Digger Phelps enjoyed a long and successful career as the Notre Dame basketball coach and today he’s a fixture on ESPN’s Gameday coverage with Rece Davis and Jay Bilas. Phelps was the architect behind several big wins, including ending UCLA’s 88-game winning streak in the John Wooden era. But only once did Phelps ever reach the Final Four, and that was 1978.
The 1978 Notre Dame basketball team had good balance throughout the lineup. Dave Bratton averaged 14 points/7 rebounds, and Don Williams chipped in quality offensive help. Kelly Tripucka was a talented freshman at small forward. Phelps had a couple players who could bang inside with Bruce Flowers and Bill Laimbeer, the latter one day to be an integral part of the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons NBA championship teams in 1989-90, and one of the dirtiest players in basketball.
Notre Dame knocked off UCLA twice in close games, but lost a one-point crusher to Indiana and in overtime to fellow Midwest Jesuit independent DePaul. The Irish came up with a big win over defending national champion Marquette near the end of a season that saw them stay in the Top 10 all year and get as high as #2.
The NCAA Tournament was not seeded at this time, but Notre Dame—ranked sixth nationally—might as well have been considered the #2 seed in the Midwest bracket. DePaul was ranked third in the nation and the highest-ranked team in the regional.
Laimbeer led a balanced attack in the first round against the Houston Cougars, getting 20 points/9 rebounds and being one of five players in double figures, en route to a 100-77 win. The NCAA field was only 32 teams at this time, so the win ended the first weekend of play and sent Notre Dame to the regionals at Lawrence, KS.
Notre Dame met Utah in the round of 16 and pulled away in the second half to a 69-56 win behind 20 points from Tripucka. The other game of the night was the thriller—DePaul and Louisville went two overtimes before the Blue Demons won 90-89. It set up a battle of archrivals for a trip to the Final Four, but would DePaul have any gas left in the tank?
The answer was no. The Irish dominated the boards, with Tripucka and Laimbeer keying a decisive rebounding edge and the game was anticlimactic, as Notre Dame cruised to an 84-64 win. They were on their way to St. Louis for the 1978 Final Four.
Duke was the nation’s Cinderella story at the ’78 Final Four (and more than anything that tells just how long ago this was). The Blue Devils had gone from being one of the worst teams in the ACC to a national contender in the matter of a year and had three great college players in Gene Banks, Jim Spanarkel and Mike Gminski.
Notre Dame’s stars, Tripucka and Laimbeer played well and after trailing by fourteen at the half, turned it into a game down the stretch, but Duke held off Notre Dame and won 90-86. The Blue Devils would have the tables turned on them two nights later, making a noble rally at Kentucky before losing the NCAA final.
At the time, it seemed the stars were aligned for Digger Phelps and Notre Dame to continue making a big mark on college basketball and to return to this stage. It never happened. The Irish never again even reached a regional final, much less the Final Four. The life of independents continued to get harder and finally Phelps’ time just ran out.
But few have worked the sideline with as much flair and color as Digger did. The mid-to-late 1970s were high point, never more so then he led to the 1978 Notre Dame basketball team to what remains the school’s only Final Four appearance.