By David Pavlak
Where can you find Richard Phelps, better known as “Digger,” during the college basketball season? Simply turn on ESPN, and you will find him analyzing what a team needs to do in order to secure victory. Phelps is qualified to give advice to both coaches and players because throughout his illustrious career, Digger himself has played both roles. However, he was much more than that. He also was a Rider Bronc.
A quick Google search of Phelps will bring up such facts as “alumni of Rider College,” “head coach of Notre Dame basketball,” “ESPN analyst” or possibly a video of Phelps and the local cheerleaders sharing a dance for the crowd. However, there is more than meets the eye with Phelps.
Phelps, who graduated from Rider University (then Rider College) in ‘63, always had a yearning to attend one of the Armed Forces schools, preferably Army or Navy. After his first semester at Rider, Phelps decided to drop out and go to Columbia Prep, located in Washington, D.C., with hopes of being able to attend one of the service academies. Poor grades prohibited Phelps from doing so, prompting him to return to Rider. After playing basketball for four years as a Bronc, Phelps realized the success the Broncs saw on the court was not the result of an individual, but rather from a combined team effort.
“I wasn’t much of a big- time player at Rider,” said Phelps during a phone interview last week. “I might have had 54 points in my career. My best game was at Bridgeport, where I think I scored 25 or 27. Other than that, I was more of just a guy coming off the bench. I was 6’3” and I played inside. I was able to rebound and contribute that way. My senior year we went to the NAIA tournament, which was a big thrill for us because we were Rider and this was out in Kansas City.”
Some of his favorite memories and biggest life lessons came from the time he spent as a brother of Tau Kappa Epsilon (TKE) house at Rider.
“We would bust each other in that TKE house, but we had this bond,” said Phelps. “We all were creative, we learned how to become risk takers, we had the right ‘street smarts,’ and we learned how to be survivors. That’s how we all became leaders in our field. It was not just what we learned in the classroom. I mean I got my degree in business and learned a lot because there was some great faculty, but it was these other characteristics that we learned to develop.”
With his fraternity brothers, Phelps would use the characteristics instilled in them by being a TKE, and would use it to their advantage.
“We would sit down at the meetings, and we would be told we would have to do something about our grades because our grade point average was horrible. So we would say that we were going to bring in 25 pledges the following year and we would have everyone find us the five best ‘egg heads’ with the 4.0 averages and we will recruit them and bring them in. Now our grade point average goes up, we’re off academic probation and we are off social probation. That was our creativity; that was the way to figure it out and become a survivor. That’s what I did at Notre Dame. I was creative, I was a risk taker, I had the right street smarts and I was a survivor, and that’s why we beat seven number one teams.”
Phelps graduated from Rider with a degree in business administration, with plans of going to embalming school to join his father’s business. He coached a summer league for Beacon High School in New York, and at the same time learned the swing-and-go offense, discovering his passion for coaching. Phelps gathered his family together and explained to them that he was going to try his hand at being a basketball coach at the college level before immersing himself completely in the family business.
“I went back to Rider and was like a volunteer assistant,” said Phelps. “Bob Greenwood was the coach and Tom Petroff was the baseball coach and he was like a mentor to me because he was a great motivator and a great teacher of baseball. Greenwood was the basketball coach, but we were going to play NYU in ‘64 at University Heights and they had not lost a game at University Heights since 1944. They had lost in Madison Square Garden, but not at home in 20 years. So I scouted them twice against Iona and Hofstra and came back and told Petroff and Greenwood: ‘if we do A, B and C on offense and A, B and C on defense we can beat these guys.’ They looked at me in bewilderment and said, ‘OK, fine,’ so they let me put the game plan together in practice. We put the game plan in and go up to NYU and beat them. After that I knew I could do this stuff. I was convinced I could be a college coach.”
Phelps came back to Rider in 1964 as a student, where he graduated with his master’s degree in business education. While still helping Rider, Phelps bounced around to a couple of different high schools, but still searched for a collegiate-level coaching job.
“I wrote to Dean Smith (then head coach of the North Carolina Tarheels) and he sends a letter back saying he hired a guy named Larry Brown — the Larry Brown who obviously coached Kansas to a national title and coached in the NBA. In the ‘65-‘66 seasons at Saint Gabriel’s high school, I wrote to Ara Parseghian, who was the head football coach at Notre Dame saying, ‘I love Notre Dame and what he is doing in football I want to do in basketball.’ Six years later at the age of 29, I become head coach of Notre Dame.”
Between those six years, from the transition to high school to the prestigious ranks of Notre Dame, Phelps coached the University of Pennsylvania and turned the program into an Ivy League powerhouse.
He then moved to Fordham University, and transformed a team that had a previous season record of 10-15 and turned it around next season to an impressive finish of 26-3, while ranked top ten in the country. After his performance at Fordham, the Notre Dame job opportunity opened up, and Phelps settled right in. He would remain there for the next 20 years.
Phelps’ most notable win came against the UCLA Bruins, who had an 88-game winning streak at the time. Notre Dame would score the final 12 points of the game ending the historic run that has since been surpassed only by the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team. Phelps had just one objective when he became the head coach of Notre Dame.
“My goal when I took over was to make them number one in football and basketball. In January of ‘74, Notre Dame played Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. We beat them and become number one in football; 19 days later, when we beat UCLA and snapped its 88-game winning streak, we became number one in basketball. It took me from going 6-20 my first year at Notre Dame until my second year to get to the NIT championship. We lost to Virginia Tech. Then my third year we become number one and that was my mission, to get it done.”
His coaching résumé at Notre Dame speaks for itself.
“When we won that game, Notre Dame basketball from ‘74, ‘75, ‘76, ‘77, ‘78, ‘79, ‘80, and ‘81 finished Sweet Sixteen’s or better,” said Phelps. “That includes the Final Four and Elite Eight. We just became a national powerhouse and because of television we also got the exposure.”
Phelps credits his success coaching Notre Dame to the quality of the professors he had at Rider.
“We had some great professors back then. What we learned in business helped me run the Notre Dame basketball program. When I talk about creativity, Bob Knight and I started what was known as the ‘Big Four Classic’ and what we did was set up Indianapolis with a Final Four atmosphere during the first weekend in December,” he said. “We got Louisville and Kentucky to play Indiana and Notre Dame. We would rotate four straight years. We sold out 45,000 tickets and each school after that game with TV would walk out with $380,000. That’s creativity. That came from Rider and the TKE house. It helped me develop not only in the classroom, but also to develop these other characteristics of being creative and being a risk taker, having the right street smarts and being a survivor, and just going after it.”
In addition to his abundant basketball career, Phelps has also done work under President George H. W. Bush in a program entitled “Weed and Seed.” This program partnered communities with the local police in an effort to combat drug use.
Phelps also works closely with rebuilding high schools in South Bend, Ind., where he currently resides. One of his prouder efforts, however, came when Hurricane Katrina ravaged Louisiana.
“When Katrina hit I decided to build two homes with my own money and give them to the families in New Orleans because I was upset with the way that was being handled.Now we are working in New Orleans trying to get a high school to become a culinary high school because with all the great restaurants and chefs in New Orleans, these kids don’t have a way of seeing what they can become. I tell the kids, ‘Do you want to be a corpse or a chef? Which ‘c’ word do you want? I’ve gone from coaching basketball to coaching the streets so to speak,” said Phelps.
Phelps can also be seen regularly on ESPN, working alongside other basketball masterminds on the College Game Day Crew. Phelps was not camera shy prior to this experience. He had done work broadcasting the NIT and even the Olympics in 1984 for NBC. CBS hired Phelps after his years at Notre Dame, where he would stay for two years before leaving for one year to work with President Bush. After Bush lost the next election, however, Phelps went to ESPN to work, and has been a staple ever since.
Phelps has been inducted into the Rider University Athletic Hall of Fame for his performance on the golf course instead of the basketball court, but when looking back at his time at Rider, Phelps cannot stress enough the importance of the quality of the education.
“The greatest thing about Rider is the quality of the education you’re going to get,” said Phelps.
Another phrase Phelps coins as a “Digger-ism” is, “Don’t assume, follow up, and always have a backup,” in which Phelps says he learned coming out of Rider and tried to instill in all his players.
“Digger” Phelps is more than just a statistic-spitting, YouTube-dancing, college-basketball aficionado. Phelps is a proven well-rounded individual by helping out his community and being a class act on and off the camera. Even after his success at Notre Dame and being a well known basketball analyst he is still humble enough to recognize where it all began.