Irish may be having an off season, but Phelps is still riding high

January 13, 1991|By Linda Robertson | Linda Robertson,Knight-Ridder News Service

MIAMI -- According to the rules of obsessive-compulsive coaching behavior, Notre Dame basketball Coach Digger Phelps should have been watching films of his coming opponents on a recent afternoon.

Instead, he was watching President Bush's news conference on the talks with Iraq.

Phelps prides himself on his priorities, and basketball never has been at the top of the list.

He is not averse to winning, of course, and he would not mind defeating the University of Miami last night at Miami Arena in the same fashion the Fighting Irish beat the Hurricanes last year in South Bend, Ind., by a score of 107-60.

But he feels this week's NCAA convention is validating his oft-repeated -- some would say like a broken record -- opinions on the value and abuses of collegiate athletics.

"I always felt the college presidents needed to take control of college sports," Phelps says. "The only time you heard from a president was after an investigation. They appear sincere about toning down the approach to being No. 1 at any cost."

Phelps has never been No. 1 in college basketball. In his 20 years at Notre Dame, he has made 14 trips to the NCAA tournament and won 20 games 13 times, but in his only trip to the Final Four, the Irish lost to Duke in the 1978 semifinals.

This year, the Irish have been decimated by injuries and are 4-9 after losing to Wichita State Thursday. The boos, which Phelps has heard before, are increasing at the Notre Dame Athletic and Convocation Center. The complaints about his pontificating, his finger-pointing, his tendency to detract attention from his almost-but-not-quite seasons by talking about his high standards -- those are accumulating, too.

But Phelps wears the Notre Dame mantle well. It is the perfect place for him to discuss integrity, nuclear disarmament, the homeless and his heroes, John Kennedy and George Patton. It is a place that "gives you a certain position to speak from," says Bill Foster, the former UM coach.

Richard Phelps, 49, who got his nickname because his father is an undertaker, says he is feeling no pressure from his superiors and will leave coaching on his terms.

"I've graduated all my players, and that's what it's all about," Phelps says. "When I walk away from Notre Dame, I'll never have to look over my shoulder at any parent or the NCAA. Maybe the fans need to be re-educated.

"I look at Rhodes scholars like Bill Bradley and John Edgar Wideman, and I see that you CAN be a student-athlete. I'm not going to compromise. I see Duke lose to Nevada-Las Vegas by 30, and UNLV is under investigation. Kansas wins and goes on probation. What's going on? It seems every time somebody wins it all, they're in trouble. Look at Louisville now, and its academic troubles. Look at N.C. State, Florida and Illinois."

That's how Phelps can irritate people, sounding like "he's speaking from the mountain down to the masses," said Jim Roemer, Notre Dame's community relations director. Even Phelps' wife, Terry, calls him "extremely blunt." In Illinois, there is lingering resentment that Phelps helped put the Illini basketball program on probation by encouraging LaPhonso Ellis to speak up about the cash package that Ellis said Illinois recruiters dangled in front of him.

Ratting on your coaching brethren, no matter how much you know, is taboo.

Phelps denies any responsibility for the Illinois investigation, saying only that "kids are more aware of the abuses today because they are talking to the NCAA."

Phelps says criticism comes with the job.

"Some people see me as a bad guy, as an arrogant guy with a big ego," he says. "Sometimes you can change, but your reputation stays the same. I've put my energy in other directions, but people still think what they want about me."

ESPN commentator Dick Vitale is not worried about Phelps' future or his long-term reputation. Phelps has not accomplished as much as neighbors Bobby Knight at Indiana or Denny Crum at Louisville, who also are in their 20th seasons, but he has been a powerful voice.

"People who believe Digger will be fired are only kidding themselves," Vitale says. "I think people earn the right -- professionally, after years -- to call their own shots. I don't think he'll leave now. First of all, he's not a quitter. Secondly, he's got a good class coming in next year. You've got to look at all 20 years, not just one."

Phelps says he does not let the losing "eat away at me." He has had two losing seasons in his career and is particularly proud of the players who endured them.

"You don't go through life undefeated," he says. "The kids learn from these things. Mike Mitchell, captain of the '82 team that went 10-17, is in charge of $140 million in sales for a pharmaceutical company."

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