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Getting their Irish up


Whatever happened to tradition at Notre Dame? Instead of shamrocks, here is a far-out team with more code names than the Pentagon (plus a tougher schedule), uniforms designed in a Colorado ski shop, a run-amok hit squad called SWAT, a superstitious coach and a naughty pregame chant.

Most people figured this would be a season when Irish eyes were not smiling. Notre Dame lost three top players: Adrian Dantley signed with the Buffalo Braves, Bill Laimbeer was declared scholastically ineligible and Bernard Rencher went to the parent firm's East Coast branch, St. John's.

So, largely ignored (one poll ranked them 29th), the Irish went about installing a series of defenses big on blind alleys, decided that a team that played together would stay together and slowly developed a coach's favorite intangible: character. The result was that Notre Dame opened with an 80-79 overtime defeat of 16th-ranked Maryland, and last week Coach Digger Phelps looked anything but downcast. "It's like having a car without an engine when you've got to get to Chicago," he said. "It's tough. But come March, these kids will be in Chicago."

The road the Irish are taking would tear the rear axle off most team buses. Notre Dame faces the most difficult schedule in the country. This month alone it plays UCLA, Indiana and Kentucky and, all told, has 10 games against teams listed in the preseason Top 20. Its itinerary includes stops in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles and Milwaukee. The remarkable thing is that with most college coaches hiding behind scheduling corners, Phelps is standing out in the middle of the street flagging down every top school he can find, even though the Irish, as independents with no conference title to win, desperately need to rack up an impressive record to earn an invitation to the NCAA tournament. And by next year Phelps will have added North Carolina State to the schedule, the Boston Celtics and Denver Nuggets being ineligible.

Departing from the conservative tradition at South Bend, this team is on the wild side. Its flashy warmup jackets are modeled after a ski sweater Phelps saw in Vail, Colo., and its practices begin and end with taped dance music. The team uses a myriad of defenses, 11 at last count, and has a reserve unit called SWAT that includes a player with the lyrical name of Fabian. The SWAT team refuses to take orders from Phelps during games and obeys only a player nicknamed GI Joe. Then there is that mischievous chant when the players huddle, just before the tipoff. It goes:

"There once was a team from Notre Dame,
Who had acquired national fame.
Though ranked very low,
29th in one poll,
They went out and kicked tail
Every game."

GI Joe is Jeff Carpenter, who claims to be 20 but is craggy enough to have been at Pork Chop Hill. Carpenter is in charge of company morale. After a grueling three-hour practice one day last week, the Irish went through a strenuous 12-minute conditioning drill that culminated with the players running the arena steps. Carpenter not only led the team, but he also kept running until the laggards finished, then ordered the entire SWAT bunch to work on its shooting for an extra 20 minutes. The SWAT unit is composed of three walk-ons, junior Randy Haefner and Carpenter. "Once he takes command of SWAT, he doesn't have anything to do with me and I don't have anything to do with him," says Phelps. "SWAT, I love 'em."

The shock troops are just part of a motivational package devised by Phelps at summer think sessions in his favorite campus haunt, a small room behind an out-of-the-way chapel. The plan was part practical, part inspirational. By rotating nine players with Mixmaster speed, Notre Dame hopes to wear down opponents while confusing them with the different defenses. Phelps culled some of these from friends, and he calls out their codes while kneeling on the sidelines.

Phelps agreed to play disco music for the players at workouts, went along with them when they wanted to wear their practice socks for games, and invited try-outs from the student body. Although he cherishes them, not all of the coach's gimmicks have worked. A few years ago he held student tryouts and was amazed to discover that one of the final candidates was a truck driver from nearby Elkhart. Then there was the stirring moment in the locker room before a game when he played George C. Scott's speech from Patton. Notre Dame was down 18 at half-time that night.

Phelps is a convert to skiing who only recently learned not to yell "Fore!" when careening down the slopes. The sport reflects his demeanor and personality: a certain exactitude and attention to detail surrounded by flamboyance and dimpled, earnest charm. Last week he had completed the game plans for both UCLA and Indiana, having had UCLA's first two games videotaped by a Los Angeles friend. He was at the office each day for long staff meetings—which were often interrupted by coaches calling for information and advice—then returned at night to look at more film. Always he kept up his public relations image, chatting with the faculty at lunch, passing out religious medals and leprechaun pins to students and promising to call a graduate school on behalf of a former team manager.

Despite his urbane manner, Phelps is fettered to superstition. For instance, he tries to keep track of what he is wearing when the team wins. Dark suits with vests currently lead the standings. And before the Maryland game a long string of events occurred that he considered fortuitous, ranging from finding a certain pack of matches in his desk drawer to a chance meeting with a member of the Spinners, one of the squad's favorite vocal groups.

Of course it might be noted that the coach finds an omen in almost everything but the sunrise. Last week, dressing for a game, he mused about wearing a red-white-and-blue striped tie to celebrate the Bicentennial. When he walked downstairs his wife Terri looked at him and said, "What are you doing, wearing your Bicentennial tie?"

Phelps was ecstatic. "See," he said later. "An omen. Everybody is picking up what we're trying to do."

A couple of things besides portents were evident last week when Notre Dame had an unusual break in the caliber of opposition while playing Cal Poly Pomona and Valparaiso. Although the Cal Poly center got into the spirit of things by practicing dunking two balls at once at halftime, the Irish beat the visitors 93-67. And then they overwhelmed Valparaiso 93-56. But it was clear that they were having to work hard to compensate for the absence of Dantley, Laimbeer and Rencher. Although Duck Williams and Bill Paterno are the scorers, the success of the team will hinge on how much help it gets from the center position. Junior pivot Dave Batton stayed in South Bend over the summer to lift barbells and work on his power moves; he now weighs 235 pounds, almost 50 more than he did as a frosh, and he gives the team some second effort on the boards. The other news, although guarded, is that senior Center Toby Knight, after three years of ricochet romance with the basket, seems at peace with his jump shot.

"We've got ourselves a team," said Knight. "Everybody's working together. We have all the ingredients. It's like making a cake. It's hard to describe, but we feel it."

So even if, as Phelps says, the road is long, March is far off and the engine is missing, one thing is obvious. The Notre Dame fight song, although a bit muted, will not be the dirge that some had predicted.