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Digger Phelps

Father Theodore Hesburgh was Notre Dame's president from 1952 to 1987, but his influence extended beyond the university'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 that he influenced was Richard "Digger" Phelps, Notre Dame's men's basketball coach from 1971 to 1991 and now author of Father Ted Hesburgh: He Coached Me. Father Ted, who died in 2015, would have celebrated his 100th birthday on May 25, 2017. 

The smartest frontcourt player I ever had also flunked out of Notre Dame. Fortunately, he came back ... and graduated on time with his class.

Father Ted Hesburgh: He Coached Me Book Cover

Bill Laimbeer scored in the upper 10 percent on the SAT when he graduated from Palos Verdes High School in Los Angeles, Calif. But, when he came to Notre Dame he didn't think going to class was that important. He enjoyed going to the pool hall in the basement of the Student Union and the Notre Dame golf course at the edge of campus more than to class.

At the end his first semester and just days after he had a breakout game off the bench at UCLA, Laimbeer had a GPA between the 1.6 that would have allowed him to keep playing under NCAA rules, but not at the 2.0 needed to be eligible at Notre Dame.

We checked class attendance, but I was not of the opinion that we should go over to the dorm and walk him to class. He had to learn to be responsible, even if he flunked out.

It was a shame, because he was our third leading scorer and second leading rebounder at the time he became ineligible. He scored 15 points and had 14 rebounds against Manhattan in his last game that season (1975-76). Looking back, this was a team that had Adrian Dantley and other top players and could have gone to the Final Four.

With the games taken away from him we figured he would get his act together in the second semester and be ready to go for the 1976- 77 season. We were wrong, as he did not cut it in the classroom in the spring either.

With two consecutive probation semesters, he was dismissed from school. But when he left he told me he wanted to come back to Notre Dame.

He transferred to Owens Technical School in Toledo, which was near his family's home. His dad was very successful in the business world, as he owned a corrugated box company. In fact, when Bill went to the NBA he was the only player in the league whose father made more money than he did.

Bill Laimbeer

I went to bat for Bill with Father Hesburgh.

Father Ted made the decision that he needed to get a 3.0 at Owens and then he would consider letting him return. Bill made the 3.0. Hesburgh then said he needed to come to summer school at Notre Dame and get two A's. Bill did that, and in August of 1977 he was readmitted.

That year we went to the Final Four for the only time in history, and his last year we went to the Regional Finals before we ran into Magic Johnson and Michigan State. He scored 509 points and had 433 rebounds in his 69 games at Notre Dame. I thought he could make it in the NBA as a center, but I never dreamed he would help lead Detroit to two world championships.

That was a great example of how Hesburgh worked. He was going to make Bill work to get back into Notre Dame and make him realize the value of a Notre Dame education. It was a maturing process as much as an educational one for Bill and it is a reason he has been successful since he graduated as a player, a coach and in the business world.

-- Excerpted by permission from Father Ted Hesburgh: He Coached Me by Digger Phelps With Tim Bourret. Copyright (c) 2017. Published by Triumph Books. Available for purchase from the publisher, Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Follow Digger Phelps on Twitter @DiggerPhelps. Follow Tim Bourret on Twitter @TimBourret.