Digger Phelps, in town for College GameDay, is already quite familiar with the Palestra – from the 1960s

Digger Phelps, in town for College GameDay, is already quite familiar with the Palestra – from the 1960s

There are many things you can read to get excited for today’s Palestra visit from the ESPN College GameDay Crew, starting with this ESPN.com piece from Dana O’Neill on everyone’s favorite retired Palestra custodian, Dan Harrell, and ending (key word: ending) with Nick Menta’s writeup about T-shirts or something for The Level.

But what you probably won’t see in any of the pieces about the Palestra is the interesting connection that College GameDay commentator Digger Phelps has to the glorious old building on 33rd Street.

Well, aside from this Tweet from Rece Davis, who brought to light Phelps’ past life as an assistant basketball coach from Penn in the late 1960s.


Luckily, as The 700 Level’s beat writer on Penn assistant coaches from the late 1960s, I can share a few stories on Phelps’ time at the Palestra, having interviewed him (and a few of his old players) for this piece I wrote a few years ago on the 1970-71 Penn basketball team that won every game until getting trounced in the NCAA tournament by Villanova. (It’s entitled “Almost Perfect” but I can assure you the story itself is PERFECT, so you should read the whole damn thing).

So for all of you diehard Digger fans out here, here are a few highlights:

  • Tom Petroff is the reason that Phelps was a successful coach at Notre Dame for a couple of decades and is now that guy on ESPN that matches the color of his highlighters to his tie. Who’s Tom Petroff? He was the Rider baseball coach while Phelps played basketball there, and knowing Digger quite well, he demanded that his friend Dick Harter hire Phelps as an assistant when Harter took over the Penn basketball program in 1966. Harter agreed and now Digger’s face is on the side of the College GameDay bus. Thank you, Tom Petroff.
  • Although Phelps left Penn after the 1969-70 season to take the head coaching job at Fordham and then Notre Dame, he recruited many of the star players on the 1970-71 Quakers team that, at one point, was ranked No. 3 in the nation. One of those players was Bob Morse, who he watched play at Kennett High School alongside future Sixers coach Jim Lynam (then an assistant at St. Joe’s) one day. Lynam didn’t like Morse because he was a big man shooting jump shots – at which point Phelps told him, “Wow, I like him because he’s a scorer and can shoot from the perimeter.” Morse went on to became an all-time great at Penn and one of the best players in European basketball history, while Lynam will forever be haunted by passing on him (probably not).
  • He drove a little red Mustang on his all of his recruiting visits. (You're welcome for this truly remarkable detail.)
  • Early in Phelps’ tenure at Penn, he remembers seeing a sign from an opposing team that said “Big 4 and Penn,” as if to indicate Penn was worse than the other four city schools. The nerve! But Digger had the last laugh. After Penn went a perfect 4-0 in the Big 5 in 1969-70, he turned to the late, great Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Frank Dolson on press row at the Palestra and said, “Do you remember that sign from a few years ago? Yeah, they were right. It is the Big 4 – and Penn.” Do you get it? Because the Quakers were in a league of their own!
  • Digger also coached the freshman team at Penn (freshmen couldn’t play on the varsity back then), and on the first day of practice in 1968, he gathered his players at the center of the Palestra floor – a group that included Morse, future NBA star Corky Calhoun and a player named Alan Cotler (who told me this juicy story about Digger’s glorious disdain for Princeton – Penn’s biggest rival). “He pointed an index finger at each of our chests and said, ‘I just want you guys to know one thing,'” Cotler told me. “You’re at Penn now for one [bleeping] reason – and that’s to beat the [bleeping] Tigers.”

Someone please bring a sign that says that to the Palestra today.

Tranquillo Barnetta will not return to Union next season

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USA Today Images

Tranquillo Barnetta will not return to Union next season

Tranquillo Barnetta is going home.

In an abrupt announcement on Tuesday, the Union declared that the skillful Swiss attacking midfielder will not renew his contract with the club and will return to Switzerland following the 2016 season to play for his hometown club, FC St. Gallen.

According to MLS Players Union, Barnetta’s exit will free the Union of $687,500 next season.

“The entire soccer community here was so welcoming and I’m so thankful to everyone at Philadelphia Union for making me feel so appreciated,” Barnetta said. “Playing in front of my friends and family and making plans for life at the end of my career where I want to live is a force I can’t resist.”

Although the timing of the announcement is a surprise, the move isn’t one. With Alejandro Bedoya now in the mix, currently playing out of position in a box-to-box midfield role, the Union will replace Barnetta with Bedoya at the center attacking midfield spot. It’s a position that Bedoya is comfortable in, playing there with his previous club, FC Nantes.

Bedoya played for the injured Barnetta in the center midfield spot last Saturday and scored his first goal of the season in a 1-1 draw with Toronto FC.

But even with Bedoya ready to take over, the Union will miss Barnetta. Since joining the Union in 2015, Barnetta, 31, has been one of the better possession playmakers in MLS, scoring six goals and seven assists in 37 games.

“Tranquillo has been a key piece in what we’re trying to build here in Philadelphia but we appreciate his decision to return to Switzerland,” said Union sporting director Earnie Stewart, whose club has three matches left in the 2016 season, and will likely make the playoffs. “We look forward to continuing to push for the postseason.”

As Eagles enter bye, Doug Pederson aims to thwart complacency

As Eagles enter bye, Doug Pederson aims to thwart complacency

The Eagles are 3-0. They’re alone atop the NFC East and have been the biggest surprise of the young NFL season.

Doug Pederson’s message to his team: You haven’t done anything yet.

Although the Eagles are riding high, Pederson doesn’t want his team to change its outlook or hard work. That’s what teams have to worry about once they’ve found some success.

“The biggest thing is complacency,” Pederson said Monday. “You think you've arrived. You think you are all that. When that creeps in, that's when you get beat. It's my job not to let that creep in. I've got to keep the guys focused and grounded. I told them this week they're going to travel and go home and people are going to pat them on the back and say how great they are.

“But next Monday, I'm going to tell them, ‘Hey, we're back to work. We're 0-0. This is Game 1 and let's go.’ That's just the way it has to be. You are building for one ultimate goal and that's a few weeks down the road. That's what you are trying to get to. But you can't get there unless you take care of the next opponent. It's my job to keep them focused that way.”

Being 3-0 (they’re one of five 3-0 teams) gives the Eagles a head start, but it certainly doesn’t guarantee them a playoff spot. This is the ninth 3-0 start in franchise history. They’ve made the playoffs just five times in the previous eight. And they recently missed the playoffs after starting 3-0 in 2014 under Chip Kelly.

In NFL history (before this season), there have been 276 teams to start with 3-0 records. Of them, 200 (72.3 percent) have made the playoffs.

“We just have to approach it the same, one day at a time,” Pederson said. “That's the way this business goes. You are on top of the world one minute, and you can be at the bottom of the heap the next. Just got to keep things even-keeled and can't get too high, can't get too low. Approach it the same. Like I mentioned earlier, you can't substitute for hard work. That pays off on Sundays. We just have to stay the course. Again, a lot of football left.”

While the Week 4 bye comes pretty early, the Eagles have a couple key players who will use the time to get healthy. And Connor Barwin pointed out that the bye is coming about closer to the halfway point between when the team started its tough training camp and the end of the season.

Pederson told his players to use the week to get away from football and free their minds. Meanwhile, Pederson and his coaches will use the extra time to self-scout and prepare for the final 13 games of the regular season.

With a first-year head coach and a rookie quarterback who was thrust into action a week before the opener, expectations outside (and perhaps inside) the building were tempered.

The Eagles aren’t an underdog anymore.

“We kind of enjoyed flying under the radar, but obviously a win like this against a team like the Steelers will open some eyes around the league,” Malcolm Jenkins said. “For us, nothing different. We’ll keep our preparation the same. We’ll stick our heads down and focus on the work day to day and understand what’s gotten us to 3-0.”

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