Noie: Former Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps homebound, hopeful during pandemic

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Bundled up as if it was the middle of winter instead of the middle of March, former Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Digger Phelps needed some semblance of routine.

Well, at least as much as the coronavirus pandemic would allow. Had this been any other mid-week day, Phelps would’ve made his usual morning run to Martin’s at the corner of Ironwood and Indiana 23. Then maybe a trip to the bank followed by a visit to the Grotto. He’d swing by Purcell Pavilion in the afternoon to get his steps in by walking the perimeter of the basketball court for at least 30 minutes.

Tuesdays meant a meal at Brother’s in Eddy Street Commons. Fridays were dinners out with friends at Villa Macri in Granger. Now? Nothing. Going nowhere. Seeing no one. Even on Saint Patrick’s Day, Phelps skipped any public celebration for a quiet night in.

“I did have my Jameson’s,” he said.

The current state of emergency in Saint Joseph County has Phelps’ routine on hold. Still, on this day, he needed to get some air, so taking 45 minutes to walk two laps around Saint Mary’s Lake on the northwest edge of the Notre Dame campus would do.

Making the quick drive up Notre Dame Avenue from his Harter Heights home, Phelps noticed a group of what looked like college-aged kids congregating on the sidewalk. Phelps could’ve kept going, but part of him heard some of the last words spoken to him by the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, the former university president.

Keep coaching the streets, Digger, Father Hesburgh told him days before he died in 2015.

Phelps eased his car to the shoulder, rolled down a window and called to the kids. Did they know that they weren’t supposed to be in groups of more than 10? Did they know the seriousness of the pandemic? Both answers were no. The group looked at Phelps as if he were from outer space. Sometimes, the joke goes, they’d be right.

Get away from each other and stay inside, Phelps counseled the kids. If they get sick, that could mean he’d get sick. And he didn’t want to get sick.

“People have got to be smart about this,” Phelps said. “We’ve still got to get the message out.”

Life has changed exponentially for everyone in the past few weeks, and continues to do so. It’s changed little for Phelps at an age (he’ll turn 80 on the Fourth of July) that makes him most vulnerable to coronavirus. A two-time cancer survivor (he beat prostate cancer in 2010, then bladder cancer in 2013), Phelps remains vigilant about his health. That means routine check-ups every six months to make sure he’s still cancer free. That means if officials order people to stay inside, he’s staying inside.

“With this and at my age, it’s more of making sure I’m doing the right thing,” he said. “There’s no need to go out. I just really hang around the house.

“Ninety-percent of the time, I’m home bound.”

That’s where he (still) paints and keeps up with everything about college basketball when college basketball was in session (it was common for him to call one Notre Dame hoops reporter two, three, four times a day with myriad questions, comments and concerns). Evenings often are spent doing the dishes for his fiancée, Linda Costas.

He’s OK with being ordinary.

“There’s always things to do,” Phelps said.

The phone call

Phelps doesn’t need much, but he does need his television fix. If the Irish men weren’t playing a home game — he still sits in his second row aisle seat behind the east basket — Phelps would be in front of his TV. Tuesdays are big viewing nights. He’s a fan of Chicago Med and Chicago PD and anything Crime Scene Investigation.

One time this season, he left an Irish hoops game at halftime so he could catch Magnum P.I. (not the one with Tom Selleck).

Phelps constantly monitors the news channels to keep up with the latest on coronavirus. One day last week, he picked up the phone and dialed the White House, where he left a message for “his friend.”

Who’s that?

“Oh, some guy named Donald,” Phelps said of the current President of the United States.

Wait. Phelps knows Trump? That Trump? Of course, Phelps knows Trump. Spend time around the former Irish coach and you realize he knows a lot of people. He has as many stories as he knows people. An incoming call on his flip phone (he still has one of those) could be from just about anybody in sports, politics or life.

OK, so how...

The Trump tie-in dates back to when Phelps was coaching at Fordham and befriended sportscaster Howard Cosell. Phelps was a regular on Cosell’s sports talk show that aired Sunday nights in New York.

“He made me a rock star,” said Phelps, the front man for the Irish band for 20 seasons. (1971-91).

In the late 1970s, Phelps was in New York recruiting for Notre Dame when Cosell invited him to a Ken Norton boxing match at Madison Square Garden. One of the VIPs in the Garden green room that night was Trump.

“He starts talking to me for about an hour about my coaching career,” Phelps said. “He knew more about me than I did.”

Trump knew about Phelps’ days as an assistant at Penn, which overlapped with his time there (1968) as a student at the Wharton School of Business. Trump knew about Fordham. He knew about Notre Dame. He knew about the games against UCLA. Even that game. He knew his hoops. Really.

“We just became friends then,” Phelps said.

Friends who went their separate ways for the better part of 30 years after that backstage bonding session. Sometime in the late 2000s, Phelps was in Lake Tahoe for the annual American Century Celebrity Golf Championship tournament. He played in it for years. So did Trump. Their paths crossed while Phelps sat at a table with Carlton Fisk and Mike Schmidt.

“Donald walks by, points at me and announces, ‘The best two-minute coach in college basketball, right there,’” Phelps said.

Just as Phelps did with that group of kids walking campus last week, he hoped to coach up Trump. Watching one press conference last week where the President referred to the pandemic as being at war, Phelps dialed a White House number (his cell phone is on the accepted list at 1600).

He left a message with Molly A. Michael, special assistant to the President and Oval Office Operations Coordinator — tell President Trump that since this is a war, send out the National Guard in every state and sanitize the whole nation. Call on the U.S. Army to assist. Scrub everything clean and we may have a chance.

“Just go do it,” said Phelps, a Democrat. “Stay tuned. There’s always something going on that’s goofy in my life.”

In other words, routine.

Former Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps isn’t worried about having to spend so much time at home during the coronavirus pandemic since he spends about “90 percent” of his time at his South Bend home