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Scholastic Roundup: Digger Phelps is waiting for his real birthday present

July 10, 2021 Andy Furman
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Richard (Digger) Phelps turned 80 on the 4th of July – and he’s still waiting for the birthday present he fully deserves.

Admission to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

It was 50 years ago – but it seems like yesterday when Digger – then a 28-year-old coach who inherited a 10-15 team at Fordham University was asked the logical question at the time, why take the job?

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“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.”

He did. He won 26 of 29 ballgames for the Rams, sold-out Madison Square Garden, for their three contests and forced over-the-air radio – WNBC-660AM to carry their games live. It was unheard of then – and sorry to say since then.

In January, 1971 Fordham was in the Top 20. In February they sold out Madison Square Garden – the first-ever sellout in the new Garden when they hosted 14th ranked Notre Dame and No. 2 Marquette.

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 NCAA tournament 14 years and  graduate 56 of 56 of his players.

And for all his accomplishments in this – the 50th anniversary of Digger’s 26-3 year at Fordham, there was no ceremony on the Rose Hill campus.

And the biggest kicker—Digger Phelps isn’t 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,” retiring 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.”

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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.

But even more is the statistical information compiled by Notre Dame grad, Timothy Bourret.

Get this – Digger has 51 career wins over Top 20 teams; 25 of them over coaches now in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, according to Bourret.

Digger also amassed 30 career wins over Top 10 teams; 20 wins over Top five teams and seven wins over No. 1 teams.

“Including his year at Fordham,” Bourret writes, “I know he also beat Hall of Fame coaches Rick Pitino, Chuck Daly, Marv Harshman, Fred Taylor, Ralph Miller, Lou Carnesecca, John Thompson, Pete Carril and Eddie Sutton.”

Bourret worked in the Sports Information office at Clemson for 40 years, retired in July, 2018 and still works part-time doing color on Clemson’s radio network for both football and basketball.

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Bob Hammel, the legendary sports columnist and Hall of Famer who covered Bob Knight and his Indiana Hoosiers for the Bloomington (Ind.) Herald was there for Digger’s defense as well.

“I remember the 71-70 interruption of the NCAA streak,” he penned 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 on 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 country 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 his pitch for the Hall of Fame, Hammel had this to say:

“So yes, I personally think Digger Phelps belongs there as a monumental figure during the period when the college game on TV 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.”

The basketball world knows Digger Phelps belongs in Springfield, Mass. He has all the boxes checked for admission.

It seems everyone knows – 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] Twitter: @AndyFurmanFSR

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