Sunday, March 14, 2004

A quick chat with ... Digger Phelps

By Ryan Ernst
The Cincinnati Enquirer

As the NCAA Tournament gets going, the V Foundation for Cancer Research is sponsoring a fund-raising program that will name the most memorable moment in college basketball history. Former Notre Dame coach and current ESPN analyst Digger Phelps is one of the event's promoters.

Q: How did you get involved with the V Foundation?

A: It goes back to when Nick Valvano, the CEO of the V Foundation, and I were roommates at Rider College. We were fraternity brothers and we played basketball together. And the Valvano family, they came down weekends - (his brothers) Jim and Bob and their dad, Rocco, and his mom - and they gave us that good Italian food and I became like an adopted son. Then we were all shocked when Jimmy got sick and died. Of course the famous speech - "don't give up, don't ever give up" - touched everybody. So I got involved. Then they came up with their contest to name the most memorable moment. Of course we're all prejudiced to N.C. State (coached by Jim Valvano) winning that title (in 1983).

Q: What else is at the top of your list?

A: I think when Texas Western upset Kentucky (in 1966). That was the breakthrough for African Americans to get opportunities to go to some of the top schools. That was a big game. Michigan State and Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird, that was a moment. We lost to Michigan State in the regional finals that year in Indianapolis. What else? In 1985, when Rolly (Massimino and Villanova) upset Georgetown. Christian Laettner's shot in '92, Michael Jordan's shot. There's a lot of moments. When (Marquette coach) Al McGuire won the national title and he's crying on the bench because he knew that was it, that was a great moment.

Q: How about in your coaching career?

A: Dwight Clay's shot in 1974 to break UCLA's 88-game winning streak.

Q: What about going to the 1978 Final Four? What sticks out from that season?

A: Just the whole trip that got us there. Any coach's dream is to make it to Final Four and we did it.

Q: The first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament are the highlight of any sports fan's year. What are those days like for you?

A: I'm more of a fan now. I'll watch 48 games and take notes on every one, figuring out how they get to where they are - strengths, weaknesses.

Q: What are those days like when you get to watch the games with Dick Vitale?

A: We're always in the studio, me and Vitale. It's just four TVs going in the conference room. Really, he's funnier off camera than on camera. He's such an ambassador for the game. Fans love him. He's made the game what it is for television. He should be in the Hall of Fame, and he's just been nominated.

Q: As for this year's tournament, does St. Joseph have a shot?

A: They're as good as anybody in the country in the backcourt. You'd love to see them win it; it'd be great for college basketball.

Q: Who's your player of the year?

A: They're all talking about Jameer Nelson and Emeka Okafor, but I don't think you can ignore Josh Childress of Stanford. People overlook him because he's out on the West Coast, but the guy's been phenomenal. As far as I'm concerned, those three guys are neck and neck.

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A quick chat with ... Digger Phelps

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