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Throwback Thursday: Former Notre Dame Basketball Player Joe Fredrick

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T-shirts? What t-shirts?

NCAA Football: Miami at Notre Dame
The infamous Catholics vs. Convicts t-shirt
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

If you follow me on social media you might have seen that I’m posting a snippet from each chapter of my new book, each day in December, from December 1st - December 24th. (My 24 days of sharing!) Seeing as there are 24 chapters in the book, it seemed like it was a good fit for the month of December, wrapping things up on Christmas Eve. Today, however, in honor of basketball season being in full swing, I am going to skip ahead and give you all a snippet from Chapter 21: Joe Fredrick, former Notre Dame Fighting Irish basketball player. Joe shared with me what it was like to play for coach Digger Phelps.

Coaches at the University of Notre Dame tend to have big coaching philosophies, and oftentimes even bigger personalities (and egos). Head basketball coach Richard Frederick “Digger” Phelps was no exception. Joe talks about what it was like to play for a demanding head coach, and how Digger’s coaching style taught the guys not only about the game of basketball, but the game of life as well.

“Don’t assume, always have a backup, and always have a follow up.”
Coach Digger Phelps

“What was it like to play for Coach Phelps? Challenging. You always knew that he was going to push you every single day to become the best possible player that you could be. What I admired most about Coach Phelps was that even with as difficult as the athletic part of the equation was, when it came to the academic and personal side of the equation, he truly cared about all portions of your life. He didn’t only care about what happened on the court. Looking back on those days as an adult, father, and coach, I have a great deal of appreciation for what he did for us. He always talked to us about our life after school and after basketball, and emphasized the value of graduating and getting our degree. He had a phrase that he used quite often, that I still use this day, ‘Don’t assume, always have a backup, and always have a follow up.’ And he would say it to us all the time. He literally drilled it into our heads. In addition, he would apply it to every life situation. If you were late to practice he would ask you, ‘Why weren’t you there early? Did you have a backup plan? Why did you assume we were going to start practice at 3 pm? You should have been here at 2:30 pm.’ He basically eliminated every excuse you had and honestly to this day in business, I think that particular phrase of his is probably my number one core principle.”

“We had practice at 3 pm, but practice really started at 2:15 pm with what was called ‘pre-practice.’ In hindsight, that 45 minute pre-practice was actually harder than the regular practice. The first month of my freshman year I kept thinking to myself, are you kidding me? This is just pre-practice, and pre-practice is harder than the ‘actual’ practice. Coach would walk out for practice at 3 pm and I was dead, gassed, completely tired. I had to go through a significant adjustment period to gain the stamina to do both pre-practice and regular practice. He was a driver, make no bones about it, he pushed you every single day. He pushed you mentally, and physically. Every which way you could be pushed, he tried. He’s a character. He’s a one of a kind, that’s for sure.”

Every coach who coaches at a Division I school, especially a school so steeped in a winning tradition such as Notre Dame, wants his team to perform at their absolute best year in and year out. Joe explains some of the factors that contributed to head coach Digger Phelps being as successful as he was.

“First, candidly, back then the lack of network exposure (for teams other than Notre Dame), worked in Digger’s favor. Today there are five or six ESPN channels, and the Fox Sports network of channels; every team has national exposure of some sort. Back then, Notre Dame was really the only school who was on TV weekly because we were not in a conference, and we played as an independent. This allowed him to recruit players from all over the country. The ability for him to get top, number one recruits was such a great asset for him. When you look through the years, he always had high level players. Second was his ability to push you, and get every ounce he could get out of you. He was a really good X’s and O’s coach. He understood the game, and knew how to motivate players. He always was able to keep you on edge. He never let you have a comfortable feeling, which meant you always felt like you were playing for your job. And from having friends who played football under Coach Holtz, the two coaches had very similar coaching styles.”

And then, there it is, that dreaded point in every interview when I ask,

“What is your favorite basketball memory from your time at Notre Dame.” I always thought that question would be a slam dunk, but for so many of the athletes that I interview, that question is hands down the one they labor over the most. But without fail, as the conversation moves along, and the walk down memory lane gets a bit clearer, every single person has that a-ha moment and elatedly recites the story of their favorite Notre Dame memory. “Honestly, my favorite memory from playing basketball at Notre Dame? Being in the locker room with my teammates. The bonds that I built with guys like Jamere Jackson, Keith Robinson, Scott Paddock, Kevin Ellery, Tim Singleton, LaPhonso Ellis; those bonds never leave you. I coach at a local high school, and we were at a state tournament down in Lexington, and I got a text from Kevin Ellery who came to the game to watch my team play. When LaPhonso Ellis announces the Notre Dame Basketball games on TV, he and I text after the games. Jamere Jackson is super successful, he’s the CFO of Hertz Rental Cars, and every time he gets a promotion we all text him and tease him about lending us money. Twenty plus years later and those bonds are just unbreakable. Every time we talk to each other we feel like we’re right back there in the locker room. Like no time at all has passed. And I know the football guys feel the same way.”

“Probably the most unforgettable, distinct basketball memory that I have, the one that is indelibly marked in my brain, is not really an on the court memory. It was the time when we were at Midnight Madness, and Coach Phelps called me over and asked me, ‘Hey Fred, do you have anything to do with the Catholics vs. Convicts t-shirts?’ And without missing a beat I responded, ‘Coach, I have no idea what you’re talking about. Nope, that’s my roommate, Mike.’ That was probably the most terrifying moment I ever had with Coach Phelps. But it’s also my most lasting memory <laughs>. . . meanwhile I had thousands of dollars in my dorm room, and t-shirts flying out the door. Everywhere.”

I hope you’ve enjoyed this snippet from Joe Fredrick’s chapter. If you’d like to read more of his story, here’s a 25% off code (ND25), for you to pick up a copy of the book for yourself! Happy Holidays!

Cheers & GO IRISH!