Richard "Digger" Phelps no sooner had retired from coaching Notre Dame basketball in April 1991 when the president called him. Not the president of the university, the President of the United States.
"I talked to President Bush the morning I retired," said Phelps, who had a 393-197 record during his 20 years coaching the Fighting Irish.
"We had talked the year before about the possibility of me joining his administration. He thought that I could come in and make a contribution."
After spending the summer playing charity golf events to "get a feel for the country and where people were going with their charity work," Phelps said he did not feel that he had a lot of direction. "I wasn't seeing where I could be in action in the government," he said. "I like action."
Two days after Phelps finished working as an analyst for CBS during the NCAA tournament, Bush put him into action. He named Phelps special assistant to Bob Martinez, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and assigned him to work on the newly expanded "Operation Weed and Seed."
"A year ago they started weeding out some drug-infested areas and making safe havens and community policing," said Phelps, 51. "Now, people can go to the safe havens and do community service work, mentor people, teach them how to read, how to run a household." Community policing areas are cleaned-out neighborhoods policed by foot patrols who work with neighborhood leaders.
The havens are places -- public schools, libraries, recreation centers -- where kids can go from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. to get off the streets, away from gangs, drugs, violence, guns and other trouble, Phelps said.
One of the most important factors of "Weed and Seed" is getting people involved, Phelps said. "When we get people who care to commit and to bring action, then we can turn things around," he said. "It needs to turn around. Los Angeles is just a signal. Chicago the other night after the Bulls won the NBA title was another signal. Money is not the issue. We've always pumped in money, and it hasn't worked because people haven't gotten involved."
Phelps, who lives in South Bend, Ind., but works out of Washington, was in Baltimore yesterday to speak at a luncheon given by the Partnership for a Drug-Free Maryland. The stop was just one of many on his itinerary, which looks more like a Notre Dame recruiting schedule. After lunch yesterday, Phelps went to Washington. Friday he'll be in South Bend, Monday in San Diego with Vice President Quayle, Tuesday in Los Angeles with Quayle during the day, Philadelphia at night, and then back in Washington Wednesday evening.
Phelps said he doesn't mind the schedule and doesn't miss coaching. "Doing the tournament for CBS made me realize that I don't miss it," he said. I can't say that I'll never coach again, but I just know that I'm really enjoying what I'm doing. We can make a difference, we just have to get people out there and get involved."