In the 20 seasons from 1971-91, Notre Dame head coach Richard “Digger” Phelps led the Irish to 14 NCAA Tournaments, highlighted by the school’s lone Final Four appearance (1978), and a 393-197 record.
Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Adrian Dantley helped Digger Phelps program to a 68-19 record and two Top 10 finishes during his three seasons from 1973-76.
No coach can achieve such a ledger without strong recruiting and then developing top talent. Putting together any All-Digger Team (two guards, two forwards and a big man in the post) might elicit debate or argument, but this top group especially stood out in the way of helping lead the program to national prominence.
Adrian Dantley (1973-76) —The 2008 Basketball Hall of Fame inductee inarguably was Phelps’ greatest player. He was the No. 1 scorer during the Phelps era with 2,223 points, averaging 30.4 points as a sophomore and 28.6 as a junior, and also the top rebounder with 843, averaging double figures each of his last two seasons. Possessing a complete repertoire on offense and a cerebral bent for the game, Dantley and Charles Barkley were among the game’s greatest post-up players ever at 6-5 or less.
A first-round pick after his junior year when he was named the United States Basketball Writer’s Association’s Player of the Year, Dantley also was the leading scorer for the United States team that won the gold medal at the 1976 Summer Olympics.
Kelly Tripucka (1977-81) — As good a big-game performer and clutch shooter ever seen at Notre Dame, he propelled the Irish to four different victories over No. 1 teams and was the MVP of the Midwest Regional, as a freshman, that put Notre Dame in its lone Final Four.
The two-time All-American made 54.8 percent of his career field-goal attempts and 79.8 percent of his free throws. He was the ringleader of a 92-26 record while the team almost never fell outside the Top 10 during his four seasons.
John Shumate (1972-74) — The 6-9 “Big Shu” was recruited by Phelps’ predecessor, John Dee, and he became the rock upon whom Phelps built his program in the early years. After almost losing his life as a sophomore due to a blood clot that forced him to sit out Phelps’ 6-20 debut season, he averaged 22.6 points — shooting a school career record .610 field goal percentage — and 11.6 rebounds per game in his two-year varsity career.
Shumate led a marvelous 1973 NIT run (when the 16-team tourney had much more prestige because the NCAA Tournament was only 25 teams) to the championship game while converting 20 consecutive field goals in upsets of Louisville and North Carolina. He then was a 1974 consensus All-American as a senior while spearheading the Irish to a 24-2 regular season — a team Phelps acknowledges was his best one at Notre Dame.
John Paxson (1979-83) — Sometimes better known as Michael Jordan’s backcourt complement during the first part of the 1990s Chicago Bulls dynasty, the two-time All-American — and also two-time Academic All-American — played on Top 10 Notre Dame teams his first two seasons before starring on younger teams that struggled. He still converted 52.6 percent of his field goal attempts from his backcourt spot.
David Rivers (1984-88) — He became Notre Dame’s third career 2,000-point scorer and the all-time assists leader with 586. After almost losing his life in a vehicular accident the summer before his junior year, Rivers led the Irish to 24 victories — including against No. 1 North Carolina, Duke and Top-5 DePaul with a three-week span — and a Sweet 16 berth. It would take another 16 years before the Irish advanced that far.
Orlando Woolridge (1977-81) — The first “skywalker” in Notre Dame’s program with his leaping skills, the electrifying Woolridge, who passed away in 2012, developed into a No. 6 overall NBA pick after recording a .595 career field-goal percentage that is second only to Shumate. He played 14 years in the NBA.
Tracy Jackson (1977-81) — Ideal swingman with marvelous outside touch (53 percent from the field in his career) yet also paced the team in rebounding as a junior (7.1) despite standing just 6-5. The Tripucka-Jackson-Woolridge triumvirate signed in 1977 is The Gold Standard of any threesome in one Notre Dame recruiting class.
LaPhonso Ellis (1988-92) — Only Shumate was picked higher in the NBA Draft among Phelps’ players. Ellis was the fifth choice (Shumate was No. 4 in 1974) the year after Phelps stepped down. The best rebounder, outlet passer and shot blocker of the Phelps era.
Bill Hanzlik (1976-80) — The best defender during Phelps’ 20 seasons, he combined 6-7 height, long wingspan and athletic ability at guard to earn him a spot on the 1980 United States Summer Olympics team (which the nation boycotted) and a decade-long NBA career as a first-round pick.
Gary Brokaw (1972-74) — He would have been on our first team had he stayed for his senior year. The 6-5 guard averaged 17 points per game in his two varsity seasons and shot 55.7 percent from the floor as a junior for the top-5 Irish before becoming a first-round NBA pick. His nickname was “Magic” before the basketball world knew of Earvin Johnson.
Toby Knight — Arrived as a 6-9 beanpole in the same class as Dantley and made gradual strides each year before a strong senior season in 1976-77 (15.2 and 10.6 rebounds per game) on a top-10 team. The second-round pick excelled with the New York Knicks, averaging 16.6 and 19.1 points per game in his second and third seasons before a torn knee ended his career.
Rich Branning (1976-80) — Steady, consistent floor general of the 1978 Final Four team, but overshadowed by more prominent teammates, including freshmen Tripucka, Jackson and Woolridge, senior captains Dave Batton and Don “Duck” Williams and future NBA star Bill Laimbeer. Yet Branning joined Rivers and Tripucka as the lone Irish players to average double-figure scoring all four of their seasons under Phelps.