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Irish may be having an off season, but Phelps is still riding high

MIAMI — MIAMI -- According to the rules of obsessive-compulsive coaching behavior, Notre Dame basketball Coach Digger Phelps should have been watching films of his coming opponents on a recent afternoon.

Instead, he was watching President Bush's news conference on the talks with Iraq.

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Phelps prides himself on his priorities, and basketball never has been at the top of the list.

He is not averse to winning, of course, and he would not mind defeating the University of Miami last night at Miami Arena in the same fashion the Fighting Irish beat the Hurricanes last year in South Bend, Ind., by a score of 107-60.

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But he feels this week's NCAA convention is validating his oft-repeated -- some would say like a broken record -- opinions on the value and abuses of collegiate athletics.

"I always felt the college presidents needed to take control of college sports," Phelps says. "The only time you heard from a president was after an investigation. They appear sincere about toning down the approach to being No. 1 at any cost."

Phelps has never been No. 1 in college basketball. In his 20 years at Notre Dame, he has made 14 trips to the NCAA tournament and won 20 games 13 times, but in his only trip to the Final Four, the Irish lost to Duke in the 1978 semifinals.

This year, the Irish have been decimated by injuries and are 4-9 after losing to Wichita State Thursday. The boos, which Phelps has heard before, are increasing at the Notre Dame Athletic and Convocation Center. The complaints about his pontificating, his finger-pointing, his tendency to detract attention from his almost-but-not-quite seasons by talking about his high standards -- those are accumulating, too.

But Phelps wears the Notre Dame mantle well. It is the perfect place for him to discuss integrity, nuclear disarmament, the homeless and his heroes, John Kennedy and George Patton. It is a place that "gives you a certain position to speak from," says Bill Foster, the former UM coach.

Richard Phelps, 49, who got his nickname because his father is an undertaker, says he is feeling no pressure from his superiors and will leave coaching on his terms.

"I've graduated all my players, and that's what it's all about," Phelps says. "When I walk away from Notre Dame, I'll never have to look over my shoulder at any parent or the NCAA. Maybe the fans need to be re-educated.

"I look at Rhodes scholars like Bill Bradley and John Edgar Wideman, and I see that you CAN be a student-athlete. I'm not going to compromise. I see Duke lose to Nevada-Las Vegas by 30, and UNLV is under investigation. Kansas wins and goes on probation. What's going on? It seems every time somebody wins it all, they're in trouble. Look at Louisville now, and its academic troubles. Look at N.C. State, Florida and Illinois."

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That's how Phelps can irritate people, sounding like "he's speaking from the mountain down to the masses," said Jim Roemer, Notre Dame's community relations director. Even Phelps' wife, Terry, calls him "extremely blunt." In Illinois, there is lingering resentment that Phelps helped put the Illini basketball program on probation by encouraging LaPhonso Ellis to speak up about the cash package that Ellis said Illinois recruiters dangled in front of him.

Ratting on your coaching brethren, no matter how much you know, is taboo.

Phelps denies any responsibility for the Illinois investigation, saying only that "kids are more aware of the abuses today because they are talking to the NCAA."

Phelps says criticism comes with the job.

"Some people see me as a bad guy, as an arrogant guy with a big ego," he says. "Sometimes you can change, but your reputation stays the same. I've put my energy in other directions, but people still think what they want about me."

ESPN commentator Dick Vitale is not worried about Phelps' future or his long-term reputation. Phelps has not accomplished as much as neighbors Bobby Knight at Indiana or Denny Crum at Louisville, who also are in their 20th seasons, but he has been a powerful voice.

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"People who believe Digger will be fired are only kidding themselves," Vitale says. "I think people earn the right -- professionally, after years -- to call their own shots. I don't think he'll leave now. First of all, he's not a quitter. Secondly, he's got a good class coming in next year. You've got to look at all 20 years, not just one."

Phelps says he does not let the losing "eat away at me." He has had two losing seasons in his career and is particularly proud of the players who endured them.

"You don't go through life undefeated," he says. "The kids learn from these things. Mike Mitchell, captain of the '82 team that went 10-17, is in charge of $140 million in sales for a pharmaceutical company."

Phelps' favorite part of the Notre Dame media guide is the section that lists his former players' degrees and current jobs. He has coached more than 54 players, but the 54 scholarship players who completed four years at Notre Dame under Phelps have graduated. Gary Novak ('74) is a physician; John Shumate ('74) is coach at Southern Methodist; Jeff Carpenter ('78) is a floor trader at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

Phelps still takes his players on a Wall Street tour when they travel to New York; he takes them to NASA when they go to Houston. Instead of sitting in their hotel rooms watching "Rambo," his players visit museums. Phelps and his players discuss current events every Friday.

"Last week we were on a flight and a serviceman told us he was headed back to Saudi Arabia after coming home to attend his mother's funeral," Phelps says. "I gave him one of our religious medals and he put it on with his dog tags."

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All seniors must have two job interviews lined up before Oct. 15 or they don't practice. Players don't practice the day before an important test. If a player does not maintain a 2.0 grade point average, he sits out a semester. Notre Dame's star player, forward LaPhonso Ellis, sat out the first semester last year to improve his grades in his major, accounting.

Phelps doesn't redshirt players. He doesn't take junior college transfers, he's had only one Proposition 48 player, Keith Robinson, who went on to graduate in four years.

Phelps says the jury is still out on Prop 48, which prohibits a student-athlete from playing his first year if he does not have both a 2.0 grade point average and a 700 score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test as a high school senior. The first wave of Prop 48 athletes graduated last year, after four years in college. The second wave graduates this spring, after five years in college. Phelps is eager to see a compilation of their graduation rates.

"If the graduation percentage is still low, these kids are still being exploited, which defeats the purpose of Prop 48," he says. "If it's just a loophole to get kids in and win a title, then maybe in the next phase of reform the presidents need to decide if these kids even belong in college. Why are we playing games if these kids would rather go directly to the pros, if their heart is not in getting a degree?"

If eligibility standards for athletes are made even tougher, some of the pressure on college coaches and athletic departments would be shifted back to the high schools, Phelps says.

"Nobody's really asked how much these kids are exploited before they get to college," he says. "How about reducing AAU club play to the summer months only? Maybe this NCAA reform will help lead to a strengthening of discipline, curriculum, faculty and community commitment in the high schools.

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"This is a nation of 30 million illiterates. We need 700,000 engineers by the year 2000 to compete with the Pacific Rim. Education is critical."

Phelps would like to see athletic departments receive accreditation just like business schools and English departments. If a graduation rate is low, a school would lose its accreditation. He would like to see more of the millions of dollars in television revenue spent on academic support systems for athletes rather than for more sophisticated video equipment.

Phelps commented on other NCAA reforms passed this week:

* Abolishing athletic dormitories (Notre Dame does not have segregated housing for athletes): "Kids living in athletic dorms never got an education in sociology with the rest of the student body. The real world is shrinking so fast and they need to mix with all types of students."

* Training-table meals reduced to one per day: "It's amazing to see these 18-year-olds thriving on a Pepsi, burger and french fries. Now all of a sudden they get to college and we have to give zTC them prime rib and lobster and specialized nutritionists. There's nothing wrong with eating with students. Why spoil them?"

* Restructuring athletic programs with tougher standards to maintain Division I status: "Athletic budgets should be under the control of the university budget. That would take the pressure off everybody. One of the problems at N.C. State was, who was controlling the budget?"

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* Reducing the number of paid on-campus visits and scholarships: "The schools at the bottom of Division I will get stronger; there will be a trickle-down effect of talent to create more parity."


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