Digger Phelps on Fordham’s great 26-3 season 50 years ago

Digger Phelps on Fordham’s great 26-3 season 50 years ago

He was just a 28-year-old kid that day, brash and confident but probably too young to know better. Just six years earlier he’d nearly attended embalming school but decided to take a shot at coaching basketball instead. The team he inherited had gone 10-15 the year before, though the good news (or the bad news) was that everyone was coming back.

“Why would you take this job?” he was asked at his introductory press conference, 50 years ago this week.

“Well, they already know how to lose,” Richard Phelps said. “Now I get to teach them how to win.”

That’s what he was called then: Richard, or Dick, the undertaker’s son from upstate Beacon, N.Y. — who’d played basketball and golf at Rider College and had come ever so close to enrolling in the Simmons Institute of Funeral Service — had instead become a volunteer assistant at his alma mater, then a high school coach at St. Gabriel’s in Hazleton, Pa., then Dick Harter’s chief recruiter at Penn.

Now, in early April 1970, he decided to accept an offer from the great Peter Carlesimo, athletic director at Fordham (whose son, P.J., a little-used 6-1 guard, was one of the roster gems he would be inheriting). Fordham. It seemed like an odd destination for an ambitious coach. Fifty years later, Digger Phelps still thinks it made all the sense in the world.

“I had a good feeling,” he says. “Of course, even I had no idea how good.”

It took three home games, all wins, for the students to start flocking to grand old Rose Hill Gym (and, yes, even 50 years ago it was “old”), for them to start chanting his name as Fordham dusted off Yale and Pitt and Seton Hall (coached by another first-year coach named Bill Raftery; all these years later Digger cackles, “How about you ask Raf how he enjoyed playing Fordham when he was at Seton Hall?”)


And thus did Dick Phelps become Digger Phelps, for good and forever.

“I still say it was the greatest single year of college basketball New York has ever seen,” Phelps says from his home in South Bend, Ind., not far from the Notre Dame campus, his home for the final 20 years of his dynamic 21-year coaching career. “We really had the city falling for us. We had it going so well. It was incredible.”

Digger Phielps (right) with Dick Vitale in 2014
Digger Phielps (right) with Dick Vitale in 2014AP

It may sound like hyperbole, but it was true. The Rams had one great player, Charlie Yelverton, who won the Haggerty Award that year as the city’s best player, averaging 23 points and 12 rebounds as a 6-foot-2 forward. Tom Sullivan played center at 6-4. Only one regular stood as tall as 6-6. So the Rams relied on two things: A relentless 40-minute press, and an absolute, unwavering belief that their kid coach knew what he was doing, so they all bought into it.

“Once we got it going,” Phelps says, “those guys just believed.”

And they weren’t alone. By January they cracked the Top 20, uncharted waters on Rose Hill. On back-to-back Thursday nights that February, they hosted 14th-ranked Notre Dame and No. 2 Marquette at Madison Square Garden and sold all 19,500 seats. They were the first-ever college sellouts at the New Garden, and were new highs for any version of MSG.

They beat the Fighting Irish 94-88 (and there were many watchful eyes of ND administrators who noticed) and then fought Marquette into overtime before falling 85-80 for the Warriors’ 34th consecutive win. Afterward, reporters found a drained Al McGuire sitting in his team’s locker room, hoarse and shaking his head.

“That,” McGuire said, “is the best-coached basketball team I’ve ever seen.”

Source : Mike Vaccaro Link

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