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15 Things Digger Phelps Taught Me in 60 Minutes

Dec 30, 2013, 3:26 PM EDT

Coach Phelps took an hour with the @JrNDBloggers a few weeks ago, here is Anna's story...

A few weeks ago, former Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Richard “Digger” Phelps took an hour to speak with three members of the @JrNDBloggers, Anna Gonzalez, Rachel Murphy and Mike Franz. Here are Anna’s thoughts on the experience…

When it comes to the whole “wisdom” thing, Digger Phelps is killing me. It makes complete sense though. If wisdom is measured by experience, he has a considerable amount more than I do. If wisdom is measured by time, he’s got 50 years on me. If wisdom is measured by just being an awesome person, Digger still bests me. The great thing about the legendary Notre Dame basketball coach, however, is that he’s eager to share his wisdom, and I think it would be wrong of me not to share what I learned in return. Here are 15 things that I learned in the one hour that I got to spend with former Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Digger Phelps.

1. How to Be A Good Reporter.

“I think good reporting is always when you tell both sides of the story, as opposed to being opinionated. Next thing you know, you get a bad rep. Tell the facts, tell the positive, and tell the negative. And that’s the best way to report. And then give your thoughts in your summation so you give the [readers your credibility]. You have a right to express yourself, but at the same time, make sure you’re not slanting it one way or the other. And to me, that’s what’s wrong with the media today.”

2. Learn From Everybody.

Coach Phelps has been working at ESPN since 1993. Sideline reporters, hosts, producers and fellow analysts constantly surround him—and he learns from all of them. “That’s what will make you a better writer or reporter.” He learned from his teachers, his fellow coaches, his players, the fans, Father Hesburgh and so many more. He learned, and now there’s a lot to learn from him.

3. Take Life in Strides.

“The turning point in your life is when something’s going to trigger you to say, ‘I gotta go. I gotta do this. I’ve got it in me.’ The first two decades of your life, you’re getting your credential. Then, once you get that credential, it’s where you’re going to start to make yourself—take your dream, and make it become a reality…So from 20-30, you’re looking to get established. From 30-50, you make it. From 50, you phase out.”

4. How to Be a Leader

Leadership: “1) Someone who’s creative. 2) Someone who’s a risk-taker. 3) Someone who has street smarts. 4) Someone who knows how to be a survivor. I don’t care if it’s sports, I don’t care if it’s coaching, I don’t care if it’s running a company, I don’t care if it’s writing. If you give me someone who has those four qualities, I’ll show you a leader.”

5. Don’t Assume – Follow Up – and Always Have a Back-up

“Don’t assume, follow up, always have a back-up. In anything and everything you do in the game of life, don’t assume, follow up and always have a back-up. Why? Suppose I’m flying to Connecticut. In the old days, you could go through Cincinnati. From South Bend to Cincy is no problem, but if I’m going to Hartford (Conn.), where’s that plane coming from? Oh, it’s coming from Raleigh? What’s the weather like in Raleigh? Oh, they’ve got a Northeaster? 15 feet of snow? I can get to Cincy, but that plane won’t get in from Raleigh. I check Detroit, because that’s commutable. Well that plane is coming from Minneapolis. 20 degrees, the plane will be there tomorrow. Good. Don’t assume, follow up, always have a back-up. I go to Detroit tomorrow, the plane’s there and I get to Hartford.”

6. Don’t live up to others’ expectations for you; live up to—and exceed—the expectations you have of yourself.

Coach Phelps was slated to be an undertaker like his father (His nickname “Digger” comes from “gravedigger.”), but he wanted to get a business degree. So he did. And then he decided he wanted to coach college hoops. So he started small, coaching junior teams and writing college coaches about assistant positions, and after years and years of hard work, he made his way up the ranks. “I wrote Coach Parseghian (former Notre Dame football coach) in October of 1965 and said, ‘What you’re doing with Notre Dame football, I want to do with basketball someday. Six years later at the age of 29, I’m here.” He made it.

7. Constantly Set New Goals

After he reached his goal of becoming head coach at Notre Dame, he set a new one: Beat the No. 1 team. Who was it? UCLA. It didn’t happen immediately, but in 1974, he had to set himself another. “January 19, we beat UCLA. We were number 1. My dream became a reality.”

8. The Student Section Matters

After the win over UCLA, Notre Dame basketball continued to see success, and the Notre Dame student body wanted a part of it. “From then on, we had 4,000 students at every home game. What you see Duke doing today—JV compared to us.” I asked him about how he feels about it now, and he’s a little disappointed. He lived through the greatest days the student section ever saw, and it was clear in speaking with him that he wants them back. My fellow students, let’s make Digger’s wish come true.

9. Marketing is Key.

He has an MBA. He knows what he’s talking about. In almost all of the stories he told over the hour, he mentioned how important marketing is. You have to sell yourself and your ideas through drive, kindness and creativity to get people not just to hear you, but also to listen to you, and furthermore to care.

10. This Campus is a Holy Place.

I already knew it, and you already knew it, but listening to Coach Phelps talk about Notre Dame made me appreciate where I am so much more. “Probably the most sacred place on this campus is the hidden crucifix in the woods. That place has done a lot for me. People want to go to Medjugorje, people want to go to Lourdes. She’s here. She’s in the woods. Go find her.”

11. Have Someone to Look Up To.

“My connection to this place is for one reason: Father Hesburgh. To me, Father Hesburgh is a living saint. He’s the one that got me from coaching basketball to coaching the streets. He’s the godfather of the Civil Rights Act. And I still see him 10 times a year … Father Ted’s goal before he left was, ‘This is Our Lady’s school. We’ve got to become 50% co-ed. And he did that.”

12. Let Yourself Be Challenged.

Coach Phelps challenges a lot of people, but he’s been challenged plenty, too. After coaching, Digger worked for the US Government on what he calls Operation: Weed and Seed. Weed and Seed aimed to clean American streets of drugs and replace them with empowerment … If we can kick Iraq out of Kuwait’s neighborhoods, it’s time for us to take care of our own neighborhoods. At that time, it was still a 50 billion dollar a year business of drugs in this country … I did that for a year, before moving on.” Coach Phelps then started working on another problem spot in America: education. He worked individually on schools for years to get kids involved with after-school activities and finding what they had passion for, which in turn, helped improve the general environment in the schools and their test scores.

13. Find your Hook.

“The game of life, I put it in decades. As young as you are, and what you’re doing with writing—how do you hook someone in writing? How you’re creative. The way you’re telling the story, and the way you tell the facts. You’ve gotta have a hook. Find a hook.” Coach Phelps’ hook was coaching. First it was basketball, then it was the streets. I listened to him for one hour, and whether he knows it or not, for that one hour, he coached me. He found his hook.

14. Education is THE most important thing.

“In education in this country, we’re not in the top-20 in reading, science, or math. Are you kidding me? We’re the United States. Where are we going to be in 20 years, 10 years even, in this global economy if we don’t refocus education? If I’m teaching basketball, you’re not shooting 3s. Right-hand layup. Right-hand dribble. Left-hand dribble. Two-hand chest pass. Fake pass. Two hands. In the United States, we’re trying to shoot 3’s in education with testing. Oh really? What are these other countries doing? They’re paying teachers money to teach and these kids to learn.”

15. Listen.

Our sit-down was supposed to last ten minutes at most, but Coach ended up telling stories—great ones, I might add—for an entire hour. I wish I could tell you all of them, but I wouldn’t do any of them justice. It’s easy to tell why Coach Phelps is so successful—he’s a little sarcastic and brash, but he’s also funny and inspiring. He hands out parables and anecdotes like they’re candy. You might be the busiest person on earth, but believe me, you have time to listen to Digger.

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