In October of 1965, an obscure, 24-year-old high school coach in Hazleton, Pa., wrote Ara Parseghian, saying in part: "Eventually, I'd like to coach on the college level. My big dream is to coach basketball at Notre Dame... Someday I hope that I might be a part of that program."

Hundreds of young coaches have similar visions. Very few of them have the nerve to write the sort of letter Digger Phelps sent that Saturday more than 13 years ago. Yesterday, his dream having come true in even grander fashion than he dared imagine, Phelps recalled:

"Ara and I used to joke about that a lot. Yes, he remembered the letter; kept it on file. Why'd I write it? The high school was small and Catholic, just getting ready to charter a bus to the Notre Dame-Pitt football game, and I just got wrapped up in the emotion.

"I figured if Notre Dame could do it in football, why not basketball? Now that's become a reality."

Phelps walks with the sort of swagger Notre Dame assumes in sports, an attitude the Rev. Edmund Juyce, chairman of the Faculty Board in Control of Athletics, expressed as "an intense desire to exceall, because we are a closely knit community... We're not ruthless, but we are sort of spoiled about winning."

In 7 1/2 years after breaking a contract with Fordham to take the job, Phelps has taken Notre Dame from among the worst teams in the country to among the best -- to the top of the polls, in fact, until Maryland pulled a one-point upset yesterday.

For a man who has experienced nearly everything in coaching, from losing often with bad players to breaking UCLA's 88-game winning streak, yesterday still must have been unique for Phelps.

His team had a two-point lead with five seconds left in the game, knew exactly what Maryland woul do on the ensuing inbounds play -- and lost by a point.

The play the Terrapins used had been on the Irish scouting report for nearly a week, and Phelps rediagrammed it in the huddle after Maryland timeout.

As he did against North Carolina a week ago, Greg Manning cut from the opposite end of the court -- after Al King set a pick for Ernest Graham away from the ball -- dashed around the free-throw lane and grabbed the inbounds pass.

"We were supposed to show a zone, then match up and switch," Kelly Tripucka said. "There was some confusion. Then I had him at the baseline. He gave a juke step, then hooked by me. But we still seemed all right, because he was in the air and seemed headed out of bounds.

"So he throws a 'prayer pass' and (Larry) Gibson hits it and gets fouled."


That brings up the final agony for Phelps. His last words to the team just before it took the court were: "Don't foul. The worst thing we can get out of this is overtime."

What yesterday emphasized once again is how evenly the elite teams in the country are matched. Maryland, not even accorded top-20 stature, lost by a point to second-ranked North Carolina and beat No. 1 in a week.

"Haven't seen anything like this (in Cole Field House) since Texas Western (won the NCAA championship in 1966)," a New York reporter said.

"We haven't had anything like it since last Saturday night," said the Maryland publicist, Jack Zane.

Phelps was in a game-long crouch, and grouch, yesterday. He is nearly arrogant at times, but also charming enough to win the most important recruiting battles, the hearts of mothers who usually decide for whom their enormous and enormously talented sons will play.

"I like people who are bold," said Virginia Dantley, whose son, Adrian, became an All-America for Phelps, a solid pro with the Los Angeles Lakers and, most important to her, a Notre Dame graduate last Aug. 4. "I like people, like Digger, who say things and are willing to stand behind them.

"In his talks with Adrian, he told no lies. He made no promises he couldn't keep. He said whether he played or not was as much up to the player as the coach. Digger was very positive in recruiting and colorful, like Al McGuire."

And pragmatic, like every other successful athletic salesman. He knows the distinct advantages Nortre Dame has over every other college -- television, alumni, prestige, tradition -- and how to use every one of them.

Phelps is confident enough to resist the often overwhelming urge to pound on a prospect's door at every opportunity, fully aware that the greatest tactician without great players will shortly be in insurance.

"I think it's an invasion of privacy," he said. "Your senior year in high school -- and my 20th anniversary is coming up this year -- is the one you always reflect on. It's the last fling at the ice-cream parior before you have to face the world. That's why I take a low-key approach to recruiting."

But he does not assume that "yes" to some other school is "no" to Notre Dame. After the gifted Gene Banks told the world, midway through his senior year, that he would attend Duke, Phelps still unfettered Notre Dame's full-court recruiting press.

And there are no more impressive sights for an impressionable youngster than Bob Whitmore, Collis Jones and Sid Catlett climbing down from the stands at a postseason game to offer their blessing to Notre Dame.

Banks resisted. Some Duke coaches and fans still seethe over the incident. Phelps still lured a most impressive stable of players to Notre Dame that year, the core of this season's team, although Banks-led Duke won their confrontation in the NCAA semifinals last year.

Still for all his self-assurance, Phelps has his superstitions. There is no more positive omen, in his judgment, than to see a cardinal flutter into view sometime before an important game.

"Too much snow this week," Phelps said from his office. "All we've got near here now is a dumb squirrel. He ests all the bird feed. So I bought 15 pounds of the stuff and scattered it around."

Yesterday, he and his players were suggesting, was for the birds. And Maryland was crowing.