Digger’s calling now is a matter of life and death | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Digger’s calling now is a matter of life and death

He’s been called an eccentric, acerbic, a loose cannon. And most college basketball fans today know him as the second-loudest basketball analyst on ESPN (come on, you know who the loudest is).

Since his retirement from the coaching ranks in 1986, Digger Phelps has mastered the art of talking a good game. But the former head basketball coach at Notre Dame has always been more than just talk, as anyone who knows him will be quick to reveal.

Phelps has been active in politics since leaving the game of basketball, and was appointed special assistant director of drug control policy in the executive office of the President during the Bush administration. His pet project these days is the development of an after school mentoring program for children in South Bend, Ind.

“It’s something I’ve been helping to put together with the Rotary Club out there,” said Phelps, who coached Notre Dame for 20 years. “Since we began last year we’ve raised over $800,000 to sponsor 700 kids in after school programs, giving them a place to go and things to do to keep them of the streets.

“I think that it’s so important to pay attention to kids at an early age. Things like this program give them a shot at a better life. I’m starting to see some communities imposing curfews, but curfews aren’t the answer. The peak time for juvenile criminal activity is 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., so we’re looking at it from that angle.”

This weekend Phelps is basking in the Tahoe sun and the celebrity limelight, teeing it up with his pals at the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship at Edgewood Tahoe. But his love of golf is where the similarity between himself and most other retirees ends.

Phelps has also been active in developing Midnight Basketball programs in the Chicago area, working to dissolve gang activity by getting gang members off the streets and into the gym.

“Our focus has been to get these kids together in an atmosphere of teamwork and friendship,” Phelps said. “We take five rival gang members and put them on one team. There’s no better way to work on conflict resolution and problem solving than to play team sports. It’s working really well.”

Like many others, Phelps has been dismayed by the recent spate of school shootings and escalating incidents of youth violence. But unlike some sports celebrities who sign a few autographs and give lip service to helping young people, Phelps is determined to try and make a difference.

“Youth violence isn’t just in the inner cities anymore,” Phelps said. “It’s now in our suburbs. We had ‘Desert Storm,’ and now we need a ‘Domestic Storm.’ It starts at a very early age, and it’s time more people got involved.”

Mike Eruzione, the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team captain, has played in all 10 Tahoe Celebrity Golf events. On Wednesday he was on the Edgewood Tahoe driving range, watching his two sons Michael, 11, and Paul, 9, practice their golf swings.

“I think it starts with the family,” Eruzione said. “I’m sure that I’m not aware of every single thing my kids are doing. But I’m sure I would know if they were into something dramatic, like guns. We look at situations like Columbine High and just shake our heads. Who is to blame? Well, sometimes I think it’s the parents.”

Eruzione became an instant celebrity – and thus a role model to children – when the U.S. Hockey team stunned the world by beating the Soviet Union, and then Finland, for the gold medal in the 1980 Winter Olympics.

“The thing I have found is that kids are starving for attention, and they want discipline,” he said. “They are looking for role models. But those role models shouldn’t be athletes. They should be people from their own communities, like teachers and parents and police officers.

“But athletes have this role model thing thrust on them. That’s why I admire guys like John Elway, Dan Marino and Mario Lemieux. Those guys are great parents; you see it as they interact with their own kids, and you see the great way they treat other people’s kids. You can see the respect, and believe me, kids pick up on that. They don’t have to do that. I admire those guys a lot.”

It doesn’t take a lot for a person to make a difference, said Phelps.

“In South Bend we’re getting involved in mentoring programs, where an adult gives up one lunch per week to go out and talk to a kid. We offer anger management and violence prevention counseling and other programs. I think if more people could get involved in that way, just by giving up one lunch every week, we could make a big difference.”

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