Fear seldom followed former Notre Dame swingman Kelly Tripucka onto the basketball court.
He worked his way into the starting lineup as a true freshman on a veteran team that eventually reached the program’s lone Final Four in 1978.
He delivered in some of the biggest games that featured nationally-televised matchups against ranked teams. He often was the one guy that opposing fans loved to boo. That drove Tripucka to play well enough to shut them up.
The bigger the game, the higher the stakes, the better Tripucka seemingly played. Pressure followed him; it fueled him.
“I always lived by one motto — I was never afraid of anybody,” Tripucka said Wednesday from his home in Spring Lake, N.J. “If you were going to play against me or our teams, you were going to be in for a battle.”
Confidence? The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Tripucka carried plenty of it. Cockiness? There was a lot of that too. There had to be. The guy was just certain that if he was going to play a game, he was going to win a game.
He’d do it by scoring, by rebounding, by assisting, by competing. During his four seasons, Tripucka helped the Irish win 96 games. He still remembers the exact number of losses (26).
“I hated to lose more than I loved to win,” he said. “I loved the game that much that I would put everything I had into it.”
On Saturday, Tripucka becomes the ninth member of the Notre Dame men’s basketball program to enter the school’s Ring of Honor. He’ll be recognized during halftime of the Atlantic Coast Conference game against Georgia Tech.
When the date for Tripucka’s day was set in October, he forwarded the information to family and friends and former teammates. It was along the lines of Hey, I know you’re busy, but if you’re not doing anything the first weekend in February, there’s this ceremony for me back at Notre Dame …
Other than the standard response — What took so long? — Tripucka didn’t expect much of one.
“South Bend in January and February,” he said with a laugh. “Not exactly where people want to go.”
Turns out he was mistaken. Almost everyone that Tripucka contacted — he’s lost track of the exact number — returned the same response. They’re in. Family members. Friends. Former teammates.
All made plans to get back to Notre Dame and see Tripucka’s No. 44 banner in the arena rafters. They started rolling in on Thursday and Friday. Going to dinner at Rocco’s, to lunch at Brothers, to a private dinner at the Seven on 9 Club in Corbett Family Hall to trade all those Kelly T. tales.
So with the date and the response to it came that certain something that never was part of Tripucka’s game.
Fear. Tripucka was afraid for days that Mother Nature wouldn’t cooperate, would find a way to wreck his day.
“I pray for nice weather and that we can all travel in and out,” said the 60-year-old Tripucka, who arrived Friday, when it was partly cloudy (even some sun!) with temperatures in the upper 30s and zero precipitation. “At this point in life, that’s the most important thing. I want everybody to be able to get in and out and enjoy themselves once they’re there.”
Tripucka will, even if it seems so surreal. Still. Long before the public learned of his Ring of Honor date, Tripucka found out that he was the next to go in last February. He was in Coral Gables, Fla., preparing to call Notre Dame’s game against Miami (Fla.) as part of the Westwood One Radio Network.
Tripucka stopped by the locker room to visit Irish coach Mike Brey, who shared the news — come a 2020 ACC home game, Tripucka’s banner was going up. He just had to keep it quiet.
“He teared up,” Brey said. “It was awesome. It was really awesome.”
Tripucka wasn’t certain that what Brey was saying was real.
“I said, ‘Are you sure?’” Tripucka said with all seriousness. “To be thought of in that regard and to have this is really cool.”
Really, it’s a slam dunk. Notre Dame’s basketball greats list starts with Austin Carr and Adrian Dantley, two players that Tripucka idolized, two guys that helped him look hard at playing for Notre Dame.
To him, to everyone, they’re 1 and 1A. After that, you could make a Ring of Honor case for a lot of guys. That includes Tripucka, the first player on the school’s only Final Four team to have a banner.
Why Tripucka? Why not?
“He’s one of the all-time greats,” Brey said. “Nobody argued that one.”
When your father played quarterback at Notre Dame in the 1940s, there’s no question where you’re going to college. When your father played the Victory March every Thanksgiving morning since you were 5 years old, there couldn’t be any doubt.
Even when big basketball schools like Duke and Maryland came calling for the high school All-American, there was no other option.
Tripucka was destined for Notre Dame.
Easiest recruiting process for former Irish coach Digger Phelps, who made sure Tripucka followed the family name to Northern Indiana.
“It was a done deal before I got to the house,” Phelps said.
Months after Tripucka arrived on campus, the Notre Dame football team won the 1977 national championship. His first thought was, why can’t basketball do the same that winter? Notre Dame beat the likes of UCLA and Marquette and DePaul that season to get to the Checkerdome in St. Louis and the Final Four.
Tripucka averaged 11.7 points (third on the team) and 5.2 rebounds in all 31 games for a Notre Dame team that finished 23-8. He earned most valuable player of the Midwest Region.
It stung when the Irish fell two wins short of the ultimate goal. Any of that pain was soothed for Tripucka in knowing he’d have three more years to get a national championship.
Notre Dame never got one, and never got back to the Final Four. The Irish won at least 22 games in each of Tripucka’s final three seasons at a time when winning at least 20 underscored excellence. The Irish played a national schedule. They went East. They went West. They went everywhere they could back in the days before cable and social media and an over-saturation of televised games. Most weekends, they were the only game on.
They became a nationally-known school with nationally-known names like Tracy Jackson and the late Orlando Woolridge and, Tripucka. Maybe most of all Tripucka, the kid with the big salad of hair and the sweatbands and the knee-high socks and the motor that seldom ceased.
“Notre Dame became a destination for basketball,” he said. “That’s what I’m most proud of. I went there with a purpose of having something to do to leave the program better, leave it better than when you came in.
“We put Notre Dame on the map for basketball.”
Tripucka played in 112 career games. He started all 81 over his final three seasons. He bumped his scoring average each of his four seasons. He played over 3,000 career minutes. He still ranks in the Top 10 of six statistical categories. He’s 12th in program history with 1,719 career points. Notre Dame played 17 games against Top 10 teams during his time. The Irish won 11. He was an academic All-American in 1979. He was a three-time All-American.
“We were a challenge to win the national championship every year,” he said. “That’s probably the biggest disappointment — not winning a national championship at that time — those four years.”
There was no shot clock when he played. There was no 3-point line. For Notre Dame, there was no Big East. No ACC. The Irish operated as an independent, which meant many of their games were tournament-like in intensity and importance. As time moves forward, Tripucka often wonders if anyone even remembers that time today with the game so drastically different.
“Sometimes we’re forgotten, that era, for whatever reason,” he said. “That’s why I think this (Ring of Honor) is special for me because I’d like to think that this is us going in because we had so many great players.”
Tripucka’s the one being honored Saturday, but in a way, it offers another chance for everyone to acknowledge that entire 1978 team. Honor captains Dave Batton and Duck Williams. Recognize Rich Branning and Bruce Flowers and Bill Hanzlik and Jackson. Remember Woolridge. A lot of those guys were on campus two years ago for the 40-year anniversary celebration. A lot of them are back this weekend.
That’s what really matters for Tripucka. In the beginning, the middle and the end, it was always about teammates for Tripucka. When practices and games ended and the coaching staff headed for home, all they had was each other. In the dorms. On that small campus. In the middle of winter. It was rough. It was great.
“I wanted to play with guys that wanted to win as much as I did,” he said. “I never really looked at myself individually. I can’t say enough about my teammates.”
A private reception for Tripucka in the Monogram Room follows Saturday’s game. It will allow Tripucka to again get with all those family members and friends and former teammates. There will be guest speakers and stories. And laughs. Probably a few tears. There likely will be a toast to Tripucka’s late father, Frank, whom he really wished could’ve seen this. Another toast for Tripucka’s 92-year-old mother who couldn’t travel, but who he promised would be with him in spirit.
If Notre Dame really wanted to take Tripucka back to his college days, it would serve the same sort of mystery meat he and his teammates used to race to South Dining Hall to eat for dinner after another late practice. When that wouldn’t do, they’d find someone with a car, pile in and head for the Wendy’s on U.S. 31. Burgers and fries and shakes all around.
“God, we were living large,” Tripucka said. “It was fun, as much fun as you could have in South Bend, Indiana.
“Notre Dame was special. I got everything out of it that you could possibly want.”