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Phelps' new team battling youth violence

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

David Haugh

In the Wake of the News

4:41 PM CDT, September 1, 2012

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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.

"You give me a kid who is 6 for 10 years, we've got him,'' Phelps said. "I don't want kids dead at 18 or 25. Grab these guys early and get them to stop killing each other.''

Phelps speaks from the heart but also experience. Under President George H.W. Bush, he headed Operation Weed and Seed, an initiative intended to assist America's most struggling urban areas. In New Orleans, Phelps recently helped restore troubled McDonough High into a culinary training center thanks to $35 million in federal funding. In Memphis, he raised funds and delivered the commencement address to the first class of students — all 51 are college-bound — at Soulsville Stax Music Academy Charter School in the city's poorest section.

"I left there thinking, why aren't we doing this all over the country?'' Phelps said.

•••

Like at Notre Dame, not everybody appreciates Phelps' coaching style. South Bend councilman Henry Davis Jr. walked out of a meeting last May after accusing Phelps of grandstanding. At the same meeting, another councilman shouted at Phelps for interrupting him.

"Give me a technical,'' Phelps said. "I don't care about protocol if it stops kids getting shot.''

He cares about progress like the Kraft executive who offered to start a youth jobs program. Like his buddy from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives who has brought advanced gang-resistance training to South Bend schools. Like the local clergymen Phelps challenged to "preach it on Sunday and reach them on Monday,'' who have increased the pool of participants.

"It will not turn things around over night but Digger's program is a great start,'' South Bend councilman Derek Dieter said. "Nobody else in this town has stepped up like him. He could be playing golf. Or with his grandkids. I love the guy. He can be abrasive but that's the coach in him saying, 'Come on, let's go.' ''

•••

One recent summer night, Phelps pulled up to a busy outdoor basketball court on campus. Old habits die hard.

"I said, 'Everybody up, team meeting,''' Phelps said.

Soon he was surrounded. In typical Phelps fashion, he challenged his captive audience to seek an education. To stay out of trouble. To "live the dream,'' Phelps said. He shared the story of Mavericks forward Bernard James, who finished his Florida State career at 27.

An athletic 24-year-old named Larry paid closer attention than the rest. Two weeks later, Phelps got word Larry had enrolled in vocational school with the goal of playing at a local junior college. He also received a text: "Hello, Mr. Phelps. Just want to keep you posted on the dream. I'm chasing.''

•••

Six years after Phelps quit coaching, he ran into one of his role models — Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh. Of all the stories about a man who influenced popes, presidents and social change, one of Phelps' favorites involves the retired Notre Dame president challenging Jose Napoleon Duarte.

In 1960, Duarte was a successful civil engineer when Hesburgh urged him to delve into politics in his native El Salvador. The Notre Dame alum returned home, committed himself to bringing democracy to his country and in 1984 became its president.

"So Hesburgh asks me in '97, 'What are you doing?''' Phelps said. "I had a good gig at ESPN and started a mentoring program in town. And I'll never forget it. He said, 'That's it?'''

Phelps thought of Hesburgh's expectations seeing the headline last April that changed his summer. He thinks of Hesburgh, 95, every day he tries changing a world that could be pretty comfortable if Phelps just cared about his corner.

The two shared dinner two weeks ago at Phelps' favorite Italian restaurant.

"Father Hesburgh asked me what I was up to,'' Phelps said. "I said, 'You have me coaching the streets. I'm not Duarte but I'm getting there.' ''

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh