In the talented chorus line that is college basketball's Top 20, Notre Dame isn't just another pretty face. The Fighting Irish are long on ability and short on cute. Right now Coach Digger Phelps wishes everybody would go away and forget about his unlovely team until he can make it beautiful.
For himself, he'd like to forget last Saturday, when Notre Dame took its No. 5 ranking and 8-1 record into the Milwaukee Arena and lost to Marquette 54-52 on a running, leaning desperation bank shot by Glenn (Doc) Rivers with one second to play.
For the five weeks before that Notre Dame had been thumping one and all, led by the master of disaster, 6'6", 220-pound Kelly Tripucka. "He's like a fullback in football," says Phelps. "He goes out and gets you three yards and three yards and three yards, then all of a sudden he gets you seven yards." Assistant Coach Pete Gillen adds, "He's got a court presence, a kind of dignity, and most people either love him or hate him for it. In that way he's a great deal like the team he plays for."
The Marquette fans certainly didn't care for Tripucka, who led the Irish with 18 points, booing him persistently. They did ease up near the end when Tripucka, suffering from stomach cramps, had to leave the game with 4:49 to play and the score tied at 50. He adjourned to the dressing room for four minutes, telling the referee, "No más, no más," or something like that, as he left. Tripucka was able to return for the final 37 seconds, just in time to witness Rivers' shot, which must have further unsettled his stomach.
Tripucka's emergency departure was all the more unfortunate because Phelps, for once, hadn't been using his revolving-door substitution policy. Forward Orlando Woolridge and Guard John Paxson each played 39 minutes against the Warriors, Guard Tracy Jackson went 33 minutes, and Tripucka probably would have gone the full 40 had he not developed cramps.
Phelps' shuttle system has never been popular with Notre Dame's players, least of all Tripucka. He averaged only 27.8 minutes of floor time as a sophomore when he scored 14.3 points a game and made the U.S. Basketball Writers 10-man All-America team. He got 30 minutes a game as a junior (18 points and third-team UPI All-America) and was back down to 28.3 before the Marquette game. The starters became so disenchanted with what they see as Phelps' penchant for overcoaching that they called what turned out to be a raucous three-hour team meeting following a 63-55 loss to North Carolina State last season. "Everyone took off his coat and spoke his piece," recalls Tripucka. The meeting obviously didn't make a lasting impact on Phelps, who continues to overcoach, but it did reopen lines of communication that have helped the Irish this season. "Before the situation could ever get to that point this year," Tripucka says, "we'd have already taken care of it. That's one of the things that makes this team good."
A fine example of just how the 1980-81 Irish have been able to keep their differences ironed out occurred during half-time of their 67-61 upset of then-No. 2 Kentucky. With the score tied and Notre Dame running the clock down for the last shot of the first half, Tripucka suddenly bolted for the basket and threw up an off-balance prayer with 10 seconds remaining. Phelps wasn't pleased. Several courtside observers said later that they thought Tripucka had a new name, so often did Phelps repeat the words, "Jesus, Kelly!"
"Digger came running onto the court after me at halftime," says Tripucka, "and he kept saying, 'What are you doing?' I told him to forget about it, because I don't like to dwell on mistakes. But he got angry, and he harped on it again in the locker room." Tripucka, characteristically, didn't back down. "Forget about it, will you?" he said again, his voice rising now. "We're going to win this game. I just want to play." Phelps had the good sense to let the subject drop, and Tripucka came out of the dressing room so steamed up he finished with a game-high 30 points. "It was a good thing," he says of the brief shouting match. "We were communicating, getting our thoughts across to each other."
If the Irish seem like many a large family—forever feuding, bawling each other out and then making up—well, they're just following Tripucka's example. The senior tri-captain who was Notre Dame's top scorer (19.7 points per game at the end of last week) and rebounder (5.6) as well as one of its leading free spirits, grew up in a family that was so demonstrative he didn't start talking in a normal tone of voice until he was in high school. "We weren't the Waltons and it wasn't all lovey-dovey," says Randy Tripucka, Kelly's mother. "There was a lot of hollering and shouting."
Kelly is the son of Frank Tripucka, who started at quarterback for Notre Dame in 1948 and then went on to play in both the NFL and the AFL. He and Randy grew up in Bloomfield, N.J. and went to high school there, and after they were married, they settled in Bloomfield to raise a family. First came the twins, Heather and Tracy (a boy), who were followed by five boys. "For someone who wanted all girls, it was great," says Randy, really meaning it. "We 'always had girls' names ready, though, and when the boys came we went ahead and used them anyway." Tracy, who is now an assistant basketball coach at the University of Utah, set scoring records at Lafayette. Mark ("He would've been Michelle") played quarterback at the University of Massachusetts; Michael Todd ("He was going to be Michelle, too") stands third on the Lafayette career scoring list; T.K., for Timothy Kimball ("He would've been Kimberly"), played hoops for Fordham and, at 6'9", 240 pounds, is the biggest Tripucka; Kelly followed in his father's footsteps at Notre Dame; and Christopher ("That was going to be Christine"), who is 18 and a safety, flanker and place-kicker for the West Essex (N.J.) High football team, recently kicked the decisive field goal in the state championship game in Giants Stadium. Heather, by the way, once scored 56 points in an intramural basketball game. She was born about five years too soon for girls' interscholastic competition.