Digger Phelps has classical music piped into his Notre Dame office. The walls are hung with prints by the masters. "He peaked after his death." Phelps said the other day of Vincent Van Gogh (or was it George Gipp?). Aside from his vocation, coaching basketball, Phelps is an avid stamp collector, amateur sports psychologist and fashion plate. Lately he has taken up yet another refined hobby; cooking.
Home cooking, that is Breast of crow, humble pie a la mode and eggs to go (on opponents' faces) are the spècialitès de la maison at the Athletic and Convocation Center in South Bend, Ind. Last week's 73-62 win over DePaul, previously once-beaten and No. 6 in the land, made Phelps's undersized, uncanny and still unranked Fighting Irish three-for-February against Top 20 teams at home. The 19-7 Irish nipped Numero Uno North Carolina 60-58 on Feb. 1, and two weeks later dumped No. 15 Duke 70-66 in overtime.
These same giant killers, with their antiquated offense and carnation-wearing coach, have been walloped at home by Western Kentucky, vandalized at Vanderbilt and had the bejesus scared out of them by such nonpowers as Eastern and Central Michigan, Cornell and Pennsylvania. What is it that gives behemoths the bends when they visit South Bend? The insults and projectiles hurled by the student body? Dubious.
DePaul, for one, is too hard-boiled an outfit to be bothered by such tactics. As they bumbled their way to 13 losses last season, the Blue Demons were booed more vociferously at home than they were on the road. And as Tar Heel coach Dean Smith has noted, "They're very vocal here, but they're very vocal in other places, too. We've already been to Clemson and Duke...." Smith implies that the home crowds in those parts boast a decided edge over the Irish fans when it comes to mustering invective. Which is why it could be assumed that when the Golden Domers started chanting "Mrs. Lebo wears army boots!" her son North Carolina guard Jeff, had probably heard worse.
March 9, 1987
The fact is, as senior guard Scott Hicks says, "Digger just knows how to get us up for big games." Scheduling Notre Dame in South Bend has long been a form of wire-service hara-kiri for the big guys. Since opening in 1968, the ACC (the building in which Notre Dame is 12-3 this season, not the conference it's 3-0 against) has seen some of college basketball's most glorious upsets. North Carolina is the the sixth No. 1 team to be undone there. In the locker room before the game, assistant coach John Shumate had the bright idea to play an old Doobie Brothers song called Long Train Runnin'—the same tune he, Gary Brokaw, Dwight Clay & Co. had spun on Jan. 19, 1974. That was the afternoon the Irish snuffed the alltime-record 88-game winning streak of Bill Walton's UCLA.
Part of Notre Dame's advantage is that it has no conference crown to gun for. "The nation is our conference," says Phelps. "We play for a national championship." Ahem. This year's dragon slayers might get past the NCAA first round if Arkansas-Little Rock, last year's Irish-beater, is dispatched to a different region. Indeed, talk of a national title seems farfetched at a school that wouldn't even place if its own state held a tournament. So Notre Dame gets its jollies by inviting powers-that-be over to its place for a spot of comeuppance.
When DePaul arrived in South Bend last Wednesday with its 25-1 record, the Blue Demons had every reason to feel confident. They had already beaten the Irish on Jan. 10, although they had to eke out their 59-54 win in the final minute. Now they were coming off an awe-inspiring 84-67 dismantling of Georgia Tech. They swaggered into town behind Joey Meyer, the front-runner for Coach of the Year: Rod Strickland, one of the nation's top 5 point guards; and senior center Dallas Comegys, a franchise pivotman who has finally arrived after a three-year gestation period. DePaul, as it turned out, was rather a bit too sure of itself.
"We weren't as hungry as we should have been." admitted Strickland, who had been looking forward to outplaying Irish point guard David Rivers for the second time this season. Rivers, who still lacks some quickness after his near-fatal van accident (SI, Dec. 15), was kept from scoring a field goal for nearly 38 minutes in the January game.
But, as Strickland would say after Wednesday's loss, "Rivers played like Rivers." With DePaul threatening late in the second half, Rivers came off the bench burdened with four fouls, pulled down a defensive rebound and cued a fast break, going between his legs at halfcourt and feeding Donald Royal for a thunder dunk. Moments later, Rivers broke DePaul's full-court pressure and drove right at the 6'9" Comegys, who blinked as the 6-foot Rivers soared, and scored, over him.
Despite his 17.5 scoring average entering the game, Comegys found himself stifled on offense by Notre Dame's pestiferous Gary Voce. "We saw that he likes to turn to his right," said the 6'9" Voce. "So I overplayed him to that side and kept a body on him." Said Meyer, "Dallas was getting the ball in great position, but he wasn't completing plays." Indeed, which was the real Comegys? The one who froze Voce early in the first half with a textbook pin-and-spin move, or the one who left the ensuing layup a foot short. On this night, it was the latter. Except for a flurry to start the second half, Comegys stayed quiet, with 16 points and a disgraceful three rebounds.
Notre Dame's Royal, on the other hand had 14 boards and more than matched Comegys' offense with a game high 22 points, including 10 of 11 free throws Royal's 16 for 16 from the line in last year's Irish win over DePaul stands as the Notre Dame record Royal has not always been as reliable. "In the state semifinals my junior year," he says, recalling his days at St. Augustine High in New Orleans, "we were down by one point. I missed the front end of a one-and-one and the team we lost to went on to win the championship. After I missed that free throw, I swore to myself that I'd improve."
Voce has become a crowd favorite after what he admits were "a rough first couple of games." The Voce of the People, as he is known, was the hero against North Carolina with 15 points and 10 rebounds. "Voce [was] a big improvement from what I saw on the tapes." said Smith. Now when he does something sparkling, the Irish students extend their arms upward, angled like so many V's. Speculation on campus is rife that the upraised arms on the mosaic of "Touchdown Jesus" that adorns the main campus library is not signaling a TD at all but is rather just one more example of Voce fever.
For his part, Phelps emphasizes a slowdown, keep-it-close offense and a positive mental approach. To end Notre Dame's final practice before the Carolina game, the coach gave scissors to seniors Royal and Scott Hicks and told them to practice cutting down the nets—preparation that was not wasted. While getting ready for Duke, Phelps had Joe Fredrick, a seldom-used freshman guard, scrimmaging as a member of the Gold (first) team. "You're going to be the hero," Phelps told Fredrick over and over again. "Yeah, right," the freshman replied, remaining skeptical right up until the time he came off the bench to score the winning points in OT. And there was Phelps the day before the DePaul game, sprinkling blood in the water by saying. "I guarantee this game will be a classic in the tradition of Notre Dame basketball."
After he had proved himself prophetic, Phelps told the press, "What you saw tonight was vintage David Rivers." It had also been vintage Digger Phelps, who scolded the zebras and masterfully orchestrated the crowd, to which the coach blew kisses after the win. "Did you see that?" said the Demons' Strickland, rolling his eyes.
"I can look at myself and laugh," Phelps says. "Hey, it's show business." But Meyer had remembered Phelps's intense manner after Notre Dame's January loss in Rosemont Horizon. "He didn't smile. He just shook my hand and said. 'We'll get you next time,' " said Meyer, sighing. "And he did."
The message to other Goliaths lurking on the landscape is clear: Beware of crusading Davids and coaches sporting boutonnieres.