The other side of Notre Dame coaching icon Digger Phelps
SOUTH BEND -- Easing the black sedan, with its constant loop of classic music and a dashboard clock set 10 minutes ahead, to a stop near the intersection of St. Mary’s Road and Seminary Drive on the northwestern edge of the Notre Dame campus, Digger Phelps does something unusual.
He goes quiet.
Minutes earlier, he had idled the auto in the back of Carroll Hall along an area reserved for deliveries to offer an ESPN producer on the other end of his flip phone a quick history lesson. With ESPN’s College Basketball Gameday set Saturday to debut from The Palestra, Phelps excitedly talked about the famed Philadelphia arena and its place in the game. In a matter of minutes, Phelps rolls off the names of coaches and players with deep Philadelphia connections — Chuck Daly, Chris Ford, Dick Harter, Jim Lynam and Howard Porter. He speaks of the glory days of the city’s Big Five, and offers the backstories of how he went from an assistant at one of those city schools — the University of Pennsylvania — to the head coach at Fordham.
He gives the producer way more material than he wanted. But it’s obvious that at age 72, Phelps’ memory for detail remains sharp.
Minutes later, with the sedan on the shoulder and hazards blinking, Phelps follows a path of footprints through the woods and the ankle-deep snow on a gray but warmer Monday morning after a brutal week of winter weather. He walks 40 yards to a place he visits every Tuesday morning, without fail, to pray and plan, to reflect and rejoice.
It’s a spot he first found shortly after he arrived at Notre Dame in 1971 as the hot-shot 29-year-old coach with grand plans of making Notre Dame a basketball power. Back then he used to drive the mile or so from the same two-story brick house near campus that he still resides in today with the American flags out front. Phelps put them up around 11 a.m. the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 and they’ve flown every day since.
As a young coach he would park behind Carroll Hall and walk his dog through the campus. In the fall, he noticed something in the woods near Saint Joseph Lake (it was hard to see with full foliage in spring and summer), but paid it little attention.
Only years later after reading “The DaVinci Code” did Phelps come to understand the importance of the area with the Hidden Crucifix, a life-size bronze Jesus hanging from the cross, flanked by a statue of Mary on the left and a statue of Mary Magdalene on the right.
On this morning, with the occasional service truck or passenger car crawling by, with joggers on their morning run, with geese heard overhead and three deer spotted running nearby, Phelps stands silent a few minutes and takes it all in.
“This,” Phelps says, “is sacred turf.”
Sunday evening at Purcell Pavilion, during halftime of an Atlantic Coast Conference game between Virginia Tech and Notre Dame, Phelps will be the center of attention on the basketball court where he patrolled the sideline for 20 years while winning a school-record 393 games and graduating all 56 of his players. There he’ll watch as a blue and gold and white banner with his name is raised to the arena ceiling.
The first Irish men’s coach to join the school’s Ring of Honor, Phelps will take his place beside greats Austin Carr, Adrian Dantley and Luke Harangody.
“That is certainly going to be a special day,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “Coach has been a great friend and mentor to me. He loves this place.”
That Phelps is being honored Sunday is no coincidence. The ceremony coincides with the 40-year anniversary of a landmark day in college basketball. On Jan. 19, 1974, Phelps coached Notre Dame to a 71-70 victory over perennial power UCLA. The Bruins and legendary coach John Wooden arrived in Indiana winners of 88 consecutive games.
Consecutive win No. 89 looked all but certain. Notre Dame trailed by 11 points with 3:22 remaining. During that timeout, Phelps colorfully told every player in the huddle that if they didn’t believe deep in their hearts, in their souls and with every fiber that they could win the game, they should head for the locker room right then and there.
They raced back over the final few minutes of a game capped by a Dwight Clay corner jumper with 29 seconds remaining. NBC play-by-play voice Dick Enberg considers it “one of the greatest games in the history college basketball.”
The first of seven victories over a top-ranked team also helped make Phelps and Notre Dame.
Nine years earlier, in 1965, Phelps was the coach at St. Gabriel’s High School in Hazelton, Pa. He penned a letter to Irish football coach Ara Parseghian. In it, he professed his love for Notre Dame and desire to one day coach there. Not only that, Phelps wrote, what Parseghian was doing for Irish football, Phelps would one day do for basketball.
Phelps promised that one day, Notre Dame football and basketball would each be ranked No. 1 in the nation. Notre Dame’s victory over UCLA vaulted the Irish from No. 2 to No. 1.
“When we beat UCLA, it was done,” Phelps said. “We finally did it. From there, it just grew into all these moments of many great games.”
As Phelps enters the Ring of Honor, he thinks back not just on the games and the moments and the wins and the school’s only Final Four in 1978, but the entire place of people that made it all possible. That’s one reason why after he learned of the ceremony, he wanted to have it on this day – Jan. 19. If Phelps was going into the Ring, some of his former players who helped make 1974 and everything else possible — Rich Branning, Gary Brokaw, John Paxson, David Rivers, John Shumate, Kelly Tripucka, Stan Wilcox — had to be there. Around 40 former Irish, including many from the ’74 team, will be there.
“To me, it was the students, the band, the fans, the cheerleaders, the players, the ushers the leprechaun that made this what it was,” Phelps said. “I share this with everybody.”
His special spot
He had already beaten cancer once (prostate) and soon would do it again (bladder) when Phelps was asked by his fiancée, Linda Costas, to take a ride one day in October of 2012. It was an outing that had no plan, and Phelps is all about plans. If something is not scheduled and thought out long before and the plan does not have contingencies of the contingency plan, it can get Phelps going.
He was going.
“I said, ‘Where are we going?’” Phelps said. “She says, just get in the car and go.”
Phelps followed his familiar route up to campus – left out of his neighborhood, up Notre Dame Avenue, a left turn at Holy Cross Drive, past the security post near the bookstore and around the western edge of campus until he neared the spot in the woods. Fall was not yet in full affect, so it was difficult to clearly see to the Hidden Crucifix, which is easy to identify in winter.
Phelps tried guessing along the whole route the reason for the drive.
“It’s very difficult to surprise him on campus,” Costas said, “because he’s always there.”
Phelps and Costas, who will be together six years in April, parked and started down the path to the Hidden Crucifix. They stopped when something caught his eye. Waiting there was a golf cart with occupants that Phelps at first thought might be his daughter, Karen, and son-in-law Jamie Moyer, who were in town.
Phelps then watched as university president emeritus, the Most Reverend Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C. was helped out of the cart by assistant Melanie Chapleau.
Phelps started to cry. Costas soon followed. Then he saw the bench.
“I wanted so badly for this to be meaningful to him,” Costas said. “It’s so difficult to get anything for him because he doesn’t want anything and I really, really wanted Father Ted to bless it.
“It meant everything.”
No man has meant as much to Phelps at Notre Dame – and maybe in life – than Father Ted. When Phelps faced bladder cancer last spring, it was Father Hesburgh who offered him prayer and the power to again fight with three words – Have the Courage – that Phelps scribbled on a piece of paper and keeps today in his wallet.
When there are days he’s down and doubts, Phelps seeks Hesburgh’s counsel. They may meet in Hesburgh’s office. They may share a meal at Parisi’s, or even a slice of pizza and a laugh or two at Rocco’s.
“Father Hesburgh is a living saint,” Phelps said of the 96-year-old. “He’s always had a belief for what this place is.”
On that October day, Hesburgh led Phelps to a bench that sits directly behind the kneeler in front of the Hidden Crucifix. Costas had worked the previous two months with the Congregation of Holy Cross brothers to have the bench, one of four that circle the Crucifix perimeter, installed in Phelps’ honor after a monetary donation. A second campus bench in Phelps’ honor sits near Fatima House.
On the one in front of the Hidden Crucifix is a plaque with an inscription:
In honor of one who has touched so many
Richard “Digger” Phelps
“The power of prayer is the will to win”
With love, your devoted companion
Phelps found no words, and even today still struggles to describe Costas’ gesture and of receiving Hesburgh’s blessing.
“To have Father Hesburgh bless it, and to have the people I’ve brought here is amazing,” he said. “It’s like, reflect back on your real life and what you’ve done and just take a deep breath and visualize it.”
The bench that sits facing the Hidden Crucifix today stands for everything Phelps believes in about Notre Dame. About beating cancer. About living. Following his firing in 1991, Phelps could have packed up and headed for someplace warm, someplace new, someplace fresh. He could have forever put South Bend and the campus he still cherishes in his rear-view mirror, letting the stats in the media guide tell his story.
He couldn’t leave then, and he still can’t now.
Strip away the bluster and bravado and Phelps believes he’s still in South Bend to do more than just be known for a Final Four, or a win — or seven – over a top-ranked team.
“For 43 years for me, it’s like there was a reason for me to get here, not just to coach basketball,” he said. “To be a disciple of Father Hesburgh, whatever we do and whatever he believes in, that’s what I’m doing.”
Phelps defined Notre Dame basketball, but Notre Dame basketball didn’t define Phelps. There was still so much more to be done after 1991.
“Digger Phelps,” Hesburgh wrote in the former coach’s latest book, “Coaching the Streets,” “has always been more than a basketball coach.”
Yet with another season in full swing, college basketball is never far from Phelps’ mind. Even as he prepared for the weekend trip to Philadelphia and on to Storrs, Conn., before working his way home for Sunday’s ceremony, Phelps was already thinking of next weekend’s travel itinerary that takes him to East Lansing, Mich.
But for any time that he spends at the Hidden Crucifix, his thoughts are clear and concise.
“When I’m here, I don’t care about the game of basketball, it’s more about the game of life,” he said. “This is the other side of Digger that nobody knows.”