Notre Dame basketball: Digger treasures ‘Ring’ selection
He still snags a front-row seat along the baseline press table for many home games, still wanders onto the court before practice and is a near-daily fixture everywhere around Purcell Pavilion.
But for as much time as he's spent around the Notre Dame men's basketball program, former coach Digger Phelps seldom wondered — OK, maybe he pondered it once or twice in a rare quiet moment — about when he might be inducted into the school's “Ring of Honor” that stands high above the floor on the arena's east side.
Phelps will wonder no more.
Notre Dame announced Friday that the 72-year-old Phelps, a two-time cancer survivor who helped cement the Irish program as a national power, will join former All-Americans Austin Carr, Adrian Dantley and Luke Harangody in the Ring of Honor during a halftime ceremony at the Jan. 19, 2014 home game against Virginia Tech.
Phelps learned that he would be the first former men's coach to go into the Ring last month during a chance meeting with current coach Mike Brey at a downtown restaurant. Brey mentioned that he wanted to talk with Phelps, but the former coach had no idea of the current coach's agenda.
Brey's words left Phelps, someone seldom without syllables, speechless.
“He dropped that bomb on me and I teared up a little bit,” Phelps said Friday afternoon. “I look at the Ring of Honor with great respect. I treasure that. It's a reflection of all the times that happened that helped make the Notre Dame basketball program.”
As Brey talked of how it was Phelps' turn to take his place among the programs greats — he's the first honoree since Dantley joined late in the 2011-12 season — the former Irish coach rolled through a handful of mental snapshots of his 20-year coaching career that saw him go 393-197 on the Notre Dame sideline.
He thought back to writing a letter in 1965 to then-football coach Ara Parseghian in which he professed his love for Notre Dame and the desire to one day become the school's basketball coach, and then arriving in 1971 after one year at Fordham. He thought of all the support offered by former university president the Most Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., still a close confidant of the coach (the two had dinner at Parisi's this week). He thought of every player he recruited during his two decades — 56 — all of whom earned their undergraduate degrees. He thought of the big wins, the crushing losses and the memorable moments.
“It was all a flashback,” Phelps said. “To me, what made Notre Dame was the total package. I was just a small part of what this place is (but) it's a combination of everything that makes the place so special.”
The date of Phelps' induction — Jan. 19 — is no coincidence. That day marks the 40-year anniversary of Notre Dame's historic 71-70 victory over UCLA, which snapped the Bruins' 88-game win streak. Though the weekend offers a conflict in terms of travel — Phelps' ESPN College GameDay duties will have him in Philadelphia and then Storrs, Conn., the previous day before catching a return flight home early Sunday — he pushed to have the ceremony Jan. 19 so he could bring back as many former players from that game as able to share the moment.
“That was the whole turning point of the whole program,” Phelps said. “Without them, and without that game, there is no Ring of Honor.”