Digger Phelps Out at ESPN – Addition by Subtraction in Bristol

by Kent Sterling

Digger Phelps is out at ESPN, and hoops fans are all the better for it.

Digger Phelps is out at ESPN, and hoops fans are all the better for it.

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.

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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?”

Yep.

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.

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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.]

40 thoughts on “Digger Phelps Out at ESPN – Addition by Subtraction in Bristol

  1. Matt Jones

    I typically really like what you right but sometimes it just comes off mean spirited and nasty. Turns me off a bit. I think you could give good analysis without it. You are denouncing his behavior but call him a prick based off second hand stories that do not even sound believable.

    Reply
    1. kentsterling Post author

      The stories were told me by people who were there, and one of whom who told it to me in an attempt to convince me that he’s a good good.

      There are people who say, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything.” In my admittedly off-kilter world, that lets the oafs and stooges off the hook. Being a self-immersed mope from whom hubris pours like beer from a pumped up keg requires a consequence. That’s justice.

      If I had any doubt at all that the stories weren’t true and in keeping with the consistent spirit of another dozen stories I’ve heard from participants, I would have kept them to myself and simply written about a bad broadcaster who shamed his medium through shoddy preparation.

      Reply
  2. Brian

    “I typically really like what you WRITE, but” Just like Digger doesn’t do his homework before games, you never did your English homework.

    Reply
  3. Tom Snape

    Goodbye and good riddance to Digger. Didn’t he fall asleep on the set during an on-site hit one time (I know Bob Knight did at the Final Four a couple of years ago)? His lack of prep work probably carried over from his coaching days. Those Notre Dame teams he had with Kelly Tripucka, etc., were tremendous but they always underachieved. He always did less with more (Bill Frieder at Michigan in the ’80s also comes to mind).

    A lack of preparation also got Jerome “The Bus” Bettis canned after one year on NBC’s Sunday Night Football studio coverage (they may have been other reasons but that’s the one I’ve always heard). A lesson from this for former players and coaches who become analysts is to ALWAYS DO YOUR HOMEWORK! If you don’t, the viewer will notice. They noticed and, ultimately, the suits at ESPN had to pull the trigger on Phelps’ ouster. He’d become an embarrassment and a caricature.

    Reply
      1. kentsterling Post author

        What would put that bee in your bonnet? Notre Dame turned Digger loose 23 years ago. At least I never fired the guy. I actually love Notre Dame.

        Reply
  4. John Dougherty

    I am actually disappointed in losing Ol’ Digger. As a University of Louisville fan, I always enjoyed him being wrong when giving some “in depth” analysis on why Louisville would lose, only to see him be wrong about the outcome and everything he said. Him calling a game almost always gauranteed a Louisville victory.

    Reply
    1. Curt Henderson

      The University of Louisville? Seriously?

      Their football and basketball Coach just scream integrity!

      Guess it will be a new experience for your football team to actually play ranked football teams in 2014.

      I wonder how bad ND will beat them in November?

      Reply
  5. David Spellman

    Surprised, sad to read this…but I believe in Kent’s integrity as a reporter.
    The narcissism was easy to spot.
    And I am a huge Digger/ND fan.
    My son is ND ’08 and my Dad (93) grew-up in Beacon NY and went to high school with Digger’s mother…has known the family his whole life.
    Yet Kent’s anecdotes ring true.

    Reply
    1. kentsterling Post author

      Sad about Digger myself to the extent that I sought out positive stories from those in the area. Always came up dry. One surfaced today of Digger taking the time to referee basketball games played by special needs kids. No one is all bad, but of the people I know who know Digger, only one is a fan.

      Hard to change at the age of 72, but I hope that Digger becomes a wiser man now that he is no longer required to offer wisdom on ESPN.

      If my grandmother were alive to read about Digger, she would have called me in tears. I would have told her what I’m telling you – every word is the truth, with much more untold out of kindness and a desire not to pile on.

      Reply
      1. David Spellman

        Have read a couple of his books and the most common word is “I.”
        Me, myself, I.
        So my horse-sense says “narcissism.”
        That’s a very lonely condition.
        Yes, I believe you gave us only the tip of the iceberg. You know lots of people, and people in your industry tell stories off-air. I appreciate you telling the unvarnished truth.

        Reply
  6. Pauly Balst

    @ Matt Jones, as someone who grew up in the South Bend area, I can assure you if you wanted to turn second hand stories into first hand stories, all you’d need to do is spend an afternoon in a bar in the area. Ask the next 5 random people who walk into Corbys, Legends, Linebacker, Hacienda, and if they had first hand experience with Digger, you’d hear stories similar to that and a lot more.

    However, it’s not as if he’s despised there, few like Charlie Weis. More like Digger is tolerated, a nice enough guy but self immersed. Few want to kick a guy when he’s down, I get your point. His daughter Karen is very nice. She had a friend at IU with us that was “legendary”.

    In contrast, if Kent were to write something negative about Ara Parseghian, he’d better get ready for war. People in Michiana and the ND community to this day would take a bullet for Ara. But in reality, there won’t be many schooners toasting Digger tonight.

    Reply
  7. Pauly Balst

    This makes me snicker about Digger. A buddy of mine works for TSA at the Michiana Airport. A couple years ago he told me with a big smile that Digger has a knack for getting wanded and patted down while going through security. I assure you they mess with him every chance they get, because they can.

    Reply
  8. David Spellman

    GREAT comment Pauly. That used to be my airport of choice when we lived in Indiana simply because TSA was quick and low-key (parking was quick and easy etc.). That TSA targets him suggests that he PO-ed someone along the way…and now gets payback all the time. Great, great bit of info Pauly.

    Reply
  9. John Gaski

    Two years ago, as I was approaching surgery, I naturally sought advice from those who had had the same type. One of those was Digger. Left phone message for him when he was on the road to do a game. Digger actually called me from Florida and gave me all the time I needed over the phone. Much appreciated, to say the least.

    The criticism offered by posters is pretty insignificant in the full spectrum of life, and in comparison.

    Also, one unusual distinction no one has noticed: You do know that Digger was inducted into ND’s ‘Ring of Honor’–more exclusive than a hall of fame. But how often do you hear of a school bestowing such an honor on someone the school had actually fired? That tells you something about the institution’s true sentiment for the man. That’s one for Ripley’s, right?

    Reply
    1. kentsterling Post author

      Thanks for the positive story about Digger. The silence since asking for some nice thought was deafening.

      Reply
  10. John

    phelps is an embarrassment to notre dame, I can see why his wife left him and the athletic director fired him, and not just because of his personal problems He is very self absorbed and a bully type of person, opens others mail in the basketball office and can’t say anything nice to most people. I m not sure why he is so arrogant, he is very average

    Reply
  11. Steve

    I have never witnessed such an embarressing situation as the one with him ridiculing common people visiting Notre Dame. You will find few on the inside that know this man say anything positive. I really feel bad for him, he is so insecure and average. It doesn’t surprise me that ESPN let him go as did notre dame. I recall the end when the students tied on him before Mr Rosenthal finally showed him the door.

    He looks horrible, not sure how old he is now but really feel sorry for him in so many ways.

    Reply
  12. Dan Olson

    Digger is such an arrogant boastful person, having lived in south bend he is not thought well by most everyone. It’s common for him to simply not pay bills and feels entitled to everything. Everyone was so happy when he was finally fired at notre dame, He never understood the importance of treating people the way you want to be treated.

    Reply
    1. Kent Sterling Post author

      That is a great comment. Some coaches get it, and others believe the hype that they rule the universe.

      Reply
  13. Kerry johnson

    My experience with Digger is a very cold hearted, self absorbed person. Digger got what he deserved and put notre dame is the only possible situation and that was to fire him, It was so bad at the end that he requested we not introduce him at the start of games because the booing was so apparent. He always blamed everyone else, and his hatred for authority was directed toward Mr. Rosenthal. And his staff. The professional community at notre dame were happy when he was let go. He was tolerated because of the nice, family atmosphere at notre dame, but in reality he was a spiteful average coach and an even worse person.

    Reply
  14. Tom Weber

    Were all glad phelps is gone, He s always been nothing but an ***hole, hope he leaves South Bend soon

    Reply
  15. Moe Moham

    All the stupid personal stories has nothing to do with what he did at ESPN.
    The author is obviously a hater and that should not be mixed with pro work.

    I did not know him but liked him as a analyst. He is missed in my mind.

    Reply
  16. Anthony

    He took a friend of mine for over a $500 dollar tab one night, Eating and drinking the most expensive
    Items in the place. Phelps is a fraud through and through, the priests did us all a favor and fired him.
    He was average at best as an announcer, similar to his coaching.
    I agree with Tom, wish he would leave South Bend ASAP!

    Reply
  17. Patrick Householder

    Digger had a heck of a NCAA tournament record. 17-17 with no titles, It sums up everything about him. Mediocrity!

    Reply
  18. John

    Glad he s gone from announcing, very I’ll prepared and just seemed out of place with the job at espn incollege basketball. They seen to have a better team now that Phelps is out

    Reply
  19. Jimmy

    Phelps is a douche,. I never like to see anyone fired but this guy has always been a piece of work.

    Reply
  20. Timothy O'Malley

    What ever happened to phelps? That guy was one person I never enjoyed listening to on ESPN, always tried to make all the attention on himself

    Reply
  21. Jeff Jones

    I always chuckle when I think of Digger, a very unhappy person who got everything he deserved.
    He always had negative comments about everyone and anybody successful. Maybe with age he has changed,

    Reply

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