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Digger Phelps: From the court to the canvas

Legendary Notre Dame basketball coach Richard 'Digger' Phelps is well known for his achievements on the court.

During his 20 seasons as head coach at Notre Dame, Digger won 393 games and led Notre Dame to their only Final Four appearance in 1978.

Digger stepped away from the game in 1991 and stepped into the broadcasting booth where the New York native thrived and was best known for his matching tie/highlighter combinations.

After retiring from hoops it was coincidence that led this colorful coach from the court to the canvas.

"In the early 70s I went to London then to Paris and I saw live and in color, Van Goh. And I became a Van Goh freak," Digger said.

As it turned out on a trip to New York a run-in with another legendary name would prove to be paramount for this future painter.

"As I'm riding on the bus, I see LeRoy Neiman and his wife Janet sitting in a seat by themselves," Digger said.

Neiman was best known for his colorful, expressionist paintings depicting sports and famous figures.

"So I told LeRoy, I'm on the rules committee for the NCAA and I'm bored at those meetings so I sketch French vineyards. He says, 'Why don't you paint?' He said, 'Yeah take up painting,'" Digger said.

Digger came back to South Bend and with the help of a local artist painted his first masterpiece.

"And I did five or six more and shipped them to New York for LeRoy to see. And I took two bottles of wine to West 67th Street where he lived at Hotel des Arts. We talked about my art for 15 minutes, and talked about the world and drank the wine for two hours. But I never stopped from that moment on," Digger said.

For a quarter century now- the former coach paints 2 pieces a month from April to November in a make-shift studio built above his garage.

He paints mountains, sunsets and skies, drawing from influences throughout the world.

"About 15 years ago I said I got to paint in France. If it's Mattise in Niece, Van Goh in Arl, It's going to be Degas in Niece," Digger said.

Digger paints 3 a year there and ships them home.

"Most of my paintings have orange in them. Then maybe some green, purple, yellow. Then you offset it by blending them. I always said this about painting. It's in all of us. But we are scared because of all the great artists," Digger said.

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