by Kent Sterling
Color coordination between a tie and highlighter isn’t enough anymore to keep a job at ESPN. A lack of preparation and the insipid commentary that followed gives fans a reason to rejoice the departure of a source of great annoyance – Richard “Digger” Phelps.
The end of a career, even one earned through mediocre-at-best performance over many years, is often a reason for an empathetic eulogy, even from a heartless bastard like me. But with Digger, it’s different.
Calling what happened the result of a decline implies that Phelps was ever good at his job. He wasn’t. His analysis was dime store pablum bereft of justification, but worse his behavior as a guy has always been an embarrassment to Notre Dame and ESPN.
A former sports information director, who worked with Phelps many times called him, “the least prepared, least informed and highest maintenance analyst I ever encountered in my years as a SID.” When I asked him whether I could use his quote, he emailed, “Sure but you could probably attribute it to any SID that has had to deal with him while he has been at ESPN.”
A friend went to dinner with Phelps in South Bend a few years ago. “Digger ordered a $1,000 bottle of wine, and then another $1,000 bottle. He and his son ate and drank like kings, and I have to say his stories were pretty damn entertaining. But when the meal was over, he stood up, waved, and left. The a**hole stuck me with a $5,000 tab!”
I asked a friend who had worked with Phelps to tell me a story that would paint a positive picture of him, and he told me about playing with him in a golf outing in South Bend. Every hole, Phelps scoured the woods adjacent to the fairway for lost golf balls. Foursomes started stacking up behind them, but Phelps continued searching for balls. My friend asked Phelps why he was holding up play by looking for balls. “Because they are for the kids. I take all the balls I find, wash, and then autograph them. I throw them to kids at the Lake Tahoe celebrity golf event.” My friend said that showed Digger’s big heart.
I said, “You mean this rich prick is stacking foursomes behind him at a big money outing because he’s too damn cheap to drop $100 on new Pinnacles to autograph?”
There are other stories about being a self-impressed moron in South Bend, not paying for drinks, and treating bar patrons like his personal assistants, but none of that has anything to do with why he is out in Bristol. He’s out because the tonnage of his errors finally reached critical mass. Calling Shabazz Napier, “Shabazz Siva,” happened yesterday, and the shallow analysis provided when he gave the right names was most obvious when paired with Jay Bilas and Dan Dakich, who bring intellectual and strategic heft to their appearances.
Phelps embarrassed himself and ESPN by referring to NCAA Tournament team Stephen F. Austin as “Stephen A. Austin” and then correcting himself by saying “Stephen F. Foster.”
For virtually every person on the planet, I feel the pain of those who are told their services are no longer needed. With Phelps it’s different. His performance belied an indifference to the pursuit of excellence, and his behavior as shared to me by friends of his shows an indifference to them.
Sometimes, the end of a career is a just result – a return to karmic equilibrium – and celebrating that doesn’t seem so wrong.
Next year’s basketball coverage on ESPN will be much more insightful and fun as a result of Phelps’ absence. ESPN is too classy to say that publicly, but I prefer to tell the truth.
[ed. note: While the stories above weren’t cherry-picked to portray Digger is a negative light – they were representative of the dozens of stories I have heard from those in South Bend who have run into him – if you have a story that makes Digger look a little less (or more narcissistic) than my take, please feel free to write one as a comment. If you feel the need to praise his broadcasting work, you need to take inventory of what you value in a television analyst.]