Awkward ending Timing of Digger's departure could taint polished Irish image

April 16, 1991|By Joseph Tybor | Joseph Tybor,Chicago Tribune

NOTRE DAME, Ind. -- It was a curious end to an accomplished career.

After 20 years and 393 victories as head basketball coach at Notre Dame, Richard "Digger" Phelps said goodbye yesterday.

Despite rumors and published reports that had him going to the Indiana athletic director's post (since filled) to the White House to a network basketball announcer's booth, Phelps said he had no job in his immediate future. At the age of 49, he said he was retiring.

He talked about writing novels, painting oils and even wearing an earring.

His victory total make him the most successful coach in Notre Dame history. But his on-court success is only a footnote to a far more glittering statistic.

With the graduation of his two seniors this year, all 56 scholarship players during Phelps' tenure will have earned degrees. No other college coach can boast of that success.

Yet, when he announced he was through, not only were there no bouquets, but his bosses weren't present as well. It was telling that Phelps chose the day he knew in advance they would be gone.

Athletic Director Dick Rosenthal, a former banker whose job -- yes, even at Notre Dame -- is the bottom line, was attending NCAA meetings in Orlando.

Though Phelps graciously tried to downplay any rift with Rosenthal, the athletic director's lack of support for Phelps during or after a tough 12-20 season is one of the reasons Phelps won't be back.

In his absence, Rosenthal issued a three-sentence statement that some university officials said they found graceless, if not appalling, for its lack of sensitivity.

"We wish Digger all the best in his new endeavors, whatever they might be," Rosenthal stated. "If anyone can appreciate and understand a person opting for a new career, it would be me. The renewal I've found in my new assignment has been a special joy for me and my family, and I wish the same to him."

The Rev. E. William Beauchamp, executive vice president in charge of athletics, was in Alaska for an annual Notre Dame fund-raiser. In a statement, he was more beneficent.

"We regret that Digger's final season as head coach was less successful than so many before it had been," said Beauchamp, "but the disappointments of one season can't overshadow the larger record: 393 wins; 13 20-win seasons; 14 NCAA tournament appearances; the great upsets of top-ranked opponents.

"Above all, there are the 54, soon to be 56, graduated student-athletes -- every scholarship athlete who remained at Notre Dame for four years under Digger."

Beset by the academic loss of its star, LaPhonso Ellis, and injuries to other starters, Notre Dame had its third-worst record under Phelps. Yet, it would have been awkward -- if not a public relations disaster -- for Rosenthal to oust Phelps if he wasn't willing to leave on his own.

Even though Phelps said his decision was strictly voluntary, its -- timing still may taint the image of Notre Dame.

Coincidentally, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, one of those mentioned as a possible candidate if he can be pried from national champion Duke, is due to speak before the South Bend Transportation Club at the Joyce Center tomorrow. The appearance was scheduled months ago.

Another prominently mentioned candidate is Pete Gillen of Xavier, a former assistant of Phelps. Others mentioned include Bobby Cremins of Georgia Tech, Roy Williams of Kansas and John Shumate of SMU.

Shumate was in South Bend over the weekend on a recruiting trip and went to a wedding Saturday night with Phelps and his wife, Terry.

"We talked and we laughed and then he hugged me and said, 'Stay in touch,' " recalled Shumate in a telephone interview.

"His eyes got got glassy-eyed, and I got a little glassy-eyed, too, but I didn't think anything of it.

"When I look back on it now, he was really saying, 'Farewell.' "

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