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Digger Phelps: He taught Fordham B-ballers how to win

March 1, 2021 Andy Furman
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It was one problem he never encountered – empty seats.

The place was never empty – in fact, it might have been the hardest ticket in town to snatch.

That was some 50 years ago – no pandemic – and college basketball was the talk of the town.

Our town. Thanks to Richard (Digger) Phelps.

He was a 28-year-old coach who inherited a 10-15 team at Fordham University, and the logical question at the time, why take the job.

“They already know how to lose,” he told the Brooklyn Eagle, from his South Bend, Ind. home, “Now, I get to teach them how to win.”

And he did – boy did he ever.

“I had a good feeling,” he said, “but didn’t know how good.”

Fifty years ago, Digger’s Fordham squad won 26 of 29 ballgames, sold out Madison Square Garden, for their three contests and forced over-the-air radio – WNBC-660-AM to be exact – to carry their games live.

Unheard of then – and since then.

Rose Hill Gymnasium at Fordham University, the scene of many of Digger Phelps’ triumphs. Wikimedia photo by Anthony 22

Need some examples?

By January of 1971 Fordham – yes Fordham – was in the Top 20 – this was basketball mind you, not a hit record.

In February they sold out Madison Square Garden – the first-ever such sellouts in the new Garden – when they hosted 14th ranked Notre Dame and No. 2 Marquette.

They beat Notre Dame, 94-88 and lost to Marquette in overtime, 85-80.

“I learned from two great coaches,” he said, “Bob Knight taught me defensive strategy, and Al McGuire taught me game psychology.”

Digger didn’t do it alone – he got some help from Kenny Charles, a grad of Brooklyn Prep who rewrote the Fordham record book when he joined the varsity in 1970.

Charles averaged 15.3 points per game on that 26-3 team – and the two-time captain set the school record for most points in a season as a senior with 679 in 1972-73 – a record that still stands today. He also tied Charlie Yelverton’s record for points in a game with 46 against St. Peter’s as a junior in 1972.

Over his career, Charles averaged 20 points per game, second-best in Fordham history, and he graduated as the school’s second all-time leading scorer with 1,697 career points, behind only all-time leading scorer Ed Conlin.

Fordham University’s Rose Hill campus. Wikimedia photo by Fr. Raymond Bucko

Phelps pushed those Rams into the NCAA tournament – they defeated Furman from the Southern Conference, then fell to Villanova.

They came back in the then consolation game to defeat South Carolina, 100-90.

And with success comes opportunities – and they did for Digger. His resume was superb – coaching St. Gabriel’s in Hazelton, Pa. to a state title, and coaching an undefeated freshman team at Penn plus the Fordham explosion created interest in the Rams’ coach.

Phelps had a four-year contract at Fordham, yet then school President Father Walsh told the young coach: “In the next three years, if the right job comes along – leave, for what you did for us in just one year.”

Notre Dame called – Digger answered.

And for the next 20 years, all he did was win 393 of 590 games (.666), make the NCCA tournament 14 years and perhaps the biggest honor—he graduated 56 of 56 of his players.

“There is life after basketball, and all my players completed the corporate cycle,” he said.

But what about Fordham? They’ve missed something.

First – there’s been no mention at all about the 50th anniversary of the 26-3 NCAA team – and more than that – Digger Phelps is not in the Fordham Hall of Fame.

“It’s hard to believe that this is  the 50th anniversary of Digger’s 26-3 year at Fordham team,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told the Eagle, via a personal letter. “I really believe that with all the success Digger had at Notre Dame his Fordham team in that year was the best year of his coaching career. They really were able to compete against anyone.”

Coach K simply bypassed the Fordham Hall of Fame snub for Digger and jumped directly to Springfield, Mass. – the home of the Basketball Hall of Fame.

“Digger’s career has been one of great success,” he went on to write. “He coached in some of the best games in the history of college basketball and his Notre Dame teams a level of excitement that helped raise the bar for college basketball throughout our land,” he continued.

“After his coaching career,” Coach K reminded, “Digger had great success in covering the game on television. His contributions there,” he continued, “should be well noted. He helped raise an awareness for College Basketball with his insights and enthusiasm for the game. I sincerely hope that he will be considered for the Hall of Fame.”

Pretty impressive – and so were the words of legendary columnist and Hall of Famer Bob Hammel, who covered Bob Knight and his Indiana Hoosiers for the Bloomington (Ind.) Herald.

“I remember the 71-70 interruption of the NCAA streak,” he wrote in a letter to the Eagle. “No one humanized John Wooden head-to-head during its record run than Digger and Notre Dame did, daring not only to challenge Wooden and UCLA but to extend it to home-and-home in the same season a time or two.”

Hammel went to say: “And this was Notre Dame, the football school, with admittedly some occasional experiences of basketball success. Nowhere in the pre-Digger era was a claim like this – From 1976 through 1981, a six-season run, Notre Dame was the only school in the county to finish the season in the Associated Press Top 10 every year – not UCLA, not Indiana, not Kentucky or North Carolina or Duke – only Notre Dame.

And as for the Hall of Fame, Hammel had this to say in his note:

“So yes, I personally think Digger belongs there as a monumental figure during the period when the college game in TV time and public following was way ahead of its NBA counterpart. The average fan knew who Digger was, knew he was the guy who stopped UCLA’s streak.

“He was a lead character when college basketball was a big-time drama. Yes, he’d be in my Hall of Fame.”

Digger’s response: “It would be a great honor,” he said after his daily 40-minute walk on the Notre Dame campus, and as he was prepping for his Wednesday night schedule of Chicago – that is Chicago Med, Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D.

The basketball world knows Digger Phelps belongs in Springfield, Mass – everyone it seems, except Fordham University.

The place he once put on the basketball map.

Andy Furman is a Fox Sports Radio national talk show host. Previously, he was a scholastic sports columnist for the Brooklyn Eagle. He may be reached at: [email protected]

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