Despite his urbane manner, Phelps is fettered to superstition. For instance, he tries to keep track of what he is wearing when the team wins. Dark suits with vests currently lead the standings. And before the Maryland game a long string of events occurred that he considered fortuitous, ranging from finding a certain pack of matches in his desk drawer to a chance meeting with a member of the Spinners, one of the squad's favorite vocal groups.
Of course it might be noted that the coach finds an omen in almost everything but the sunrise. Last week, dressing for a game, he mused about wearing a red-white-and-blue striped tie to celebrate the Bicentennial. When he walked downstairs his wife Terri looked at him and said, "What are you doing, wearing your Bicentennial tie?"
Phelps was ecstatic. "See," he said later. "An omen. Everybody is picking up what we're trying to do."
A couple of things besides portents were evident last week when Notre Dame had an unusual break in the caliber of opposition while playing Cal Poly Pomona and Valparaiso. Although the Cal Poly center got into the spirit of things by practicing dunking two balls at once at halftime, the Irish beat the visitors 93-67. And then they overwhelmed Valparaiso 93-56. But it was clear that they were having to work hard to compensate for the absence of Dantley, Laimbeer and Rencher. Although Duck Williams and Bill Paterno are the scorers, the success of the team will hinge on how much help it gets from the center position. Junior pivot Dave Batton stayed in South Bend over the summer to lift barbells and work on his power moves; he now weighs 235 pounds, almost 50 more than he did as a frosh, and he gives the team some second effort on the boards. The other news, although guarded, is that senior Center Toby Knight, after three years of ricochet romance with the basket, seems at peace with his jump shot.
"We've got ourselves a team," said Knight. "Everybody's working together. We have all the ingredients. It's like making a cake. It's hard to describe, but we feel it."
So even if, as Phelps says, the road is long, March is far off and the engine is missing, one thing is obvious. The Notre Dame fight song, although a bit muted, will not be the dirge that some had predicted.