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Notre Dame Throwback Thursday: Digger Phelps Talks About Father Hesburgh, “He Coached Me”

The power of prayer is the will to win

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Connecticut v Notre Dame
SOUTH BEND, IN - JANUARY 24: ESPN television college basketball analyst and former coach Richard “Digger” Phelps looks on before the game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Connecticut Huskies at Joyce Center on January 24, 2009 in South Bend, Indiana. Connecticut defeated Notre Dame 69-61.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

In the event that you have some time on your hands and are looking for another good book to read, I’ve got one for you! I had the opportunity to interview former Notre Dame Fighting Irish basketball coach, Digger Phelps, and ask him some questions about the book he wrote on Father Ted. I’d love to share with you the delightful conversation that I had with Coach, detailing some wonderful stories from his relationship with Father Hesburgh.

Coach Phelps, why did you want to write a book on Father Ted?

Quite simply, “he coached me. Father Ted was to the priesthood, as Mother Teresa was to her religious community as a nun. When I first met Father Hesburgh, he gave me my job description, which consisted of three rules. Graduate your players, don’t break any NCAA rules, and be competitive; which translated into winning 18 games a season. I was expected to have my players ready; mentally, spiritually, and physically. We would have a Mass before every game. We never prayed to win, but prayed to play our best. The priests who said Mass would also give out religious medals to all of the players. Some of them kept them, some gave them to their families, and some gave them out to the fans.”

“The photo on the cover of the book is a picture of Father Hesburgh and me after our big win over DePaul. Father Hesburgh celebrated Mass with my teams seven different times, and on three of those occasions we beat a number one team. One was San Francisco, who came in 29-0 and number one; one was Marquette, and one was DePaul, who we beat in double overtime. After the DePaul game, Father Ted told me he was running out of Hail Mary’s during that game!”

“Father Ted Hesburgh: He Coached Me,” by Digger Phelps

“The greatest things that Father Hesburgh achieved in his life, were the accomplishments he made on the Civil Rights Council under President Eisenhower. Father Ted had been asked by President Eisenhower to gather six men to form the Civil Rights Council, and at the end of their travels around the country, Father Hesburgh took them up to the Notre Dame retreat in Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin, where he took them fishing and then they sat down and penned the Civil Rights Act, which was passed in 1964 under President Johnson. When Father Ted brought the 11 resolutions that the six men composed for the original report to President Eisenhower, Ike leaned over to him and asked,

‘Were they fishing?’

‘Yes, Mr. President,’ Father Ted replied.

‘Do you think I can come up and go fishing some time?’

“And so later on, when everyone thought President Eisenhower was off on a European trip, he snuck away to the Notre Dame retreat center in Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin, and went fishing.”

“Eisenhower gave the 11 resolutions to President Kennedy, who was going to try to pass them once he got elected for a second term, but sadly he did not make it to a second term. President Johnson then came in and thought he was just the person to get these resolutions passed, and went so far as to threaten everyone in the White House to pass it or else. In 1964, they were all passed. At the time, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was geared towards African-Americans, to give them equal footing towards moving forward and winning at the game of life. Now it applies to all races, cultures and religions. That is why I say that Father Ted is the God Father of the Civil Rights Act.”

“When you look at Father Ted’s life, and how he was able to influence people, he definitely left his mark on so many. Condoleezza Rice was one of those people for sure. Another was Jose Napoleon Duarte. Duarte and his brother came to Notre Dame from El Salvador to get a university education, and Jose had taken a course in social justice under Father Hesburgh when he was a student. Following graduation, both brothers went back to El Salvador. Jose was employed as an engineer, but his homeland was in a chaotic state in terms of the political climate. Duarte ran into Hesburgh in Panama City, where Father Ted was speaking to the Central American Alumni at their Universal Notre Dame Night. Hesburgh encouraged him to start a new government in his home country, and Duarte went on to become the first democratic president of his country. All of this based on the motivation of Father Ted. Father Hesburgh had a way of making things happen. Not just for Notre Dame, but for the world.”

“When Father Hesburgh was president of Notre Dame, he made several trips to the Vatican, and became friends with Cardinal Giovanni Montini of Milan, who went on to become Pope Paul VI. Cardinal Montini would take Father Ted to Alfredo’s restaurant in Rome, where they invented Alfredo sauce, and this became a favorite of Hesburgh’s. During one of his trips to the Vatican, Pope Paul VI offered to make Father Hesburgh a Cardinal. In a meeting in the Pope’s office with Father Hesburgh and the Pope’s assistant, the Pope puts this ring on the table in front of Father Ted. Hesburgh takes the ring and leaves. The Pope’s assistant was appalled and called him a ‘stupid Americano.’ Father Hesburgh died with that ring in his office. Father Ted declined the offer to become a Cardinal, first and foremost, because he loved being a priest. The second reason was because he didn’t want anyone in Rome telling him how to run Notre Dame.”

Why does Father Hesburgh and Father Joyce’s philosophy on the importance of athletes being students first and athletes second work so well at Notre Dame?

“The reason why their philosophy of athletes at Notre Dame being students first, and athletes second, worked so well was because it was supported from the top all the way down. The two of them robustly supported it, along with Mike DeCicco and all of the various coaches from each team and sport. The athletes were very well taken care of academically. They were tutored and supported every step of the way to make sure they passed all of their classes and graduated. I was 56/56 in graduating my players, including Adrian Dantley and Gary Brokaw, both of whom graduated early. Simultaneously while trying to education them both on and off the field, we were also trying to teach these guys about the game of life and to get them ready for manhood. Yes, you’re going to play the game of basketball while you are here, and maybe for a while professionally; but after that you are going to play the game of life.”

“I look back upon the players that I coached, and they are successful in so many diverse professions. John Paxson is the President of Basketball Operations for the Chicago Bulls. Jamere Jackson is the Chief Financial Officer at Nielson. Stan Wilcox is now the Athletic Director at Florida State University. I could go on and on.”

“At so many schools, the percentage of their players who go on the NFL or NBA and then are broke within five years of retirement is staggering. That doesn’t happen with Notre Dame student-athletes because they are taught life skills, such as leadership. Take for example Mike Mitchell. Mitchell was a freshman in 1979. He tore the same knee as a sophomore and a junior, and when he came back for his senior year I made him a captain. He went on to score 15 points when we beat Top Ten ranked San Francisco his senior year, and I gave him the game ball. He’s the only player I ever gave a game ball to in 20 years of coaching. He graduated with a 2.5 GPA, and he went on to become President of Nestlé USA Sales Division, CEO of Nestlé Dreyer’s Ice Cream and then Chief Growth Officer of Nestlé USA. He learned leadership and creativity at Notre Dame, and he was a survivor. He went from being successful at playing the game of basketball, to being successful at playing the game of life.”

What was the most important thing Father Hesburgh taught you?

“Father Hesburgh took me from coaching basketball at Notre Dame to coaching the streets. He also helped me to further implement the Civil Rights Act through my work with the Bush administration and the Weed and Seed program. The ‘weeding’ part of the program was a coordinated effort between law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to weed out the criminals and bad elements from the designated areas; and the ‘seeding’ part of the program came from bringing prevention, intervention, treatment and neighborhood revitalization services into the communities in need.”

“If we could just get people into the right mindset, get them into after school programs, to stay on track, we could get them into skilled jobs such as electricians and electrical engineers. In New Orleans, we took people who excelled at cooking (gumbo, for example) and helped them create a catering business, which then in turn got them off welfare. In Chicago, we partnered with manufacturing companies, who would come in and teach skills which would lead to jobs within these companies. Even today, I have a group of guys who play basketball over by the bookstore, who are high school drop-outs. I have been sending them over to the Crossing Educational Center where they learn life skills, can earn their GED, and get skilled labor jobs which can earn them $70,000 a year; which sure beats being killed on the streets in gang warfare.”

“He taught me how to put the Civil Rights Act into action.”

As you got to know Father Hesburgh, what surprised you the most about him?

“What surprised me post about Father Hesburgh? How he could simply look at you and be able to motivate you to bring real change to the world. Like Jose Napoleon Duarte. He did it all the time. After I finished my time working at the White House under President Bush, I went to work for ESPN. I ran into Father Hesburgh and he asked me,

‘What are you doing now?’

‘I’m working for ESPN, and I have started a mentoring program,’ I replied.

And he said, ‘That’s it?’

“In 1998/99, we had a brand new community and youth center in South Bend, but the local grammar schools still looked like prisons. So, I challenged the Rotary Club to help me raise money to repair some of these schools. I was being interviewed on the Today Show, and the challenge was met. Then we put together after school programs. We had a local chef come in and teach cooking, we had a postal employee come in and lead a stamp collecting club, we had a Notre Dame Professor come in and teach creative writing. All of this based on a look from Father Hesburgh, and the comment of, ‘that’s it?’ He inspired me.”

“Father Hesburgh was speaking at a luncheon one day, and when he was done this woman, who was so inspired by his talk, asked how she could be of help. Her name was Joan Kroc (married to McDonald’s CEO Ray Kroc). Hesburgh invited her to Notre Dame for a football weekend, and he toured her around campus. Following her visit, she sent over a 10 million dollar check to build a Peace Studies building at Notre Dame. After a year, when a single brick had yet to be laid, Hesburgh reprimanded the development department for their slow progress and sent her a check back for the interest on 10 million dollars. She then turned around and donated 25 million more dollars, and another 50 million dollars upon her death. He had truly gotten in her head and made her believe that she could make a difference.

What do you hope your legacy and Notre Dame will be/what do you want to be remembered for?

“I certainly want to be remembered for more than just the coach who beat UCLA and broke their 88 game win streak.”

“The thing that I am proudest of, in regards to all of the guys I coached, is this: they all graduated, they all have amazing jobs, and they all are making a difference. And that I made a difference in their lives.

“I am taking the proceeds from this book and making a scholarship in Father Ted’s name, to be given to an African-American student in need.”

“I am also tremendously proud of my work on getting Father Hesburgh a postal stamp.”

“And I am so grateful to the years I have spent at Notre Dame. This place attracts me based on its spirituality, which you can see in my stories (in the book) about the Hidden Crucifix and religions medals. Jesus was surrounded by two women when he died; Mary his mother, and Mary Magdalene. His mother Mary, who left Israel and went to Egypt, and eventually died in France, is a guiding force for the whole order of CSC priests. When they settled here, in South Bend, they felt the Blessed Mother was present in the woods; now you just have to go and find Her. You can go to Lourdes or Fatima in search of the Blessed Mother, but really, She’s here at Notre Dame in the woods. The spirituality of this place is so powerful. The next time you are in South Bend go visit the Hidden Crucifix and feel it for yourself. And while you’re there, say my special prayer. ‘The power of prayer is the will to win.’

I must say, it was an absolute pleasure to interview Coach Phelps, and I loved the book. But don’t take my word for it, pick it up and read it for yourself! Father Ted Hesburgh: He Coached Me

As a side note, at the end of my interview with Coach, I asked him if he might possibly have any of the religious medals left that Father Hesburgh had blessed and given to him. My best friend’s mother was very sick and battling cancer, and I asked if me might have one for her. He did. Not only did he send it to me, to pass along to her, he included the most lovely note. I will never forget that, as it meant so very much to her when she received it. Truly a gift.

Cheers & GO IRISH!

Hidden Crucifix - Outdoor stations of the cross around St. Joseph’s Lake
Lisa Kelly