Sunday, February 20, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Phelps' Wife Fires Back At Notre Dame -- Law Professor Terry Phelps Decries Tyranny Of Winning

Chicago Tribune

SOUTH BEND, Ind. - Long ago, Terry Phelps began to shed the image as the "lovelywife."

The former Rider College homecoming queen spells it as one word in sarcastic recognition of the stereotype used by broadcasters when the camera inevitably zooms into the stands for a shot of the spouse during a break in action.

She is the partner of Digger Phelps, who coached basketball for 20 seasons at Notre Dame. But during those years she also earned three degrees, and she has become a tenured member of the law school faculty.

She developed a passion for academics and nurtured her life outside of the cheers of the good times when Digger's teams were breaking UCLA's 88-game win streak or making a run at the Final Four.

She can relate the greatest literature to law, philosophy to the practicality of everyday living and speak excitedly about Notre Dame as a place that encourages a person "to talk about the soul without being embarrassed."

One thing she still doesn't understand is why such an emphasis must be placed on winning in college sports and why student-athletes are exploited for schools' financial gain.

The Irish (5-10) are headed for a second straight losing season under John MacLeod, who succeeded Phelps upon his 1991 retirement.

In a new book, "The Coach's Wife, A Notre Dame Memoir," Terry Phelps writes that her husband was forced out, made to walk the plank in his final season with no say about scheduling and amid animosity about his style of play, not only from fans, but from the university hierarchy.

The villains in her mind were Athletic Director Dick Rosenthal; E. William Beauchamp, executive vice president of the university; and the Rev. Edward A. Malloy, president.

She writes that the three gave her husband an ultimatum that he must leave after a poor performance by Phelps' team when it was eliminated by Virginia in the first round of the 1990 NCAA Tournament.

They told Digger Phelps, she writes, they would let him coach the next season, his 20th at Notre Dame, but then he must leave or be fired.

"It was awful, terrible. It was the worst thing," Terry Phelps recalled.

She wrote the book, in part, as a primer for young wives of coaches. Had she known what she would endure, "I would have invested less in the place at which he coached."

She still has affection for Notre Dame, but calls Rosenthal, Beauchamp and Malloy "the new plutocratic regime (that) measured success by the bottom line - money."

Digger Phelps was the winningest coach in Notre Dame history, compiling a 393-197 record, including 14 seasons with 20 or more victories. Perhaps his greatest statistic was the fact that every one of his players graduated.

Digger's glories on the court in the '70s and the early '80s turned into unfulfilled expectations in the mid-'80s. Terry Phelps tells of the increased pressures placed on her and her husband and three children by fans, alumni and administrators.

Hers is a surprisingly frank and sometimes bitter portrait of family and institutional life in the crucible of big-money college sports.

She displays a naivete in failing to understand that a coach's job has become, above all else, winning. She fails to realize every run must come to an end. People lose their jobs every day in the working world because new administrators come into authority.

Unlike Digger Phelps, they aren't given a one-year notice. They aren't allowed to achieve their 20th anniversary, and they aren't given financial security. (Terms of Phelps' separation agreement stipulated that he will continue to draw what is believed to be his coach's pay for five more years provided he say nothing negative about the university, a clause his lawyer-wife reviewed so it wouldn't interfere with her book.)

On the other hand, Terry Phelps expresses a vision that few others have in trying to extract college sports from its incestuous relationship with money.

"(Do) we need to make money off sports programs to survive?" she said in an interview. "Very good schools, like Yale and the University of Chicago, do it without (big-time sports). Yet we create a mythology that entraps us into a way of behaving and then becomes an excuse for continuing to do it.

"I don't get it."

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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