Former Irish coach Phelps leaves ESPN after 20 years

TOM NOIE
South Bend Tribune

Former Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Digger Phelps awoke Monday morning in his Dallas-area hotel room ready to analyze that night’s championship game between Connecticut and Kentucky during a two-hour pregame show on ESPN.

By nightfall, Phelps was back in his hotel room sipping a glass of champagne with his fiancée, Linda Costas, and reflecting on 20 years as an ESPN television analyst.

There will not be a 21st season at the world-wide leader for Phelps, his trademark highlighter and occasional urge to bust out in dance. At the tail-end of the two-hour College Gameday telecast, Phelps announced that after 20 years with the network, it was time to do something different.

A two-year contract extension that Phelps signed in 2012 is expiring, and that’s fine for the winningest coach in Notre Dame history (393-195). He was ready for a change after 20 seasons in South Bend and is ready for another after 20 seasons at ESPN.

“It’s time for me to move on,” Phelps said late Monday night as the championship game neared halftime. “There’s other things that I want to do. I was ready to go last year with everything that had happened.”

Everything included beating cancer for a second time. Not long after working the 2013 Final Four in Atlanta, the 72-year-old Phelps was diagnosed with bladder cancer. By the time summer arrived, he had beaten it, just as he beat prostate cancer years earlier. He was still contemplating not returning to ESPN for the 2013-14 season until he saw the network’s College Gameday schedule in August.

Each stop – from the opener at the famed Palestra in Philadelphia to the season finale at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C. - held a special place in Phelps’ basketball heart. The schedule took Phelps to the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y., where he won as a coach and to Boulder, Colo., for a game against Arizona, where he spent an hour before the show chatting with UCLA legend and ESPN commentator Bill Walton.

Phelps just couldn’t wake away, not looking at that slate.

“I saw the schedule, and it was a message from heaven,” he said.

Yet as Phelps’ special victory lap of a season unfolded, he wished more than once that it would end sooner than later. The travel hassles and the winter weather got to be too much. On Tuesday, he still had a 4:30 a.m. wakeup call for one final trip home.

“He’s been a great teammate,” ESPN Gameday host Rece Davis said Monday evening on Twitter.

There was one stop this winter – in Stillwater, Okla., - where Phelps was forced to skip the prime-time show so he could get a headstart on beating a winter storm back to South Bend, where he still calls home. While the rest of the ESPN College Gameday crew rolled through highlights during their one-hour show before the Oklahoma State-Kansas game, Phelps was in the back seat of a town car on the way home from O’Hare International Airport phoning at least one media member for updates on a) the weather and b) updated college basketball scores.

The question as to what’s next for Phelps really should be what isn’t. He might write another book. He and Costas want to travel, and he’ll still be courtside for Irish men’s and women’s games. But Phelps definitely wants to do all he can to help improve the quality of education with youth in South Bend, in Memphis and in New Orleans.

“Now I can coach them,” Phelps said.

Phelps also joked earlier this week with former President George H. Bush (the son) that he may even run for president in 2016. He was kidding. Maybe. There may not be enough hours in a day, a week, a month for Phelps to accomplish everything he wants to do. Slow down? Now? No way.

“There’s a lot of options out there,” he said. “It’s time.”

Former Irish basketball coach Digger Phelps has left ESPN after 20 years and is looking forward to the next phase of a busy life. (SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER).