet he may have had twice as much passion for the school as any of his predecessors.
“I loved the essence of Notre Dame and what the University stood for,” recalled Phelps about his letter to Parseghian. “It does seem crazy today that I would write a letter to the football coach about becoming the basketball coach. But, Ara had such charisma. He was the most visible symbol of the school and I identified with him.
“When I thought about Notre Dame then, I thought of Ara Parseghian. To some extent I still do that today.”
That letter was just one of the examples of Phelps’ personal mission to be the head basketball coach at Notre Dame at an early age. A native of Beacon, N.Y., he was surrounded by New York subway alumni and remembers as a youth the city’s excitement when Notre Dame came to Yankee Stadium to play football against Army.
“When I was a kid and we played pickup football games in the neighborhood, I was always Johnny Lujack,” he said of the oldest living Heisman winner who won the award when Phelps was six.
When Phelps became the head coach at St. Gabriel’s (Pa.) High School in 1965, he designed the uniforms and wanted to incorporate something about Notre Dame into the game attire.
“Even though our primary color was purple, I put a green shamrock on our game pants,” he said.
Phelps coached at St. Gabriel’s for one year and won the state Pennsylvania Class C championship. He then became the freshman coach at the University of Pennsylvania, a position he held for four years, and helped recruit many of the players who went on to take the Quakers to a 28-1 season in 1969-70.
One of those recruits was Corky Calhoun, who lived in Waukegan, Ill. In the fall of 1968, on one of his trips to Illinois, Phelps made a side trip to Notre Dame. He had a strong relationship with Johnny Druze, who had been one of the Seven Blocks of Granite at Fordham with Vince Lombardi and later an assistant football coach at Notre Dame under Frank Leahy and Terry Brennan.
“Johnny called Moose Krause and he arranged for me to meet him,” said Phelps. “But, before I met Moose, I went to Notre Dame Stadium and walked to the middle of the field. I mentally flashed back to my youth. I could hear Bill Stern calling games on WOR radio. I had goose bumps standing in the middle of that field. The visit only confirmed to me that this is where I wanted to be.”
Two years later Phelps, with the help of Druze, was named the head coach at Fordham. He took over a team that had been 10-15 the previous year and led the Rams to a 26-3 record and top-10 final ranking.
Two of the games on Fordham’s 1970-71 schedule were against Notre Dame and Marquette. In those days, there was no film exchange and coaches, usually assistants, would go to games and scout future opponents. Notre Dame played at Marquette on Jan. 12, 1971, so Phelps decided he could scout both teams with one trip.
Instead of calling Marquette to get a scouting pass, he called Eleanor Van der Hagen, Krause’s secretary. He had made a point of striking up a friendship with Eleanor when he had visited three years earlier. Phelps was a master at paying attention to detail.
“Eleanor was a wonderful person,” recalled Phelps. “I called her and asked her to call Marquette and see if they could give me a seat next to (Notre Dame sports information director) Roger Valdiserri on press row. In addition to scouting the game, I knew it would give me a chance to spend some time with Roger.”
Sure enough, Eleanor pulled it off and Phelps spent the entire game in Valdiserri’s ear.
On Feb. 18, 1971, Phelps had his chance to impress more than just Valdiserri as Notre Dame came to Madison Square Garden to face his 14th-ranked Fordham Rams. Thanks to a lot of interviews with New York’s most popular sportscaster, Howard Cosell, Phelps and the Rams were the talk of New York and a sellout crowd of 19,500 was in attendance for the 9 p.m. tipoff.
The Irish had beaten UCLA behind Austin Carr’s 46 points just three weeks earlier and were a virtual lock for an NCAA bid. Both teams were ranked in the top 20 of the Associated Press and United Press International polls entering the game.
Prior to the contest, Phelps enhanced his relationship with Valdiserri and his chances of getting the Notre Dame job. “It was just 30 minutes before the game and I was in the runway with Roger and Johnny Druze. Johnny asked me how I was going to stop Austin Carr.
“Roger said he wouldn’t run to the locker room and tell Johnny Dee my plan because it was too close to the game. So I told them Notre Dame had struggled against a zone in five of its six losses. We hadn’t played a zone all year, but we were going to use it for this game because Notre Dame wouldn’t expect it. I told him we were going to double team Carr and let Sid Catlett shoot from the outside. We wanted someone other than Carr to beat us.”
The strategy worked and Fordham defeated Notre Dame that night 94-88. It was Notre Dame’s only loss over the last eight games of the regular season. The victory also gave Phelps a common accomplishment with Parseghian. Ara had impressed Notre Dame administrators by beating Notre Dame as Northwestern coach four times from 1959-62 before he was hired by Notre Dame president Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C. Now Phelps had beaten the Irish on the brightest stage in the college basketball world.
“That night I sold New York City on Fordham’s basketball program. And, I sold Roger Valdiserri that I could be the next coach at Notre Dame.”
Phelps became the hottest coach in the country by the end of that season and was approached by Virginia Tech and Pennsylvania. Both schools were willing to pay $35,000 a year for four years. But Phelps was going to wait for Notre Dame. He talked with Valdiserri often and Valdiserri suggested Dee’s resignation was on the way.
On April 30, 1971, as Valdiserri was putting out a release on Dee’s resignation, Phelps was interviewing with Notre Dame executive vice president Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C., at the Detroit airport.
“He told me he expected us to graduate our players, never get in trouble with the NCAA and to be competitive. I asked him, `What do you mean by competitive?’ He said, `About 18 wins a year,'” said Phelps.
At the conclusion of the interview, Father Joyce said the job paid $18,000 a year, plus an additional $3,000 for radio and television shows, plus a car. That was just a little over half of what Penn and Virginia Tech were offering.
“That didn’t matter,” recalled Phelps. “I would have taken that job for food coupons for my wife and kids at the North Dining Hall.”
In fact, that initial four-year contract would be the only multi-year contact Phelps had at Notre Dame. He worked from year to year after the 1975 season.
Brimming with confidence, the “electric young coach of the Fighting Irish,” as Dick Enberg called him, did not inherit a easy situation. It was going to be a rebuilding situation because Carr, Notre Dame’s greatest player, had graduated. His 2,560 career points still stand as the school record. Plus, there were six other very good seniors, including Collis Jones, a 24-point scorer in 1970-71, who also graduated.
The outlook became worse because John Shumate, the leading scorer on the 1971 freshman team, contracted a rare blood disorder and could not play in 1971-72. Plus, the only returning player with any degree of experience, Doug Gemmell, seriously injured himself in a motorcycle accident, an injury that ended his career.
Phelps’ first game as head coach in the final year freshmen were ineligible (Gary Brokaw and Dwight Clay were on the Irish freshman team) he started five sophomores. The Irish stayed with Michigan for half the game but lost 101-83. It marked the first of 20 losses that season against just six wins.
Phelps always scheduled the best and he played eight games against top-20 teams, including five against top-10 clubs, that first year. One of those games was against first-year Indiana coach Bob Knight, whose Hoosier team was ranked 10th in the nation by UPI. The Dec. 18, 1971 game also marked the dedication of Assembly Hall.
It proved a perfect storm for an Indiana celebration. Indiana won 94-29, still the fewest points Notre Dame has scored in a game since 1942 and the only time in history a Notre Dame team has had as many turnovers as points. Indiana forward John Ritter outscored the entire Notre Dame team (31-29).
“The next day I got calls from my buddies in New York. `Digger, the wire service switched the digits on your score against Indiana.’ I told them we had lost at the buzzer,” he said with a grin.
It got so bad by the end of the season that Phelps told a writer from the Chicago Tribune, “We have to scrimmage every day so I know what it feels like to win.”
The Irish started the next season with a 1-6 record, but the team gradually improved. Four of the first seven losses came by two points or in overtime. The fever finally broke on Jan. 7, 1973, when Notre Dame beat Kansas in overtime 66-64.
“When you are in the development of a program, you look for one win to turn your program around. That victory came for us when we beat Kansas in overtime,” Phelps said.
The Irish won 17 of their last 23 and reached the finals of the National Invitation Tournament. In those days only 25 teams made the NCAA Championships, so the NIT qualified as a big deal. The Irish defeated USC, Louisville and North Carolina (coached by Dean Smith) before a heart-breaking 92-91 loss to Virginia Tech in the championship on a buzzer jumper off an offensive rebound by Bobby Stevens.
Despite the loss, 3,000 Notre Dame students, including the entire band, met the team on campus Monday when it returned from New York. The students lifted Phelps on their shoulders.
When Phelps first came to Notre Dame, he would schedule meetings with the students in the lobbies of their residence halls during the fall semester. He hit just about every dorm at some point and the topics ranged from politics to religion to economics–to basketball. Everything was on the table.
He knew the support of the student body for the football team and he wanted it to reach a similar level in basketball. He took the personal approach and, as the students lifted him on their shoulders, he knew those sessions had had an impact.
With all five returning starters from the NIT finalist team, plus the addition of a recruiting class that included potential star Adrian Dantley, a future member of the Naismith Hall of Fame, Notre Dame had become a nationally-relevant program again.
The 1973-74 Notre Dame team did not reach the NCAA Final Four, as Phelps’ 1977-78 squad did, but it was his best team. Its accomplishments were considerable and many considered it the best team in Notre Dame history.
Everyone remembers the win over UCLA that ended the 88-game winning streak, Phelps’ first of seven wins over the number-one ranked team. But that year featured so much more.
Few remember that the UCLA win marked the start of one of the great 11-day runs in college basketball history. The Tuesday after that win over the Bruins, the Irish went to Kansas to face a 17th-ranked Jayhawks team that would go on to the NCAA Final Four that same year. Talk about an assignment with the potential to be the all-time letdown game. But the Irish, behind Shumate, won 76-74. It’s one of the great wins in Notre Dame history when you consider all the factors.
When you look at that schedule you have to ask, “What was Digger thinking?” On Thursday, St. Francis (Pa.) came to South Bend and the Irish won easily. The morning after that game, the Irish got back on a plane to travel to Los Angeles to face UCLA again, just seven days after the end of the 88-game streak. UCLA was ready and defeated the Irish by 19 points behind 32 from Walton.
The following Tuesday night, fifth-ranked Marquette came to South Bend with a 16-1 record. After a battle of technical fouls between Marquette coach Al McGuire and Phelps, the Irish came away with a 69-63 victory. Marquette went on to the national championship game that year against North Carolina State.
In summary, Notre Dame beat three of the four teams that would go to the Final Four at the end of the year in an 11-day period, a time frame in which the Irish had to play two other games. It is still the only time a team has beaten three of the teams in the Final Four during the regular season. And the Irish did it in 11 days.
A look at the final AP poll for 1973-74 also reveals that Phelps and the Irish beat four of the teams that finished in the final top 10. There were six wins over top-20 teams, including four top 10s at the times of the games.
Phelps beat seven different coaches that year who would go on to be named to the Naismith Hall of Fame: John Thompson (Georgetown), Fred Taylor (Ohio State), Bob Knight (Indiana), John Wooden (UCLA), Al McGuire (Marquette) Frank McGuire (South Carolina) and Ray Meyer (DePaul).
The 26 wins against three losses were the most victories by a Notre Dame team between 1909-2010. The team featured three All-Americans in Dantley, Shumate and Brokaw.
The 1973-74 season marked the start of the greatest era in Notre Dame basketball. Eight straight seasons in the NCAA Championships, seven of which included at least one NCAA victory. There was a 1978 Final Four appearance, two trips to the Elite Eight and seven Sweet 16s. The Irish ranked in the AP top 10 98 times, including 58 times in the top five (third among all Division I programs) during that eight-year run. The Irish posted six wins over the number-one team, 14 wins over top-five opponents, 21 top-10 wins and 33 top-20 victories.
Phelps that year began his series of seven wins over number-one-rated opponents. He remains the only coach to beat seven different schools when they were number one. On the court, from a national standpoint, that will be Digger Phelps’ legacy.
“There has never been a better coach in getting a team ready for a big game,” said former Notre Dame guard Ray Martin, who played a key role in Notre Dame’s 71-70 win over UCLA that ended the all-time winning streak. Martin went on to a long coaching career, including the 1983 season when he was an assistant on Jim Valvano’s national championship North Carolina State team.
Phelps’ teams played 22 different coaches who are in the Naismith Hall of Fame and defeated 20 of them at least once. His teams beat Rick Pitino, Bob Knight and Larry Brown at two different schools. He owns wins over each of the top four winningest coaches of all time — Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim, Bob Knight and Dean Smith.
The 1974-81 streak included the NCAA Final Four season of 1977-78.
“I called that my Noah’s Ark team because we had two of everything that year. I really thought we could get to the Final Four and win it all that year,” said Phelps.
Eight players from that team went on to play in the National Basketball Association, including Bill Laimbeer, Kelly Tripucka, Orlando Wooldridge and Bill Hanzlik who all played at least 10 years in the league.
Seven players on the roster would score at least 1,000 points in their careers, the first team in the history of college basketball to have seven players eventually score at least 1000 points.
The Irish that year registered seven wins over top-20 teams, still the most in a season in Notre Dame history. One of the victories came over number-one-ranked Marquette, a game in which Notre Dame trailed at the half by 14 at the half then won by six (65-59). Notre Dame’s three NCAA Championship wins were all against top-20 teams.
While the highlight years of Phelps’ career came during the 1974-81 era, there were many other significant accomplishments in the second decade under Digger. There was another win over number-one-ranked North Carolina in 1986-87, one of four top-20 wins that year. That team reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Championships. Six of his last seven years he took Notre Dame to the NCAA Championships.
When Phelps concluded his 20-year run at Notre Dame he had a record of 393-197. He enjoyed 12 seasons with at least 20 wins and 14 NCAA Championships invitations. He coached 10 seasons in which he took the Irish to a final top-20 ranking, including eight top-10 finishes. He had a run of six straight top-10 seasons, just one short of the seven in a row Parseghian had during his Notre Dame football career.
Fifty-one of Phelps’ wins came over top-20 teams, the most in Notre Dame history. Twenty-seven wins came at the Athletic and Convocation Center and 24 happened away from home. He had seven wins over number-one-rated foes, 20 wins over top-five teams and 30 wins over top-10 teams.
Still, the statistic that means most to Phelps is the 100 percent graduation rate for his four-year players (57 of 57). He was certainly proud when Dantley was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame, but he was equally as proud when Florida State won the national championship in college football this year knowing that one of his former players, Stan Wilcox, is the athletic director of the Seminole program.
Phelps was always interested in making sure his student-athletes were prepared for life after basketball. He used to post the front page of the day’s newspaper in the locker room, then before practice he would ask a player about something that was going on in the world.
Each senior had to schedule a couple of job interviews before the beginning of the season. When the team went on the road and there was an alumni gathering at some point during the trip, he made sure one of his players spoke to the group, providing experience in public speaking.
I have known Digger Phelps since my freshman year at Notre Dame when I was one of the many students who stormed the court after that win over UCLA broke the 88-game streak. As I look back on his career, his considerable accomplishments and the way he reached those milestones, with incomparable passion for his players and his school, with a 100 percent graduation rate and a perfect NCAA compliance record, I must give him one compliment that should make him smile.
Digger, you were the Ara Parseghian of Notre Dame basketball.
Hall of Fame Coaches Digger Phelps Defeated in his Coaching Career
Jim Boeheim (Syracuse)
Larry Brown (UCLA and Kansas)
Lou Carneseca (St. John’s)
Pete Carril (Princeton)
John Chaney (Temple)
Denny Crum (Louisville)
Chuck Daly (Boston College*)
Marv Harshman (Washington)
Bob Knight (Army* and Indiana)
Mike Krzyzewski (Duke)
Guy Lewis (Houston)
Al McGuire (Marquette)
Frank McGuire (South Carolina)
Ray Meyer (DePaul)
Ralph Miller (Oregon State)
Rick Pitino (Boston University and Kentucky)
Dean Smith (North Carolina)
Fred Taylor (Ohio State)
John Thompson (Georgetown)
John Wooden (UCLA)
* – won as Fordham head coach in 1970-71
Tim Bourret was a University of Notre Dame freshman in 1974 when the Fighting Irish victory over UCLA ended the Bruins’ 88-game winning streak. He is the author of “Digger Phelps’ Tales from the Notre Dame Hardwood.”