Nov. 8, 2013
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Forty years to the day that one of the greatest moments in Notre Dame’s illustrious athletics history occurred, the man who engineered the Fighting Irish’s stunning 71-70 victory over top-ranked UCLA on Jan. 19, 1974 that ended the Bruins 88-game win streak will be inducted into the Notre Dame Basketball Ring of Honor. Richard “Digger” Phelps, whose coaching career at Notre Dame spanned two decades, will become the sixth inductee into the Ring of Honor at halftime of the Fighting Irish men’s basketball game against Virginia Tech on Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014.
Phelps, who led Notre Dame to a sterling 393-197 record and 66.6 winning percentage over his 20 seasons on the Irish hardwood, will become the first coach inducted into the Ring of Honor. The all-time winningest men’s basketball coach at Notre Dame, he will join Austin Carr, Adrian Dantley, Skylar Diggins, Luke Harangody and Ruth Riley. Diggins will be inducted at the Notre Dame women’s basketball game against Valparaiso later this month on Nov. 16.
When informed by current Irish head coach Mike Brey that he was going to be inducted into the Ring of Honor, the normally loquacious Phelps was left somewhat speechless.
“It was unexpected and I was shocked when Mike told me that I was going into the Ring of Honor,” Phelps says. “Obviously looking back on my 20 seasons here, this honor is a reflection on the whole program and the 56 guys I coached and the 56 guys who graduated from Notre Dame. It also is about the 4,000 students that we used to get for every home game that made this thing crazy, and of course, it is about the fans. It’s a combination for me of all of those factors that gave me 20 great years here at this place.”
During his coaching tenure, his Irish teams earned 14 NCAA tournament berths — including six of the last seven seasons — with his 1977-78 squad advancing to the program’s only Final Four appearance. His teams posted 13 20-win campaigns and seven times he led Notre Dame to victories over number-one ranked teams. Three of those teams participated in the National Invitation Tournament with the 1972-73 and 1983-84 clubs earning runner-up finishes. Just three of his 20 squads suffered through losing campaigns.
While Notre Dame’s victory over UCLA clearly remains one of the greatest upsets over a number-one ranked team in college basketball history, Phelps also directed his Irish teams to wins over six other top-ranked foes: San Francisco (93-82 in 1977); Marquette (65-59 in 1978); DePaul (76-74 in double-overtime); Kentucky (67-61 in 1980), Virginia (57-56 in 1981) and North Carolina (60-58 in 1981).
Five Irish players under Phelps — John Shumate, Gary Brokaw, Adrian Dantley, Kelly Tripucka and John Paxson — earned first-team All-America recognition, while 11 players were selected in the first round of the NBA draft. Tripucka and Paxson also garnered Academic All-America accolades, while Paxson received a prestigious NCAA postgraduate scholarship.
Phelps spent 21 years as a collegiate coach and took 15 teams to the NCAA Tournament. Prior to being named the head coach at Notre Dame in 1971, he spent the 1970-71 campaign at Fordham University where he led the Rams to a 26-3 record.
With just one returning letterman on his first squad, Phelps’ team struggled through a 6-20 campaign that first season, but then advanced to the second round of the NIT that second year. In 1973-74, he piloted his Irish team to the top of the college basketball world for the first time in school history following the upset over UCLA and he went on to earn national coach-of-the-year honors following that season as his team finished with a 26-3 record. Throughout Phelps’ career, Notre Dame held the number-one spot in the college basketball rankings for five weeks.
Victories aside, Phelps is most proud of the fact that all 56 players who completed their four-year playing careers earned their degrees.
Since 1993, Phelps has served as an analyst at ESPN and still calls South Bend home. When he is not on the road fulfilling his ESPN duties, Phelps can be found attending a Notre Dame practice or sitting at press row during a game.
The program that enjoyed great success and being in the forefront of the college basketball world during his coaching tenure still remains a special part of his life.
“Going back to when I wrote the letter to Ara Parseghian in 1965-66 telling him that my dream was to coach at Notre Dame, this place has always been special to me,” Phelps says. “I tell people that I am a Father Hesburgh disciple. He inspired me and is a living saint. He carried the torch at Notre Dame and made a difference in people’s lives.
“The beauty of Notre Dame is not just the physical buildings and landmarks, it’s the spiritual beauty of this place that makes it so remarkable. Notre Dame has been my life and being inducted into the Ring of Honor is truly something special.”
Brey, who has spent considerable time with the former Irish coach since he came to Notre Dame in July of 2000, has an appreciation for the love Phelps has for the program and the University.
“It is an honor for me to be here as the head coach at Notre Dame and to see him be inducted into the Ring of Honor,” Brey says. “For all that he has done for Notre Dame basketball, it is very fitting that he joins the other great ones who are already up there. There is no bigger ND basketball fan than Digger Phelps.”