Digger Phelps was listing as he paced painfully around his office last week, transformed by a bad back and a deformed record into a latter-day hunchback of Notre Dame. The normally effervescent Phelps looked glum as he ticked off the names of the recruits who had gotten away, players who could have made him and the Irish stand tall.
Lean times come to the Notre Dame athletic department. First the football team suffered through a 5-6 season. Now the basketball team, which had qualified for the NCAA tournament 11 of the past 13 years, is foundering. At week's end, the Irish were 2-6, their wins coming against St. Joseph's and Valparaiso, a pair of small schools in Indiana. Before Christmas they lost consecutive home games to Murray State, 56-54, and Northern Illinois, 70-65. Or was it Murray Illinois and Northern State? The Golden Dome isn't peeling, but it sure is tarnished.
To understand how a school that has had so much success could suddenly find itself in such dire straits one must realize that college coaches are primarily recruiters. After all, you have to dance with whom you brung. And of late, only one blue-chip high school player, Guard John Paxson, has come waltzing Notre Dame's way. "It's like trying to cut a wheat field with a lawn mower," says Forrest Miller, a sportswriter for the South Bend Tribune.
Just how bad is the situation in South Bend? First, Center Tim Andree has been plagued all year by a stress fracture in his left foot, which he packs in ice every evening. Andree holds the dubious distinction of having committed five fouls in 15 minutes against Murray State. His backup is Cecil Rucker, a forward. It gets worse. Only three players stand taller than 6'7", including senior Gary Grassey, one of two emergency walk-ons Phelps culled from what the Notre Dame basketball press guide calls the school's "rough and tumble" intramural league.
Overall, the Irish are two or three players from having the lineup needed for the 20-victory record that Phelps bravely—brazenly?—predicted for them before the season began. Lacking those players—a healthy center, a big forward and help for Paxson in the backcourt—Phelps has resorted to even more gimmickry than usual, trying everything from slowdowns to slogans and inspirational songs to motivational speeches.
Phelps, who began the season with a 10-year record of 206-84 at Notre Dame, also has put in a call for the cavalry, but it won't arrive until next year, when four highly touted high school stars are expected to enroll. He has never picked recruits so early, and his doing so now is perhaps a sign that he has written off this season as irretrievable. Lately Phelps has been spending a lot of time studying the results of other teams' games and figuring out that the Irish play 11 games against teams currently ranked in the SI Top 20.
The immediate cause of Notre Dame's fall from grace is the loss of seven letter-men from the 1980-81 club that defeated San Francisco, Kentucky, Virginia and eventual NCAA champion Indiana. This formidable aggregation went 23-5 before losing by one point to BYU in the East Regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament. Three of the graduated players, Kelly Tripucka, Orlando Wool-ridge and Tracy Jackson, now are performing in the NBA and occasionally calling Phelps to offer condolences.
As if that trio's departure wasn't enough, Notre Dame was further hurt by the defection of 6'11" Joe Kleine, who averaged 31.3 points as a high school senior in Slater, Mo. but only 2.6 points as a Notre Dame freshman last season. Unhappy with his limited role in the Irish offense, Kleine transferred to Arkansas.
But well before Kleine packed his bags, Phelps knew he was in for some hard times, because he had never lost three starters in one swoop. Even when such stars as Adrian Dantley or Toby Knight moved on, Phelps always had replacements groomed. This time, however, Phelps opened the lockers for preseason practice and no new All-Americas fell out. "We took some chances in recruiting the last few years," he says, "and we lost."
Specifically, while Phelps was wooing a most select group of high school prospects the past few years, he passed up opportunities to sign other players of only slightly less stature. Several of those blue-chippers whom Phelps sought, including Steve Stipanovich of Missouri, Darren Daye of UCLA, Jim Master of Kentucky and Greg Dreiling of Wichita State, had Notre Dame on their lists to the end, but all decided to go elsewhere.