February 8, 2018
by John Heisler
Digger Phelps refers to it as his Noah's Ark team.
The 1977-78 University of Notre Dame men's basketball roster coached by Phelps included enough quality depth that--even with a talented freshman class of five first-year players--the Irish could line up two by two at every position.
"We had two of everything," he says.
"I could bring Bill Laimbeer and Tracy Jackson off the bench with 12 minutes to go in the first half," says Phelps. "And I'd look down at the other bench and think, 'Who are you going to sub?' The two guys I'm putting in are every bit as good as the two guys I'm taking out."
That team is headed back to campus this weekend for a 40th reunion of Notre Dame's qualifier for the 1978 NCAA Final Four.
"When you look at what this group was able to do over the course of all their careers, a lot of it goes back to when I first started at Notre Dame and I met with Eddie Einhorn of TVS," says Phelps.
"I wanted to take our program national, but the major networks weren't carrying college basketball regularly and ESPN was a few years away. Eddie told us to schedule as many good teams as we could on Saturdays in January and February, and we became a big part of the TVS package.
"It was great exposure for our program, and it also meant we played a big-time game virtually every weekend."
The NCAA didn't begin its toughest schedule ranking for men's basketball until about 10 years ago--but if it had been computing those in '77-'78 the Irish slate certainly would have rated as one of the most challenging around.
The end result was that members of that team played on an amazing string of big wins and upsets:
"The run those guys had? Wow," says Phelps. "That was Notre Dame basketball. And back then you didn't have one-and-done guys, so the quality of all the teams around the country and the games was even better."
From a geographic standpoint, Notre Dame played regular-season games in '77-'78 in New York (Madison Square Garden), Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Oakland, Louisville, Rochester (N.Y.), Columbia (S.C.) and Dayton.
The Irish played 12 games against teams that finished in the final UPI poll of coaches (taken after conclusion of the 1978 NCAA Championship), including eight against those ranked ninth or higher. Notre Dame faced #1 (and eventual NCAA champion) Kentucky, #2 UCLA twice, #3 Marquette, #6 Arkansas, #7 DePaul twice, #9 Duke, #13 San Francisco, #15 Indiana, #16 Houston and #18 Utah.
Phelps' squad that year played 11 games against teams that won 20 or more games and only eight contests against teams that finished with losing records. Notre Dame's eight defeats came against teams that combined for a .789 winning percentage (195-52).
Notre Dame's opponents that season compiled a combined .656 winning percentage. That compares to the last two full-season leaders in the NCAA toughest schedule category--Baylor at .640 in 2016-17 and Villanova at .631 in 2015-16. The current NCAA leader for 2017-18 is North Carolina at .663.
Notre Dame's 1977-78 roster produced 10 eventual NBA draft selections--three picked in the first round (Bill Hanzlik, Tripucka and Woolridge), two in the second (Jackson and Bruce Flowers), two in the third (Laimbeer and Batton), plus one each in the fourth (Rich Branning), fifth (Williams) and eighth (Salinas). Those 10 players combined to play in 3,691 NBA games, score 46,618 career points and pull down 19,509 rebounds.
The '78 Final Four marked the year before the NCAA began assigning seeds. Only 32 teams made the tournament that season. The Irish wore green socks throughout their '78 NCAA run, much the same as the Notre Dame football team the previous fall had surprised USC with green jerseys in a landmark win over the Trojans that fueled an Irish title in that sport.
Phelps recalls a couple of sidebars connected to that Final Four run:
"We had lost to DePaul at home by a point during the regular season, and we got them again in the regional final. Dave Corzine had scored 46 in their regional semifinal against Louisville. So I told Flowers and Laimbeer, 'I don't care what you do, but you've got 10 fouls and you've got to take care of Corzine.' He had 17 points and seven rebounds, but Flowers and Laimbeer beat him up pretty good."
Some years later, Phelps was in Chicago to see a Tina Turner concert. In a downtown Chicago hotel, he coincidentally noticed singer Whitney Houston drinking tea by herself in the bar.
"We're heading to the elevator, and the door opens and this guy walks out and says to me, 'Digger . . . Gary Garland.'"
Garland's last-second shot at the buzzer had provided the margin of victory for the Blue Demons in their one-point February victory over the Irish at the ACC in '78.
Phelps adds, "I said, 'What are you doing here?' He said, 'I'm a backup singer.' I said, 'What?' Turns out Whitney Houston was his sister--he took us over to meet her."
Notre Dame's former coach, who could be a bit superstitious, also recalls Notre Dame trustee Joe Haggar and his wife Isabell attending Notre Dame's 1978 first-round NCAA game in Tulsa against Houston.
"Before the game I gave her a medal from our pregame Mass," Phelps says. "Then we win and I say to them, 'You better be going to Lawrence, Kansas.' They show up, I gave them one for the Utah game and one for the DePaul game. And we keep winning.'
"Now they show up at the Checkerdome (in St. Louis, site of the Final Four). And they're late getting there coming in the back door of the arena, and I'm getting nervous.
"We were so much of a Notre Dame family on and off the court. Those guys were rock stars back then, a lot of it because of Einhorn and the television games. Everywhere we went people would wait outside the locker room or the team bus. I made sure they signed autographs and took pictures before we left because that was important for us to do."
Another reunion attendee this weekend is Pittsburgh resident and Irish fan Dave Kelly (with 15 of his friends), who dressed up as the Pink Panther for a game in the '70s against UCLA. Instead of playing the Notre Dame Victory March before the game, the Notre Dame band played the Pink Panther theme while Kelly delivered the game ball to the officials at midcourt.
"(UCLA guard) Roy Hamilton looked at him like he was nuts," says Phelps. "And our students were crazy back then. There was so much student interest that the ticket office had to create two packages--one that included the UCLA game and another that would include the Indiana game.
"Plus, back then the players lived all four years in the dorms.
"It was all part of the big family."
The 40-year family reunion happens Saturday for the Noah's Ark of Irish men's basketball teams.