SOUTH BEND, IND. -- Digger Phelps watched his squad take the floor for warm-ups before game time on a weeknight in the brightly lit but nearly empty Joyce Arena.
"We're going to be all right," he said to a circle of visitors, clapping his hands as if he were rallying his team to a strong, game-ending finish. "At least, my players are still showing up."
It was an obvious attempt at humor, but it was Phelps who laughed the loudest, a deep, nervous laugh with a look around to see if anyone else joined in.
It has been that kind of season. Gloomy, if not grim, with gallows humor.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. He was all set for a glorious celebration of his 20th year as basketball coach at Notre Dame with a young but experienced team he figured would be in the top 20 and have a chance at the final 16 in the NCAA Tournament.
Beset by injuries to key players, the academic ineligibility of its most powerful player, LaPhonso Ellis, and a mediocre class of freshman, the Irish are 10-14 with their only hope now a bid to the NIT.
But that's not what weighs on Phelps heaviest. He has done some of his best coaching, in fact, with this undermanned squad that took two top 20 teams to the final seconds before losing in recent weeks.
What troubles him, as evidenced by angry exchanges with reporters and his too-frequent reminiscences of Notre Dame's past successes and those of his former athletes, is a growing awareness his days of coaching the Irish may be nearing their end. There is no question his future is at a crossroads.
They say Notre Dame is too honorable to fire him. Yet, athletic director Dick Rosenthal, when discussing him, refuses to express confidence in him, voices concern over the increasing empty seats and disagrees with Phelps over the difficulty of recruiting and the need for the Irish to join a basketball conference.
When asked specifically whether Phelps's job is in jeopardy, Rosenthal is noncommital.
"All coaches at Notre Dame are reviewed annually and we don't tenure coaches at Notre Dame," said Rosenthal. "You review people and you take into consideration not one season. You take into consideration the whole program, and that will be done."
His comments are in stark contrast to the strong words of support he and the administration gave to football coach Lou Holtz when his future was in question because of NCAA allegations of wrongdoing when Holtz was at Minnesota.
Nevertheless, the feeling is Phelps is the one who will determine the date of his departure and he is too proud to go out on his own after a losing season, even if it would be only his third in 20 years.
He clearly doesn't want to go this way, but the reminders he may have overstayed his welcome are all around.
There are more empty seats in Joyce Center these days. More angry callers to sports talk shows. More grumbling among students and alumni and it isn't the first year of complaints, mutterings and boos.
Average attendance this season is down to 9,251, nearly 1,000 less than a year ago and nearly 1,600 down from 1988-89.
Last year's booing at home games became so intense that for a few games Phelps was not introduced over the public address system with the starters of his team. His three children wrote the school newspaper, denouncing the fans' treatment.
"We find ourselves clapping alone and putting our arms around our mother, who tries to justify the stupidity of the boos," the letter said. "Maybe Notre Dame's family theme is a false realization and the only home the Phelps family really has is just the five of us."
Despite vocal critics, alumni continue to back Phelps publicly.
"He has a very strong support base that is absolutely amazing among the alumni because of the graduation rate and the cleanliness of the program," said Michael Roche, past president of the Notre Dame Club of Chicago.
There may be no quantifiable measure, but the disaffection for Phelps is palpable. His friends and supporters can't ignore it and some say it signals the time may be near for him to step down.
"Digger-bashing has gotten to be the common thing the last couple of years and there is no longer that real electricity in the" Athletic and Convocation Center, said Al McGuire, the NBC TV commentator who considers himself a friend of Phelps. "It's still there at moments, but it used to be there from the giddy-up and right down to the wire.
"Twenty years is a lot at one of the leading universities in the country. If I were to advise anyone, it would be to get out of there. The book's out on you inside the athletic department, inside the admnistration, inside the faculty and inside the local news media.
"I'm not saying everyone has to be on your side, but the students are very, very important; and the town is very important. If they're not in sync with you and you can't get them in sync with you, then I'd say, 'Hey, it's been a great run. Adios.' "
"To see him getting booed really hurts," said Joe Fredrick, captain of a 16-13 team last year that Phelps had boasted before the season was good enough to go to the Final Four. "Digger always had a big ego and now people are trying to get back at him. He might not say anything about it, but to be booed in his own building has to hurt."
That Phelps is perceived to be in trouble is part of a disturbing paradox in the climate offcollege athletics today. In a time when two of the last three NCAA basketball champions have been put on probation, there never has been the slightest hint of impropriety in Phelps's program.
Notre Dame has rigorous admission requirements, stricter than Duke's, whose success in going to the Final Four in four of the last five years has helped cast Phelps's program as mediocre in comparison.
All 54 of Phelps's scholarship players have graduated, including Gary Brokaw and Adrian Dantley who left early for the NBA. Whether they are still in basketball or not, many of his former players speak highly of him, saying they were not aware of the valuable lessons he taught them until they had to face the rigors of life after they left his tough and raw brand of discipline.
"I find myself now living the things he told us," said Fredrick, who is trying to make his way via the Continental Basketball League.
"He is very hard to play for; there is no question about that. He is very demanding on the court and off it. There were times when he took me behind closed doors and ripped me apart. We really went at it.
"He teaches that life is not fair and harps on it. He used to tell us, 'Don't assume anything, have a followup and have a backup.'
"I thought it was corny, but it's a cruel world I'm finding out and if you want to make it happen you have to do it yourself."
"He honestly believes he is preparing you for life after basketball," said Bulls guard John Paxson, who went through the thrill of a 23-6 season in 1980-81 that ended bitterly when Danny Ainge dribbled the length of the floor for Brigham Young to defeat the Irish, 51-50, at the East Regional of the NCAA Tournament. The next year, the Irish were 10-17, Phelps's second-worst season.
"When he spoke about the student-athlete, Digger always talked about the student-part first," Paxson, an academic and athletic All-America, said before a recent Bulls game. "That's genuine, although sometimes it doesn't come across like that. My most enjoyable times were speaking to him one-on-one in his office on matters that had nothing to do with basketball.
"He was always fair to me. He gave me every opportunity to succeed and had he not done that I don't know if I'd be sitting in this locker room today."
By almost any standard, Phelps has been successful on the court as well. Before this season, his Irish were 381-177, averaging 20-plus victories and a .683 percentage. His teams have made 14 appearances in the NCAA tournament, including the last six seasons and he has directed seven upsets against No. 1 ranked teams.
But at Notre Dame, where the pursuit of excellence is the only measuring stick, fans and alumni feel he has fallen short of his promise. Despite their numerous trips to the NCAAs, Phelps's Irish have won five of their last 13 games in it beginning with the 1979-80 season. They reached the Final Four only once, in 1978 when Kelly Tripucka, Tracy Jackson and Orlando Woolridge were freshmen, Bill Hanzlik a sophomore and Bill Laimbeer a junior.
They lost to eventual champion Michigan State with Magic Johnson the next year and the only other time since then that they won two games in the tournament was in 1987.
Given what many believe is the recent record of mediocrity, the complaints against him are many. His critics say, though adamantly not for attribution, he is not a good bench coach when the game is on the line; that the game, with its increasing emphasis on the three-point shot and up-tempo pace accelerated by the shot clock, may have passed him by.
They say he has failed to get the most out of his talent, which has been good enough that 25 of his players have been drafted by the NBA. He is abrasive and arrogant, they say. His manner turns off high school coaches and his belief in the pounding, inside game dissuades creative, more athletic talents from attending.
What it boils down to, however, is not that Phelps has lost his coaching touch. For a big game, he can prepare his team as well as anyone. Rather, he has become the victim of his own success.
When he came to Notre Dame at 29 off a magical 26-3 season at Fordham that took the nation and New York by surprise, he gave promise of taking a steady basketball program to consistently higher levels. In his second year, he was runner-up in the NIT and in his third year, he ended the season ranked fifth in the nation.
He now is being blamed for failing to carry the program beyond the heights his early success and his boasts have promised.