Digger Phelps reflects on legacy of Dick Enberg
When Digger Phelps reminisces about the biggest win of his career, one line has always stuck.
"When John Wooden was in the U.S. Navy, Digger Phelps was being born."
Dick Enberg spoke those words during a TVS broadcast on January 19, 1974.
Notre Dame knocked off top-ranked UCLA that night, ending the nation's longest winning streak at 88 games. Enberg was on the play-by-play call for the broadcast, which Phelps credits with making the Irish a national story and catapulted Enberg's already-blossoming career.
"He made me a national character," said Phelps, revisiting Enberg's comments on his 70s outfits, "and he made our basketball team, and those guys, become national heroes in everyone's home."
Enberg died of a heart attack on Thursday at the age of 82.
"It was a shocker to hear that he passed," said Phelps, who went on to set the record for coaching wins at Notre Dame, then later became a broadcasting star in his own right with ESPN. "Dick was a very humble man. He didn't have an ego. It was never about him. He was kind and gentle. He just cared about people.
"When you see how he got exposure to other sports with all the networks and what he did, how he did it, the awards he got, it was more because of how sincere and honest he was to make you feel like you're the most important person I'm talking to right now, or this is the most important moment in sports right now. He delivered."
The Notre Dame vs. UCLA game was an essential step in growing college basketball interest, due in large part to broadcasting pioneer Eddie Einhorn's network, TVS, led by Enberg's voice.
Phelps grew close with both as Notre Dame appeared more regularly, and said Enberg was held much of the product together when Phelps and Einhorn would argue (often in jest, but occasionally in anger).
"Enberg would listen to all of this, but be the smooth Dick Enberg and make it work and tell the real story. He just always had that way of delivering. He made us with that exposure."
The relationship between the three extended beyond the 1970s, and Phelps even credits Enberg for being a model of success when he entered broadcasting himself.
"[Enberg] would come to the house with (former Marquette coach and Enberg's longtime TV partner) Al McGuire. We'd talk and all that and hang out together. He just became such a legendary TV announcer because he knew and did his homework, and he knew how to deliver and play to the moments."
Those moments, according to Phelps, are what helped build his program.
"Television back then helped us recruit these guys, and to me, Dick Enberg was selling Notre Dame as an announcer. When I heard that he passed, it was sad. He made us."
Enberg was just weeks away from his 83rd birthday.