NEW YORK — Rose Hill Gymnasium is one of college basketball’s hidden gems, tucked into the Fordham campus in the Bronx.
It opened in January 1925 and is the second-oldest on-campus basketball arena in the country. Only Northeastern’s Matthews Arena (1910) is older. Rose Hill seats 3,200, and these days, it’s rarely full. On Wednesday night, when VCU played Fordham, the announced attendance was 2,186, and at least a third of those were VCU fans.
It has been a long dry spell at Fordham. The Rams haven’t played in the NCAA tournament since 1992. The decision to leave the Patriot League, in which the basketball team had a chance to win the conference title most years, to join the Atlantic 10 has not worked well. When Fordham went 8-10 in conference play a year ago under new Coach Jeff Neubauer, it was considered a breakthrough.
“Looking back now, I realize we hit a home run last season,” Neubauer said this week. “I’m like any coach: I focus on the losses and the disappointments. But given where the program had been and how hard and well our guys played, that was a home run.”
On Wednesday, when I walked into Rose Hill for the first time in almost 46 years, I looked for a certain banner. It was no different in size, shape or display than the banner for the 2015 women’s NIT. It said simply: “NCAA, 1971.”
That’s a shame because if ever a team deserved special attention, it was that 1971 Fordham Rams. Coached by 29-year-old Digger Phelps and with no starting player taller than 6 feet 5, those Rams went 26-3. They beat Notre Dame in Madison Square Garden in front of a sellout crowd of 19,500 and then lost two weeks later to second-ranked Marquette in overtime in front of another sellout crowd.
Fordham finished the regular season ranked ninth and reached the round of 16 of the NCAA tournament before losing to the Howard Porter-led Villanova team that fell to UCLA in the national championship game.
My memories of that team are vivid, and they flooded back as I walked into Rose Hill on Wednesday. I was at the Notre Dame and Marquette games that winter, and I saw one game at Rose Hill, a 65-60 win over Army. Army’s coach was Bob Knight.
“At the end of the game, I walked down to their bench with about 10 seconds left and said, ‘Bob, I’m going to shake your hand now because I think I’m going to get carried off the court at the buzzer,” Phelps said this past Thursday, his voice as full of enthusiasm at 75 as it had been at 29. “He was not happy about it.”
Phelps grew up in Beacon, N.Y., and was a little-used sub during his undergraduate days at Rider. “I scored 52 points in my career, 27 in one game — against Bridgeport,” he said, laughing. “Most of the time I sat at the end of the bench and watched the cheerleaders.”
He wanted to coach, though, and landed an assistant’s job at Penn under Dick Harter. In spring 1970, Fordham Athletic Director Pete Carlesimo was looking for a coach to replace Ed Conlin. Several coaches recommended that he talk to the fast-talking young assistant at Penn. Phelps was hired, and the rest is remarkable history.
“They had gone 10-15 the year before but had everyone back,” Phelps said. “Plus, they had a guy coming up from the freshman team named Paul Griswold who was 6-9 and would give us the size that had been missing. I figured we’d go 15-10, make the NIT and go from there. Then Griswold hurt his knee in the fall, and the tallest guy I had was Tommy Sullivan, who was 6-5.
“At first, I thought we’d start three guards. Then I decided to go with four and press all over the court because we had guys like Charlie Yelverton and Kenny Charles, Billy Mainor and Jackie Burik, who were quick.
“P.J. Carlesimo [a walk-on who was the athletic director’s son] organized a pep rally before the season in the dorms, and I remember Burik saying, ‘We’re playing this press that’s going to kill people. You got to come out and watch.’ Frank McLaughlin, who was my assistant, said to me, ‘Digger, they’ve really bought in.’ He was right.”
Fordham started 12-0 before losing, 67-66, to a good Temple team. The Notre Dame game came a week later. By then, the Rams had become darlings in a city that rarely embraces college basketball.
In those days, Howard Cosell was still doing sports on the local ABC affiliate. When Fordham got on a roll, Cosell began having Phelps on once a week.
“He made me a star,” Phelps said. “And he made our team into stars.”
Phelps wanted to win the Notre Dame game more than any he had taken part in. He had heard rumors that Johnny Dee was going to retire, and as a devout Catholic, Phelps considered that his dream job.
“Before the game, a buddy of mine was talking to Roger Valdiserri, who was Notre Dame’s [sports information director] but had tremendous influence with [athletic director] Moose Krause,” Phelps said. “I walked over, and Roger said, ‘How are you going to play us?’ I told him we were going to play 2-3 zone because they hadn’t seen much zone and we’d double [Austin] Carr every chance we got. That’s what we did, and we won.
“I really believe that was the night I got the Notre Dame job.”
Dee retired after that season, and Phelps was hired, at two months shy of 30, to coach Notre Dame. He stayed 20 years, won 393 games and took Notre Dame to the 1978 Final Four. On Jan. 19, 1974, Notre Dame ended UCLA’s historic 88-game winning streak.
“Today’s the anniversary,” Phelps said Thursday. “Forty-three years ago — hard to believe. I still talk to all the guys every year on this day.”
Phelps has beaten cancer twice — bladder and prostate — and three years after ending a 20-year run at ESPN, he still works with the U.S. Postal Service on designing stamps. He’s working on a memoir and shows up regularly at Notre Dame practices.
But the Fordham memories are still the best ones.
“Without Fordham, there’s no Notre Dame,” he said. “That season was an unbelievable joy ride. No one, including me, could see it coming.”
St. John’s, under Lou Carnesecca, went to the 1985 Final Four, and Seton Hall, under Phelps’s former walk-on Carlesimo, reached the national title game in 1989. But no New York-area team has taken over the city like the Rams did in 1971.
Rose Hill needs a bigger banner honoring that team’s memory.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.