High school sports: Digger: Quit selling local youths short
The former Notre Dame basketball coach has taken his education advocacy from the program he mentored for 20 years to a much bigger stage, the streets of South Bend.
Minutes after reading a column in Friday’s Tribune about high school coaches grumbling over the South Bend Community School Corp.’s policy for a minimum GPA of 2.0 to be involved in extracurriculars, Digger was on the phone stating his case.
The idea of relaxing the foundation of the policy, or building in a grace period to allow an athlete to reach the minimum, bothered him.
“It’s the poor kids who are being exploited, and the coaches are making excuses,” Phelps said. “Would a coach do that to his own child?”
The example of an athlete who had his best report card ever — four C’s and a C-minus — but was still told he wasn’t eligible, didn’t draw any sympathy from Phelps.
“We, as adults, let that kid down,” Phelps said. “We didn’t get him the help it would have taken to make that C-minus a C.”
Digger abhors the current IHSAA eligibility mandate that calls for a student-athlete to pass just 70 percent of classes taken. That means four D’s and an F would still allow eligibility.
“That’s an insult to the parents and the kids of the state,” Phelps said.
He talked about free tutoring programs. College students from Notre Dame and Bethel volunteer their time at many agencies around the city.
If a high school athlete in the SBCSC is ruled ineligible for a grading period, the athlete is still allowed to participate in practice. Phelps faced a similar situation — twice — with LaPhonso Ellis, one of the best players of Digger’s regime. With an accounting major, Ellis missed playing time because of academic problems on two occasions.
“The proudest moment was at graduation to see LaPhonso and (another player under Phelps) Elmer Bennett waving to me with their diplomas,” Phelps said.
After a long NBA career, Ellis today is a broadcaster and an entrepreneur today.
Phelps talked about Los Angeles County in the mid-1980s. The implementation of a 2.0 GPA minimum to compete in sports caused about 6,000 athletes to be ineligible. The next year, 90 percent of those made the grade. Today, the state of California mandates a 2.0 minimum.
“California is a role model,” Phelps said. “But nobody gets it.”
Phelps bristled at the lament that since schools beyond the SBCSC have a lower GPA minimum it’s not a level playing field.
“This is who we are; what we are,” Phelps said. “Nobody else matters.”
Always the basketball coach, Digger isn’t about to head into the challenge with a bunch of 3-point shooters. The process begins with the fundamentals starting in kindergarten through fourth grade.
“I don’t want anyone shooting 3-pointers,” he said. “I want them to start with a right hand dribble. Then a left hand dribble. A chest pass. Then layups: Right hand; left hand. Get those down pat K-through-4.
“At that age, you want to teach basic life skills, so they can handle junior high and high school. You can’t afford to have any turnovers.”
Phelps’ tough-love approach has merit. One of the basic concepts of education is that, faced with a challenge, most student-athletes will step up their game and achieve. It’s the nature of the competitive spirit.
“Kids want to go after it,” Phelps said.
He’s convinced that, given a choice, most youngsters would avoid gang involvement.
“If gangs are only one of 10 options, young people are going to choose the other nine,” Phelps said. “We’ve got (the gangs) surrounded. Show the kids the options. They’ll go for them.”
And Digger’s the guy drawing up the playbook.