Phelps rises to Ring of Honor

Digger Phelps’s name may be heading to the Purcell Pavilion rafters Sunday, but Notre Dame’s winningest coach insists his banner should be accompanied by many other names.
“The players, obviously, the coaches, the trainers, the priest that said Mass, everybody’s got stories,” Phelps said this week. “No matter who it is, they’ve all got stories from that time period. For me, I’m sharing it with everybody. It’s not about me. It’s about all those that made the things happen back then.”
When Phelps -- he of the 393 wins and one Final Four berth as Notre Dame’s head coach -- refers to “that time period” and “back then,” he recalls a period which began, to a large degree, 40 years ago to the day this Sunday. On Jan. 19, 1974, in his third season leading the Irish, Phelps engineered the greatest upset in school history and one of the greatest in college basketball lore when Notre Dame ended UCLA’s 88-game winning streak.
Though Notre Dame has knocked off a top-ranked foe seven times since that Saturday -- most recently topping No. 1 Syracuse in January 2012, a game preceded by a video montage highlighting the 1974 victory -- ending the longest winning streak in men’s college basketball history stands above the rest, hence the date of Phelps’s induction into Notre Dame’s Ring of Honor when the Irish host Virginia Tech.
“I think it’s really perfect for just that alone,” said Phelps, who will be joined on the court at halftime by 11 players from the 1973-74 team, as well as members of his family and many others from the Notre Dame basketball family. “Here it is, the 40th anniversary of the game. We are going to do it.”
To hear Phelps tell it, there were many other dates as options, and he remembers nearly every detail about each one. Notre Dame topped No. 1 San Francisco in 1977 with three students dressed up as monks. In 1976, the Irish traveled to UCLA and ended another Bruin streak. Upon returning to South Bend, according to Phelps, 2,000 Notre Dame students threw an impromptu pep rally when the team bus arrived on campus at 2:30 a.m. in two feet of snow.
For yet another UCLA tilt, Phelps recalls a student dressing up as the pink panther, and instead of the Notre Dame Victory March, the band played the movie theme song. The stories go on, as they are wont to do after a 20-year coaching stint with the Irish.
With or without the ceremony and 40-year anniversary, the odds are Phelps would be at the game as long as his ESPN duties did not intervene. At nearly every home game this season, Phelps has taken his front-row seat on the baseline, chatting with media, fans, players and referees alike. He watches the games with a keen eye, so he can later share his thoughts with current head coach Mike Brey. Often, Phelps goes through the same routine at women’s home games.
“It’s a love of Notre Dame,” Phelps said. “I think there’s that consistency, so to speak, where I can still help out. I talk to (women’s head coach) Muffet (McGraw). I talk to Mike. Tell them what I see, what I think.
“It’s just, to me, being a head coach with all my experience and all I’ve seen, I see things that Mike or I see things that Muffet might not and we talk about it, make suggestions. They do what they want. They still have to be themselves and make their own decisions. I just think we have that type of relationship.”
Forty years after the greatest win in his career and 23 years since he retired, Phelps still can’t help but coach. On Sunday, he’ll be coach again, if only to make sure everyone who deserves recognition gets it, not just the person with his name on the banner.
“I’m going to see people who directly or indirectly were all part of this at one time, especially the players coming back, especially the fans, the student-managers, the fans who were there back when,” he said. “It’s saying thanks to them for making all this happen. That’s the thing for me.
“It may be about me, but it’s about those people that made it all happen for us in that time period.”