Father Ted Hesburgh: He Coached Me

Father Ted Hesburgh: He Coached Me

by Tim Bourret, Digger Phelps


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The University of Notre Dame is a special place, regarded by many as the world’s top Catholic institution of higher learning. Yet its modern reputation for excellence and service is only part of the legacy of Father Theodore Hesburgh, the university’s president from 1952 to 1987. Father Ted’s influence extended beyond Notre Dame’s campus in Northern Indiana. He worked with presidents, Popes, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and his guidance resulted in nuclear nonproliferation, immigration reform, and civil rights legislation. One of the many Domers influenced by Father Ted was Richard “Digger” Phelps, Notre Dame’s men’s basketball coach from 1971 to 1991. Phelps gives readers a seat at the table with Father Ted, from the basketball locker room in the 1970s to Father Ted’s final Mass before he passed away in 2015. This account is an intimate portrait of an unlikely friendship and a rare look at the private moments of a man Digger often describes as “a living saint.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781629374734
Publisher: Triumph Books
Publication date: 06/01/2017
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 579,071
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Richard “Digger” Phelps won 393 games in 20 seasons as the men's basketball coach at the University of Notre Dame. Since his retirement from coaching, he provided national commentary on college basketball for CBS and ESPN. Phelps lives in South Bend, Indiana, near the Notre Dame campus. Tim Bourret is the football Sports Information Director for the Clemson Sports Communications Office. A Notre Dame alum, he previously worked in the Notre Dame sports information office and traveled with Digger Phelps and the Fighting Irish to the 1978 Final Four. He is the coauthor of Tales from the Notre Dame Fighting Irish Locker Room and Basketball for Dummies. He lives in Seneca, South Carolina

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Father Ted Hesburgh: He Coached Me

By Digger Phelps, Tim Bourret

Triumph Books LLC

Copyright © 2017 Digger Phelps and Tim Bourret
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-63319-860-9



On Tuesday, February 24, 2015 one of my former managers at Notre Dame, Mike Gurdak, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., went on one of the internet sites that covers Notre Dame and saw someone had posted that Father Ted Hesburgh was gravely ill.

So I called him. "Mike, that's not true," I said because I just didn't want to hear that. I didn't want to face it.

I immediately called Melanie Chapleau, who had served as Father Ted's office assistant the last 28 years. "What's going on with Father Ted?" She said, "Well, he's okay, but he's over at the Holy Cross House."

There were times when Father Ted had health issues, but after a week or two, he would bounce back and would be good for six months.

But in the winter he had to hibernate to some degree. He just couldn't go many places because of the South Bend weather. Once in a while, Melanie and others would take him to his office across campus on the 13th floor of the library named in his honor.

So, that day I went to the 11:30 a.m. Mass at Holy Cross House, which is where most of the priests live. That is the time they concelebrate mass each weekday. As he was coming in with his nurse in a wheelchair, I put my hand out, leaned down and said, "Fr. Ted, it's Digger."

He said to me, "Pray for me."

That hit me, It was the first time in 44 years he said that to me. I still tear up today when I think about him saying that to me. I had asked him to pray for me many times and he had given me special blessings and guidance when I was going through prostate and bladder cancer within the last six years.

I got myself together and said, "That's why I am here."

He went up front with the other priests where he always sat to concelebrate the Mass.

After Mass, I waited for him and said, "I said prayers for you today."

I then said, "Please, give me a blessing!" So he took his thumb and blessed me on the forehead.

He went into the cafeteria and I spoke with Jim and Mary, his brother and sister-in-law in the hallway outside.

All of a sudden the nurse came out and said to me, "He wants to talk to you. Come inside."

So I went inside and sat down at his table next to him. Father Don McNeill was sitting there also and when I sat down, Father Don said to Father Hesburgh, "Oh, you've got the coach that beat UCLA here to see you."

"Forget UCLA," I said. "Father Ted was 7-0 on our bench. Remember when we beat No. 1 DePaul in double overtime, Father? He was there for that one too."

I went into my pep talk mode.

"We're going to win this." He said, "Win what?" I said, "This game with your health. We have to keep you strong and keep praying. You're going to be fine. The weather is bad now, but it is going to get better. We just need to get you to the spring. You just have to take care and make sure you're eating and keeping your strength up."

I then said, "By the way, your hometown team beat Notre Dame last night."

Father Hesburgh was from Syracuse, NY and Jim Boeheim's team had beaten the Irish the previous night in an upset at Notre Dame. He replied, "I heard that."

We visited for about 20 minutes. His mind was still sharp and he knew what was going on. That was a good sign to me, but I decided I wanted to go to this Mass every day and see him.

The next day, Wednesday Feb. 25, 2015, I went back to the 11:30 a.m. service. I had gone to these Masses before through Jim Gibbons, who worked for Father Hesburgh in many capacities in public relations, event planning and fund raising. He was a student-athlete, baseball and basketball coach in the 1950s and 1960s, then went into administration.

He is a Notre Dame institution.

Now retired, he still came to these Masses each day and served as a defacto altar boy, assisting the priests with the various duties during the Mass. The only other people there besides the priests were members of Father Hesburgh's family.

On this day, I told Father Ted that Linda (Costas) my fiancée, whom he knew, said hello. After Mass I again went into the dining room and sat next to him.

"You're the Godfather of the Civil Rights Act," I said. "You're the one who got me coaching the streets."

He smiled and said to me, "I want you to keep coaching the streets." He was still motivating me. That was his mission with so many. He was the master motivator over the years, but more on that later.

He just sat and looked from his wheelchair at the table. I continued the conversation.

"Remember when I came to get a blessing before my bladder cancer surgery? After you blessed me before the bladder cancer surgery you said, 'Digger, have the courage.'

I always remembered that and keep that note in my wallet to this day." Have the courage.

Keeping that note makes me feel like Fr. Hesburgh is there with me. On this day, I wanted him to know that.

So, I said to him before I left, "Father Ted, have the courage."

As I left I just kept thinking he would be OK. It didn't seem like anything specifically was wrong. He just had a cold like he had before and was a little down. I still kept positive and believed he would get through it.

On Wednesday night, Linda asked if she could go to the Thursday Mass. I thought about it and said, "Sure, I will pick you up from work." Linda has a position in Notre Dame administration in human resources.

I still remember the first time I brought Linda to meet Father Ted in his office on the 13th floor of the Hesburgh Library.

Linda is Jewish, but she knew all about Fr. Hesburgh and his legacy as Notre Dame's longest serving president from 1952-87 and his impact on civil rights in this country.

When we walked in, Fr. Hesburgh was behind his desk smoking a Cuban cigar. I didn't know if it was one of the cigars I had gotten him, but I always tried to keep him stocked. Smoking a good Cuban cigar was one his private passions.

One of the first things I said that day as I looked out his office window at the Blessed Mother on the Golden Dome was, "Mary was Jewish. Jesus was Jewish. Mary Magdalene was Jewish. Linda is Jewish. Linda is my Mary Magdalene."

He started looking at me with a "Where are you going with this?" expression.

"Father, they were all Jewish back then."

He went to her and blessed her on the forehead and said, "You're going to need that with this guy."

She thought she had just met the Pope and didn't wash her forehead for three days.

You talk about things happening for a reason at a certain place and time! There are spiritual powers.

We arrived at the chapel on Thursday morning and Fr. Ted came in the door in his wheelchair at that exact moment. I said, "Father, it's Digger and I have Linda here today."

He could hardly see because he was limited by macular degeneration, but he could see the shadow of her figure. He said to her, "Give me a kiss." He kissed her right on the lips. I told his brother Jim and Mary Hesburgh, who were sitting in the last row, "He's fine, he's kissing Linda on the lips."

When Linda sat down, she started to cry and said, "After I kissed him he asked me to pray for him."

That was one of the great ironies of that last day. One of the last persons Fr. Hesburgh kissed was Jewish.

That day after mass, Fr. Ted didn't go to the dining room. He went straight upstairs. He was too sick to eat.

That night, around 2 a.m. I woke up and could not sleep. I couldn't stop thinking about Fr. Ted.

Linda woke up also and looked at e-mail on her cell phone. One of her e-mails said that Father Ted had passed away. I checked my cell phone and sure enough Melanie had called me a little after 11:30 p.m. to give me the difficult news.

"Hi Digger, it's Melanie. Father Ted died tonight about 11:30 pm. I just thought I would let you and Linda know."

I still have that message on my phone.

It was one of those moments that you just don't want to believe, you don't want to accept.

Obviously, I couldn't get to sleep because I was just thinking about all he had done for Notre Dame and for me personally. There was a Sports Illustrated story on Notre Dame athletics during the 1980s and much of it centered around Father Hesburgh and Father Edmond Joyce, who was the executive vice president in control of athletics. They worked together for 35 years. The article was entitled "Casting a Special Light." That's what Hesburgh had been to me since I first came to campus in 1971. He had been my guiding light for 44 years.

Over night students gathered at the Grotto. They lit candles and placed them in a formation at the left wing of the grotto that spelled "Ted". Later many other students locked arms and sang the alma mater (you can watch it on Youtube).

Notre Dame students honored Father Hesburgh by lighting candles at the Grotto spelling "TED" in the early morning hours of 2/27/2015.

The local news had live reports from campus early in the morning with reaction from students, staff and faculty. There were expressions of sorrow from leaders from all over the country. A resolution was adopted on the floor of the House and Senate, a movement led by Senator Joe Donnelly from Indiana, a Notre Dame graduate.

Donnelly was also one of 12 speakers at a memorial service for Father Hesburgh in the Athletic and Convocation Center's Purcell Pavilion the night of the funeral. The other speakers included Dr. Condoleezza Rice and former President Jimmy Carter.

I went to Mass Friday at Holy Cross House and it was therapeutic in that it was all about giving thanks for Father Ted's life and what he had meant to all these priests. It occurred to me and many of the priests at that Mass, that Father Ted had done something on his last day of life that he always wished for.

He told many that he wanted to say Mass on his last day of life. No matter where he was in the world, he said Mass every day. He had done that as a concelebrant on his last day, and I was privileged to be there.

I spent much of the weekend doing interviews about Father Hesburgh's incredible life, legacy and my personal reflections. All three local television stations, University of Notre Dame media, the South Bend Tribune and others asked for my reflection on Father Ted's life. I held it together for most of the time, but had to take a break a few times when I was overcome with emotion. But, it was good to talk about him and get my emotions out.

The Wake

Tuesday, March 3, 2015 was the wake at Sacred Heart Basilica. He was to lie in state in front of the altar for 24 hours. The constant procession of people from all walks of life was incredible. The media estimated that 12,000 people came through Sacred Heart during the 24 hours.

Linda and I were there at 3 pm on Tuesday when they brought the casket in. We entered from the right side of the church, the entrance nearest the Golden Dome (Administrationbuilding).

It was an open casket and as soon as I saw Fr. Ted I just lost it. I must have cried hysterically for 10 minutes. Seeing him in that state was just such a shock. He is gone. It just struck me so sharply. He had been such an influence on me, professionally, personally and spiritually. And I was just one of so many on this campus that followed his example. Just like there were disciples of Jesus, I was a disciple of Hesburgh.

The way I coached, the work I have done in the streets, that all came from Hesburgh. And he had that impact on so many people around the world.

Father Hesburgh and I talked many hours about one of the unique aspects of Jesus's life was that there were women involved throughout. There was Mary of Bethlehem, his mother, and Mary Magdalene, the woman from Magdala, who was there for his crucifixion and resurrection. So the life of Jesus, he was surrounded by two women, both named Mary.

At his death there were three women, Mary, wife of Clopas, Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene.

At Father Hesburgh's death, there were three women, Micki Kidder, Associate Vice President and Executive Director of Development, Breyan Tornifolio, who works in the Notre Dame administration, and Katherine Lane, Senior Director of Special Events and Stewardship.

Breyan was around the casket and Katherine was ushering the family members during the wake. Micki was in many ways in charge of the entire operation from the university standpoint. They were all a major part of all the services. Father Hesburgh would have been proud.

Father Hesburgh loved a good Cuban Cigar so I called Father Austin Collins, who was a close friend of Father Ted's and was a big part of the organization of the wake and the funeral. He had gone to Cuba previously and brought Father Hesburgh back some Cuban cigars. Even in his final days he found a way to find a quiet place to smoke one now and then.

I told Austin, "You have to put one of those Cuban cigars in the casket with him." So, just before they brought Father Ted to the Basilica for the wake, Father Collins put one of those cigars in his left sleeve coat pocket.

After I spent my final moments with Father Ted at the wake, I ran into John Zack, who runs the Basilica. I had two medals, the St. Jude medal and Mary on the Dome, Father Hesburgh had blessed both for me. I said, "Take these two medals and put them with him in the casket, because he blessed them."

I saw John the next day before the funeral Mass and said, "Don't let me down with those medals?" He told me, "They are in there .... right next to the cigar."

The Funeral

When we had a big game coming up or after a big win over a top team I referred to them as "Notre Dame Moments." The Hesburgh Funeral, the entire day, was "The Notre Dame Moment."

The sanctity of the service, with 115 members of the clergy, including six bishops as well as Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington, D.C, and Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop emeritus of Los Angeles, was so memorable. It was a service in a perfect place, Sacred Heart Basilica, that represented the true spirit of Notre Dame. It was just a perfect way to honor Father Hesburgh.

Dignitaries attending the service ranged from politicians and civic leaders to Notre Dame coaches and benefactors. Leaders of the Congregation of Holy Cross also attended. Fr. Richard V. Warner, superior general of the Congregation, came from Rome, and Fr.

Thomas J. O'Hara, provincial superior of the U.S. province of the Congregation, was the principal celebrant.

All classes after 12:20 p.m. were cancelled so the students could view the 2 p.m. service from the DeBartolo Auditorium. Many of them watched, but many lined up on the procession route to the Holy Cross Community Cemetery.

For those of us at the funeral or the 10,000 that went to the memorial service at the Joyce Athletic Center that night, it gave closure. For me that closure came at the wake when I saw him in the casket.

Father John I. Jenkins, the current Notre Dame President, gave the eulogy during the service and Jim Hesburgh made some remarks on behalf of the family at the end of the service. It lasted an hour and 40 minutes.

Jenkins said Father Hesburgh would be remembered for four areas of his leadership because he was a great American and a great citizen of the world.

"How can we draw together the strands of a life that spanned so many years, served in so many realms, and touched so many lives?" Fr. Jenkins said.

"Fr. Ted gave us the answer. He was, first and foremost, a priest. That vocation drove him to build a great Catholic university, it gave his work in the public life its moral focus, it shaped his generosity in all his personal interactions.

"Fr. Ted often spoke of a priest as a pontifex, a Latin word that translates as 'bridge builder.' He modeled this role of a priest who builds bridges between people to draw them together to serve the common good and builds a bridge between human beings and God.

"But the most important thing he gave us at Notre Dame was the vision to be a great Catholic research university and the confidence to realize that dream. In all he did, Fr. Ted's leadership sought to strengthen Notre Dame into a truly great, truly Catholic university."

Fr. Jenkins' eulogy also summarized many of the events of Fr. Hesburgh's public leadership, including his work on behalf of the Civil Rights Movement, immigration, nuclear arms and human suffering.

"His work in the public realm was driven by moral concerns about civil and human rights, peace and serving the needs of the poorest. He was often regarded as the conscience of the bodies on which he served."

Lastly, Jenkins spoke of the acts of kindness that Hesburgh demonstrated on everyone he met, actions that often went unheralded, but will be forever remembered by each individual.

"They are among the reasons, he is not only celebrated, but beloved," Fr. Jenkins said.

Father Jenkins then spoke of the situation he was in during the spring of 2009 when he invited President Barack Obama to campus for commencement. There was much criticism of the decision and Father Hesburgh had heard that Father Jenkins' mother was upset. So without telling Father Jenkins, Father Ted called his mother to calm her concerns.

Jim Hesburgh thanked the Notre Dame family for its outpouring of appreciation for his life. He told of one of Father Ted's axioms of life: "Mediocrity is not how we honor Our Lady."


Excerpted from Father Ted Hesburgh: He Coached Me by Digger Phelps, Tim Bourret. Copyright © 2017 Digger Phelps and Tim Bourret. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction vii

Chapter 1 The Final Week 1

Chapter 2 A Disciple of Father Hesburgh 28

Chapter 3 Hesburgh's Starting Five 49

Chapter 4 Hesburgh and Athletics 71

Chapter 5 Hesburgh, the Godfather of Civil Rights 94

Chapter 6 Running Notre Dame 120

Chapter 7 The Spirituality of the Hidden Crucifix 139

Chapter 8 The Medals 172

Chapter 9 The Hesburgh Stamp 187

Appendix: Hesburgh Honorary Degrees 202

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