The latest Digger Phelps story took place in Louisville , Dec. 27.
Notre Dame had just upset Kentucky, 67-61. It was catharsis for Phelps because he has been 1-8 against Kentucky and, in the opinion of many observers, had out-coached Joe B. Hall.
At the final buzzer, Phelps stalked to the press table and confronted a Louisville writer who had frequently been critical of Phelps' coaching over the years. Phelps leaned over the table, jabbing his index finger at the writer. "Don't you ever write again that I can't coach," he said, adding, "That one was for you."
The story tells a story. At 39, sitting near the top of his profession and his future limitless, Richard Frederick Phelps still burns when asperations are cast on his abilities. He's still Digger and that means his heart is on his sleeve for all to see, take it or leave it.
"I think I'm more mellow now than I used to be," said Phelps, whose 13th ranked Irish (11-3) will be at Cole Field House at 1:30 p.m. today (WRC-TV-4) to play 10th-ranked Maryland (13-3).
"I've done things, accomplished things, reached a certain level where I guess I'm more secure about myself," Phelps said. "A lot of it is experience. Situations aren't that new to me anymore."
He has been a head coach for 11 years and in the limelight almost as long. For one year he was New York's darling as he took a small, hustling Fordham team to a 26-3 record and a spot in the NCAA final 16, a year after the Rams had slipped to 10-15.
But Phelps didn't stick around long enough to build on that season. Johnny Dee resigned as Notre Dame's coach to go back into law practice and Phelps with three years left on his contract at Fordham, took the job. "I've wanted to be a coach at Notre Dame since I was a boy," Rider graduate Phelps said at the time. "There's just something about this place, when you walk on campus."
Ten years on that campus have not changed Phelps' attitude. He stilll talks with pride about the Notre Dame "family," about the balance at the school between academics and atheletics, pointing out that all his players have graduated. His record as a coach, 220-84, and his dashing grab-the-limelight personality have made him a near-legend as a young age. Just as John Wooden was The Wizard and Lefty Driesell is Lefty, Digger is Digger. There's only one.
That is a mixed blessing. Because, while Phelps goes into each season knowing his talent and his independent schedule are going to put him in the NCAA tournament without trouble, he also goes in knowing there are people dying to shoot him down, itching to see him fail.
"That's the way it is at Notre Dame," he said, "people either love you or they hate you. There's no in between, it's always 100 percent either way.
There are those who say the Irish win in spite of Phelps, that a gnome could recruit at Notre Dame, that the Irish would win more if Phelps would stop platooning Kelly Tripucka, Tracy Jackson, Orlando Woolridge and John Paxon and let them play.
Others say Phelps gets rapped because he's on top. They also say the man can coach.
Driesell: "Anybody who thinks Digger can't coach don't know what they're talkin' about. Sure he's got good players, but he makes them better players. What's more, they playgood defense and they win a lot of those close games. That's coaching, not luck or anything."
Phelps has been to seven straight NCAA tournaments and should make it eight this year. He has been to the final four once, in 1978, and wants a national championship as much as anybody.
"I suppose if we won the national championship I would thing about other things I might do," he said. "But right now my youngest daughter is in sixth grade and I really feel I owe it to my three kids not to move anywhere until they have finsished high school. And with my wife teaching at the law school, I'm happy right now."
Phelps won't turn 40 until July 4, which would only make him 45 when his daughter finishes high school. He might be ready for the New York Knicks by then.
"It's flattering when people talk about the Knick job," he said. "I suppose it's only natural since we had that great year at Fordham and all." The tone of voice reflects interest, curiosity, desire. It may happen.
But that is later. Phelps is concentrating on trying to get his team to play up to the potential it displayed three weeks ago in defeating Kentucky, Indiana, and Villanova.
"I'd love to win it all, sure, but if I don't I could walk away from coaching and feel good about what I've done," he said. "There have been a lot of great moments, a lot of unforgetable moments."
The pride is still there. That part won't ever change.