July 12, 2016
By John Heisler
Former University of Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Digger Phelps walked into the Joyce Center Saturday night, thinking he was going to address a group of Chicago-area high school students.
He’d been invited some time ago to deliver those remarks by good friend Rev. Austin Collins, C.S.C., religious superior of the Holy Cross priests and brothers at Notre Dame.
Only Collins had fibbed.
Instead of high school students, Phelps found a gathering of family, friends and colleagues on the floor of Purcell Pavilion to surprise him on the occasion of his 75th birthday (he actually turned 75 July 4).
“You’re going to confession for this,” Phelps suggested to Collins.
Members of the Notre Dame band ushered Phelps onto the floor by playing the Victory March-and that set the tone for an evening of fun and frivolity, with some serious moments throw in as well.
Former neighbor and longtime WNDU anchor Maureen McFadden (part of the “Peashway Irish” group from Phelps’ neighborhood south of campus, she used to babysit for the Phelps kids) and NBC News veteran Anne Thompson (she also worked at WNDU) shared master-of-ceremonies duties. Describing the opportunity at the microphone as one of “sweet revenge,” they led attendees through a program that featured five formal roasters: Diane Phelps Neison (Digger’s younger sister), current Irish basketball coach Mike Brey, ABC/ESPN colleague John Saunders, Rick Phelps (Digger’s son) and longtime Logan Center director Dan Harshman.
In one segment McFadden and Thompson appeared in gaudy sports coats and wide ties. “This looks good compared to what Digger wore in the ’70s,” McFadden said. Thompson referred to Phelps’ hair as “fifty shades of grey.”
In between their remarks came several dozen videos-with comments of all sorts offered by former Irish players and Phelps’ coaching and broadcasting contemporaries, among others.
Former Irish assistant coaches Fran McCaffery, Peter Gillen, Jim Baron and Matt Kilcullen came to South Bend for the event-while video tributes came from assistants Frank McLaughlin, Dick Kuchen and Dick DiBiaso. McCaffery’s video comments referenced his son Patrick who a few years ago was fighting cancer, “He (Digger) sent two medals blessed by Father (Theodore) Hesburgh, and he lit a candle at the Grotto once a week.”
Former Phelps players Pete Crotty, Joseph Price and Steve Nicgorski attended in person-while Tim Kempton, John Shumate, Kelly Tripucka, Bill Hanzlik, Dave Batton, Rich Branning, Monty Williams, David Rivers, Mike Mitchell, Tim Singleton, Scott Paddock, Myron Shuckman, Marc Kelly, student manager Mike Gurdak, Price and Crotty sent along video contributions.
Thirteen of Phelps’ 15 grandchildren-all attired in commemorative T-shirts with the phrase “Power of prayer is the will to win” on the back-joined the party, with baseball players Dillon and Hutton Moyer appearing on video.
Linda Costas, Phelps’ fiancé, opened the evening with a welcome: “We all know his bluster and his grumbling, but we all know his heart.”
Digger’s sister kidded that, with his birthday coming on the fourth of July, he was convinced the fireworks and parades were all for him. Diane laughed in noting that their mother’s most common reference to her son came in the form of, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph-Richard, behave yourself!”
While Diane suggested that Digger early on had been pointed toward taking over the family funeral home business, basketball got in the way: “I think he did alright. In fact, he did better than alright.”
The list of video contributors also included current Kentucky coach John Calipari, former Dodger manager Tommy LaSorda, current Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, former President George W. Bush, former Indiana coach Bob Knight, singer Darius Rucker, Nick Valvano (Digger’s former college roommate at Rider), ESPN’s Rece Davis and Dick Vitale, Irish women’s coach Muffet McGraw, Phelps’ longtime secretary Dottie VanParis, as well as current Notre Dame administrators Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., Jack Swarbrick, John Affleck-Graves, Lou Nanni, Dolly Duffy, Micki Kidder and former media relations staff member Eddie White (he does a great Phelps imitation).
Davis kidded about Phelps’ 1974 team ending UCLA’s record 88-game winning streak: “Did anyone realize one of Digger’s teams ended the all-time win streak in college basketball? Who would have known?”
Many referred to Phelps’ three cardinal rules-don’t assume, follow up and always have a backup plan.
Former Irish football coach Ara Parseghian was in attendance and also offered video remarks about the time the Notre Dame football coaches stole all the furniture from Phelps’ Joyce Center office.
Here are some of the comments offered, both in fun and in all seriousness:
–Brey: “I’ve been waiting for this for a long time. . . . I did hear from a number of former players who said they’d be happy to be a pallbearer. . . . When I got the job at Notre Dame the first day I walked into the back of the Joyce Center with my family, the first guy I see is Digger. He’s the one guy in town who sat in this chair. You’ve been there and done that, Digger, and I appreciate that.”
–Saunders: “We spent many nights in those studios. He is one of the most sincere and competitive people I know on this planet.”
–Rick Phelps: “Ara gave Digger a Notre Dame coaching jacket that I stole-and I’ve still got it. . . . You took a risk to start coaching basketball for no money. . . .You made ’em (Irish players) all graduate and you wouldn’t take transfers.”
–Harshman: “When Digger started at Notre Dame in 1971, he and his team came to Logan Center every year to play a basketball game against the Special Olympians as part of our annual Christmas party. That went on for 36 years, and Digger never missed one. He became special friends with a young man with Down syndrome named Butch Waxman. What Digger did was magical. Somehow, for 36 straight years, Butch would steal the ball from Digger at the end of of the game and score the winning basket. . . . Then, in 1982 when Notre Dame played its first night football game at home, Digger had all his former players come back to play a reunion basketball game, and all the proceeds went to Logan.”
Harshman noted that Phelps, a two-time cancer survivor himself, lights about 60 candles for people he prays for each Tuesday at the Grotto on campus. In recognition of that and of Digger’s 75th, Phelps family members made a financial contribution to help fund those candles.
With that, daughters Karen and Jen led a birthday toast-joined by the leprechaun-as the song “We Are Family” rang out.
Phelps talked about how he became a coach almost by accident, going back to Rider to earn a master’s degree so he could coach and teach. He ended up at St. Gabriel’s (Pa.) High School after writing to North Carolina’s Dean Smith about a job (Smith hired Larry Brown instead). He later wrote Parseghian a letter as well (in 1965), and six years later at age 29 he became the Notre Dame head basketball coach.
Digger spent a year as head coach of a Fordham team that finished 26-3. On one occasion he sat next to Notre Dame sports information director Roger Valdiserri while scouting a Notre Dame-Marquette game. Phelps later employed a two-three zone defense, double-teamed Austin Carr and upset Notre Dame 92-87.
Phelps still recalled what he was told about coaching at Notre Dame: “Graduate your players, be competitive and don’t break any NCAA rules.”
He remembered 4,000 students turning out for that ’74 home win against unbeaten UCLA: “We were Duke before Duke was Duke.
“If you came to Notre Dame, you went to class and if you fell behind, you went to summer school. Notre Dame made the commitment to do both (excel in athletics and academics).”
Phelps offered one final comment: “As we make our life’s journey, thanks for being a part of mine. I am deeply grateful for you being here tonight.
“This is what I want my Irish wake to be like.”
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a 1976 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series