Practice was over at Rose Hill Gymnasium, where both miracles and movies are made. Brimming with the enthusiasm of unbridled youth, Coach Dick Phelps gathered in a circle the Ford-ham University basketball team that had just finished drilling on the two things that it does best, the press and the fast break. He asked the players—without a glimmer of embarrassment—"Who's No. 1?" They answered, " Fordham."
It was unreal, as though the cast of Love Story were still on location there and Hollywood had everybody in its schmaltzy spell. This was the team that one preseason poll had predicted would finish behind 133 others in the nation. Its starting lineup averaged 6'2" in height, which made it possibly the shortest of the first 134 teams. Its new coaches (Phelps at 29, Assistant Frank McLaughlan at 23) probably comprised the youngest staff among the schools, and its record from last year (10-15) was, to put it nicely, indifferent. So—loud with the music, pan on success—Fordham was 15-1, its one loss being by a point to Temple, and getting ready for the trip to Boston College. Like all other obstacles, that one too was soon out of the way, although not so easily as some. The Rams won in overtime Saturday night 84-80.
"It was a strange game," said BC Coach Chuck Daly. "But then everything goes right for them. They remind me of the UCLA team of 1969. They're so quick, they put great pressure on you. You must match your size with their quickness. They're all good shooters. I believe they'll have difficulty with Notre Dame and Marquette, but they're capable of beating both of them."
Fordham? A team coached by Digger Phelps, the mortician's son who wasn't even a starter at Rider College? "Oh, sure," says Charlie Yelverton, who had 20 points and 10 rebounds against BC and leads the team in both categories for the season despite being only 6'2". "I was shocked to see how much difference a coach can make."
Phelps has brought cohesiveness to Rose Hill, which he approached last spring with the single-minded intention of chipping out a new image from seven blocks of weathered granite. Casting covetous glances toward the school's 50,000 alumni in New York City alone, he embarked on a program of rehabilitation. The male cheering squad became less profane and promised not to get drunk until after each game. Old booster buttons threatening to SPAY THE TERRIERS, DIS-ARM PITT and PICKLE PETER'S PEACOCK were put aside. The dancing girls worked up routines which no longer lulled people to sleep.
But the real work was with the athletes. Playmaking Guard John Burik says, " Coach Phelps has completely changed our spirit. Last year everyone thought we were going to do well, but we started losing and before it was over we had five guys playing one-on-one out there."
Phelps came to Fordham from Pennsylvania, where he served as chief assistant and top recruiter for Dick Harter during the Quakers' four-year rise to national prominence. One of his former players, Guard Dave Wohl, recently advised Phelps' new team, "He made a believer out of me and he can convince you, too."
Phelps convinced his team to play defense. "I never could play offense," he says. "In fact, I was always a rah-rah type. When everyone else's hero was Bob Cousy, mine was Jim Loscutoff."
Fordham has already defeated some good teams. It gave Syracuse its first loss after five wins, beat Holy Cross, subdued Massachusetts when it was still undefeated and bested California while taking the Kodak Classic, the first basketball title in the school's history.
"I probably shouldn't even think this," says Phelps, "but if everything else goes well we could be one of the top teams in the country by beating Notre Dame and Marquette. It's incredible isn't it? Before the season started I told the team to win 16 games and we'd go to the NIT. Then our biggest player [6'8" Center Paul Griswold] went out with an injured knee. So I told them to win 20 instead."