1978 Irish squad recognized 40 years after Notre Dame’s lone Final Four appearance
Benjamin Padanilam | Monday, February 12, 2018
In its storied 112-year history, Notre Dame has seen its men’s teams rack up over 1,800 wins and qualify for the NCAA tournament 36 times, both top-10 marks in NCAA history.
In the last three seasons alone, the Irish have won an ACC postseason title and advanced to the Elite Eight twice.
Yet, only one team in the program’s history can boast that it made the Final Four. And on Saturday, that group was honored for its achievement 40 years ago.
The 1978 Irish squad certainly did not have an easy road to get to that Final Four — it played 12 games against teams that finished ranked in the season’s final poll, including eight that finished ranked among the poll’s top-nine teams. It handed UCLA its only two losses of the regular season, and it took down the defending national champs, Marquette, on the backs of a 14-point comeback. Playing without a conference affiliation at the time, Notre Dame was able to put together a schedule that featured 11 20-win teams and a combined .656 winning percentage by its opponents.
But if you ask anyone from that team to reflect on that season, the toughness of its schedule was welcome preparation for the defining postseason run that would ensue.
“Being an independent school and playing at Pauley Pavilion, playing in Michigan, going down south and playing at Kentucky — we were able to touch base on all those conferences so that when it came time for us for the NCAA, we were well equipped to play against teams that weren’t in our particular area,” Tracy Jackson, who was a freshman on the ’78 team, said Saturday.
“I don’t think it was one situation or necessarily one game — it was competing, playing for a national program and doing it consistently,” Kelly Tripucka, another freshman on the squad, said. “ … At that time, we were an independent. We played anybody, anywhere, anytime.”
But that ’78 team had the talent to take on that challenge. Its roster would produce 10 NBA draft selections over the next four years, and those 10 players would combine for 3,691 games and 46,618 points at the professional level.
Yet, the most well-known member of that team — and the only one in Notre Dame’s Ring of Honor from the group — did not suit up for a single game that season; well, at least not in a uniform. Digger Phelps manned the sideline for the Irish during some of its most successful seasons, and the ’78 squad might have been his best work of them all. With the grueling schedule his team played, Phelps was the one tasked with ensuring the Irish showed up for each and every game — and it was a task he succeeded in more often than not.
“One thing about Digger was this: Fun guy to be around, but as far as a motivator, I thought he was one of the top coaches as far as getting us up for the games,” Jackson said. “I mean, we came in here in this arena, we played UCLA — we came out with green socks, green shoes; we came down from the stands for the games; and of course, the student body here and the fans here were just so supportive. … It was unbelievable.”
And it was that same sellout crowd — at least for one more game — the team was reunited in front of Saturday to the tune of a resounding round of applause. But Saturday wasn’t just about reminiscing on what they accomplished; it was also an opportunity just to reconnect in a way they don’t often get the opportunity to do with one another.
“It’s nice to be back. … I haven’t seen a lot of these guys in quite a bit,” Tripucka said. “Every once in a while, I run into a few of them, but this is probably the first time since we were back in school where most of us were together. … The fact that most of us are here is a lot of fun. We still kind of fall right back into the same routine, the same stories and we still have to deal with Digger.”
“It’s awesome seeing all of my former teammates and having an opportunity to reminisce with them about all the crazy things that we did not only on the court, but off the court,” Stan Wilcox, another freshman on that ’78 team, said. “The fish stories get bigger and bigger, and I just love seeing these guys. We don’t get together often enough … but when we can come back together for something like this, it’s great.”
The recognition that came with the get together didn’t hurt either, though, as Tripucka said he thinks sometimes the team doesn’t get the credit it deserves; after all, not a single player on that squad has a place in the Ring of Honor, and it’s often forgotten the impact that group had on the program and its future.
“I think, sometimes, we’ve become the forgotten team,” Tripucka said. “It’s been 40 years, time flies by and people forget about you to a certain extent. But when you look at the four years, particularly when I was here, and how much we won and there were sellouts every single night — that doesn’t happen now. Out of sight, out of mind sometimes is too bad, but at the same time, when people start to reminisce and realize how good we were and how good this team was that particular year … there’s no questioning how good we were and how good these guys were.”
And part of being forgotten comes from falling just a little short of the ultimate prize, making the moment, as Tripucka put it, “bittersweet.” But even that can’t take away from what the ’78 group accomplished, even 40 years later and the recent resurgence the program has seen the last three years.
“I just wish we were hear together celebrating a national championship rather than just a Final Four team,” Tripucka said. “But hey, you look at it, we’re still 40 years later, the only team ever to get to the Final Four.”