Feb 8, 2012

There Goes My Hero. He's Ordinary.

"I may just boycott basketball totally this year."

The other half of JLD said this after Gonzaga smoked the Irish basketball team back at the end of November. In that same conversation, I said we looked no better than a 5-conference-win team. Heading into conference play, when people would ask me what I thought of the Fightin' Breys, I usually responded that the team played young, because they are. That meant that while we'd get some glimpses at the talent on the team, we'd still see a lot of bone-headed play typical of a young squad.

I'm glad I've been wrong so far.

Even though Brey has won a few Big East Coach of the Year awards and a National Coach of the Year award, there are still rumblings out on the internets about his shortcomings as a coach: his teams don't play defense; he's never made a deep NCAA tournament run; hell, he hardly wins any NCAA tournament games. I'm guilty of ragging on coach Brey as much as anyone. Right now, I don't care about any of that.

This season has been one of the most pleasant surprises a ND fan has had in years, regardless of the sport. Coach Brey's team grew up when thrown into the fire, and they are on the cusp of a winning conference record and a totally unexpected NCAA Tournament bid. They've beaten 5 ranked teams in-conference, including defeating the #1 team in the country at home, in a gym that many #1 teams have fallen to the Irish.

As much as I'm enjoying watching ND's basketball team play this year, they really just an excuse for me to tell a bigger, better ND basketball story. This story is about one of the titans in ND's athletic pantheon: Digger Phelps.*

Unless you are an athlete, all Notre Dame students must take PE class during the entirety of their freshmen year. Yes, ND students get credit for taking gym class. Anyway, after my failed attempt at walking on the golf team at ND, I, too, had to take PE. Naturally, when I saw golf was offered during my last rotation, I signed up. I was even able to help the teacher out with the knowledge I had of the game.

One day, as we were all gathering on the putting green near the Rock (Rockne Memorial gym), a car drove by and honked, and Coach O'Sullivan (our PE teacher) waved back. We all went back to shooting the bull. The next thing you know, a man walks around the corner of the gym, and O'Sullivan yells "Hey, Digger, come say hi to my class!" I'm pretty sure everyone standing around the green nearly shat themselves.

So there we were, in awe, as former ND basketball coach and absolute legend Digger Phelps walked over to our group. And before you knew it, there Digger was, holding court on the putting green. He talked to us all for a bit, and just as he was leaving, he wanted to give us a lesson. He grabbed someone's putter, and knocked a ball towards a hole about 30 feet away. I can no longer remember what he said next, but the gist of it was that he was going to make the next putt he hit (to the same hole) and then he was leaving. He hit the putt, and about halfway there we all knew it was in. The ball dropped, he raised his arms and we all went crazy. He simply said good luck with school and walked away. 

When I tell people this story, I usually use the phrase "larger than life" to describe Digger. It really describes his persona, at least based on that limited interaction some fellow students and I had one spring day. It also fits his TV persona that you can see every day during the college basketball season. When I think more about that day , though, Digger probably does random stuff like this all the time, everywhere he goes, and he probably leaves a group of people as speechless as we were that day. I know it's cliché, but some people have "it." Whatever the hell "it" is, Digger Phelps has it. And because of Digger, I have an experience I'll never tire of telling people.**

*The biggest ND homer is and always will be Lou Holtz. If I wasn't a Domer, I'm sure I'd hate Lou because of his unabashed homer-ism. However, I am a Domer, and I love Lou. Go ahead and hate me.

**Oddly enough, Digger wasn't (depending on your perspective) the biggest celeb that talked to one of my classes freshman year. Also that year, Regis Philbin was in town for the dedication (or possibly for the groundbreaking) of a new building being constructed on campus. While there, he poked his head into the big lecture hall I was in at the time. Our teacher chased him down and had him give us a few words. One of the random, cool things about ND is that there are always big-time people around the campus, and you never know where they'll turn up.