Phelps' new team battling youth violence

Former Irish basketball coach and current TV analyst takes on challenge in South Bend

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Desperation brought Digger Phelps to the Adams High School auditorium one night last April. Inspiration made him rise.

Phelps, the colorful former Notre Dame basketball coach and current ESPN analyst, had returned from the Final Four to his home of the last 40 years when a South Bend Tribune headline ruined his first night off in weeks: "City sees youth violence spike.''

For years Phelps had led local mentoring programs intended to stop the violence. But now, he wondered, for what? Over the first 10 days of April, five South Bend teens had been shot in three separate incidents. In the coaching vernacular Phelps assigns to everyday life, he was losing big. His city was losing control. And this was no game.

So when new South Bend Community Schools Superintendent Carole Schmidt called a Town Hall meeting to address concerns in the district, Phelps meticulously went over his personal game plan. As usual, it relied heavily on instinct and adrenalin.

"There are about 200 people there and I get up and ask, 'OK, how can we put a team together of community assets to resolve this issue of youth violence, with education being the foundation?' '' Phelps recalled. "She says, 'The community has to come together.'''

Phelps, 71 going on 40, suddenly felt a familiar pang coaches who live for challenges never lose.

"I jump and say, 'I'll coach it!''' Phelps said. "I had no idea I was going to do that. Not sure what made me.''

•••

Richard Phelps was 12 when his father, Dick, an undertaker in the town of Beacon, N.Y., made clear to him and his sisters how to treat grieving families at their new funeral home.

"He says, 'You kids understand: All religions are our religions. All skin colors are our skin colors. All cultures are our cultures. When people lose a loved one, they trust us through that crisis. Treat people in need right,''' Phelps said. "That never left me.''

Phelps' dad, an active community leader, grew up in an orphanage and never knew his father. An uncle adopted Dick Phelps as a teenager and gave him a future. When Digger tells young kids from single-parent homes they can overcome their circumstances to make an impact on society, he thinks of his father. When Phelps wonders if a kid is worth the effort, he remembers he wouldn't have the life he enjoys if somebody with good intentions had left his dad alone.

"I see kids who just need someone to say, 'You don't have to go this way, just trust, there's someone who cares,' '' Phelps said.

•••

There are 54 names and phone numbers on the spreadsheet. For two months beginning in mid-April, Phelps worked eight hours a day contacting everybody he knew in South Bend — and everybody knows Digger. He only expects the people he calls "community assets," to follow three simple rules familiar to Phelps' former players: Don't assume. Follow up. Have a backup.

"Hi, this is Digger Phelps of Notre Dame,'' Phelps said over the phone when the St. Joseph Co. Prosecutor's office answered.

Phelps coached his last game at Notre Dame in 1991, but adults in town still associate him with the place he went 393-195 over 20 seasons but is remembered best for graduating all 56 players who played four years for him. As for younger fans, Phelps kidded, "They know me as the guy on ESPN who matches his ties with his highlighters.''

One of those kids needs Phelps' brand of tough love now. A potential Division I basketball player, the 14-year-old got kicked out of school after being caught with drugs and a gun. Where some people might see a statistic, Phelps sees a good kid who made a bad decision. He recently accompanied the youth's probation officer for a visit at the juvenile-justice center.

"It was vintage locker room,'' Phelps said. "I ripped him. 'You know that basketball is worth a $200,000 education? Get with the program!' Sometimes it takes letting them know someone cares.''

Ambitiously, Phelps seeks 500 new mentors so the program can start in grade school. So far he has commitments from 400. With cooperation from school and government leaders, the mentors soon will implement the kind of comprehensive after-school programs and community policing efforts he thinks can work in cities of all sizes.

CHICAGO

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