Noie: 1978 Notre Dame Final Four squad still a team for the ages

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Conversations between two former college teammates whose friendship runs five decades deep always center on the typical catch-up topics.

Though they may go years without seeing one another, they talk often. When the phone connects one on the West Coast to the other down South, they pick up where they left off, like they’re again teenagers still living out their basketball dreams.

They share stories about their families. Their careers. Their health. They eventually dust off some of those campus tales that grow taller by the year. Talk one day turned to the subject that forever cemented their basketball bond.

They discussed their time together on the 1978 Notre Dame men’s basketball team, still the only one in program history to reach a Final Four. A team that played in front of near-sellout and standing-room crowds everywhere it went. A team that played a really big game every night. A team that had character and personality and talent and togetherness up and down the roster.

A team for the ages.

Talking from his home in Northern California, former Irish guard Rich Branning once mentioned to the guy on the other end of the line in Texas, former Irish power forward Dave Batton, about how unbelievably ridiculous that time had been for them. They didn’t realize it then; they do now.

“I said, ‘Dave, you know when you look back at it and take into consideration the environment that we played in, the opportunity to get a degree from one of the finest universities, let’s be totally honest — we won the lottery,’” Branning said Thursday afternoon on the road between Chicago and South Bend. “Why did that happen to us? It was God’s grace. What an opportunity. What an experience.

“It was a great place with great guys at a very special time.”

Branning was on his way back to the campus where his son, Royce, now is a student, for a weekend that will honor the 40th anniversary of that 1978 Final Four team. Nine members of that squad and their head coach will be recognized at halftime of the sold-out game between Notre Dame and Florida State.

“They’re an inspiration for me and my program,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “It may be the best team that ever played here with what they accomplished.”

Four decades have passed since that Notre Dame team rocketed across the college basketball sky. It ran off 16 victories in 17 home games. It finished 23-8. It was ranked as high as No. 2 in the national polls. It won seven games away from home. It rolled through the first three games of the NCAA tournament, including a 23-point victory over Houston in Tulsa, Okla., to start.

“Where the hell did 40 years go?” wondered Kelly Tripucka from his home in Spring Lake, N.J. “You get that 10, 20 years will pass, but then you go, what the hell happened? I was just in school a couple years ago.

“Where did 40 years go?”

While Batton was a senior and Branning a sophomore in 1978, Tripucka was part of a freshman class that also included Tracy Jackson, Gilbert Salinas, Stan Wilcox and Orlando Woolridge. The Irish won six to start, but it didn’t take that quick burst for the confident bucket-getting kid from the East Coast to realize that they had something special going in South Bend.

Whatever it was, that team had it. By the bunches.

“We weren’t afraid of anybody,” Tripucka said. “That’s how we took that season. We had size; we had athletic ability. We were just a solid team.”

Taking on everyone

Conference affiliation still was 17 years away, so independent Notre Dame was essentially America’s team. The Irish went everywhere. Played everyone. Out to Los Angeles to face UCLA, where it became one of the few teams to beat the Bruins in Pauley Pavilion. To New York where they beat Fordham in Madison Square Garden. Down to Louisville to play another infamous “neutral site” game against top-ranked Kentucky, then back out to the West Coast to face San Francisco.

Games against the Wildcats and Dons marked the only time the Irish lost consecutive contests during the 1977-78 regular season. No matter. After that USF loss, Notre Dame ripped off nine straight wins and 10 of 11. Didn’t matter who was next or where. The Irish played. The Irish won.

“It was a matter of staying in the moment,” Tripucka said. “How good do we want to be?”

How about really good? Notre Dame then went from good to potentially great during the Feb. 26 home game against No. 1 Marquette. The Irish were sluggish those first 20 minutes and trailed at intermission. As they returned to the locker room, Digger Phelps, part basketball coach, part salesman, part carnival barker, could do what only Digger Phelps could do.

He reached into his bag of tricks and pulled out … green socks.

Put these on, he told his players. They did. They raced back out onto the floor wearing said green socks. They were hyped. The home crowd was off the hook. Bill Hanzlik then locked up star guard Butch Lee and the Irish promptly beat the Warriors, 65-59.

Buckle up, they thought.

“When we accomplished that, that really made us believe,” said Wilcox, now the athletic director at Florida State. “That spurred us along and pulled us into believing that this team has it and that we could go all the way.”

Orchestrating it all was Phelps. He’d manipulate his rotation so that Hanzlik and Bill Laimbeer and Jackson and Wilcox became a bench brigade without peer. Those four subs were better than any other team’s subs. Not even close. If the Irish held say a six-point lead when they checked in, it often ballooned to 16 when they checked out.

“We got players,” Phelps said. “But we also knew what to do with them.”

Phelps also knew what angle to play up at what time. Like in the rivalry rematch with DePaul in the NCAA tournament. Earlier in the year, in the old Athletic and Convocation Center, DePaul escaped with a one-point win on a Gary Garland bucket at the buzzer.

Five weeks later in the locker room of Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kan., Phelps cued up Garland’s shot. Minutes before the regional final, he ran it over and over. Five times. Ten. The Irish had to see it, sit there and stew.

“He beat us in our house,’” Phelps told his team. “Now we’re going to let them beat us here to get to the Final Four? We’re going to let them beat us twice in one year.

“I said, ‘I don’t think so.’”

Notre Dame won by 20 and headed for St. Louis and the long-since-gone Checkerdome in the Final Four.

Running on empty

That’s when the Irish magic-carpet ride ended. That’s when everything the Irish and Phelps were all about caught up to them. They were so concerned about a possible revenge rematch with Kentucky, which beat Notre Dame earlier in the year, it looked past Duke. Looked past big man Mike Gminski and guard Jim Spanarkel and a freshman forward by the name of Gene Banks. The Blue Devils brought their ‘A” game to the banks of the Mississippi River. Brought it from the start. The Irish had trouble getting in gear. By the time they did, it was too late.

Duke 90, Notre Dame 86.

“You leave a window of opportunity open and somebody’s going to step through it,” Branning said. “It cost us.”

Cost Notre Dame again in the consolation game against Arkansas. There was consolation prize at the end of that rainbow as the Irish lost 71-69.

No problem, Tripucka and Wilcox and their fellow underclassmen thought in the locker room. They’d get back to a Final Four at least once. Heck, after seeing what it was all about, they were certain they could win it all.

They never did get back.

“The fact that we’re the only team to go to the Final Four still bugs me,” Tripucka said.

“We,” said Wilcox, “all got spoiled that first year.”

A blue and gold banner commemorating that season still hangs in what is now Purcell Pavilion. Fans look at it and remember that team, that season. But Phelps, who attends games regularly, looks at it and thinks of something else. He thinks of all the seasons that came before and after 1978.

To him, 1978 means more than just one season. It was a program-defining time. That year laid a foundation. In the Big East. Now in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Basketball is what it is at Notre Dame today because of what that 1978 group, especially in one specific season, did yesterday.

“Time changes everything, but think about 40 years, think about how good those teams were during my four years,” said Tripucka, who was part of Irish teams that went 92-24. “We were damn good.

“We put Notre Dame on the map as far as basketball is concerned.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Notre Dame players celebrate advancing to the 1978 Final Four. (Photo courtesy of Fighting Irish Media)

WHO: Notre Dame (14-10; 4-7 ACC) vs. Florida State (17-7; 6-6)

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Saturday at 4 p.m.

TICKETS: None. The game is sold-out.

TV: ESPN2.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM/96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI

NOTING: Florida State led 29-18 with 5:54 remaining in the first half and 32-22 at intermission of Wednesday’s 59-55 home loss to No. 2 Virginia. The Seminoles shot 31.8 percent from the field and 10 percent from 3 in scoring only 23 second-half points. … The Seminoles average 81.8 points in ACC play and allow 80.7. … Florida State is 2-4 on the road in the ACC with wins at Louisville and Virginia Tech. … Florida State was picked this preseason to finish eighth in the league. It was ranked as high as No. 19 this season. … Now in his 16th season in Tallahassee, coach Leonard Hamilton has 499 career wins. … Florida State leads the all-time series 4-3. Notre Dame is 2-0 at home and has won the last two meetings, including last year (77-73) in the ACC Tournament semifinals.

QUOTING: “What if we’re sent to Dayton? Let’s go to Dayton (for the First Four). That may be who we are — a 12 seed and going to Dayton. Everybody good with that? I’m good with that. I’ll sign up for that in a heartbeat. I’ll get there early. I’ll bring doughnuts to the media. Just tell me where to go. I’ll be there.”

-Notre Dame coach Mike Brey on his team’s NCAA postseason possibilities.