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Digger Phelps talks to players in a league he organized last summer as part of a South Bend effort to curb youth street violence.

Ex-Notre Dame coach Phelps helps curb youth violence

My town, South Bend, and Fort Wayne have a lot in common: Proud histories of proud, hard-working people who built communities in northern Indiana and always bounced back from adversity, whether it be river flooding, loss of major employers or the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Great sports towns, too. When I coached basketball at Notre Dame, I appreciated the Fort Wayne fans who traveled to our Joyce Center to join in the loud, spirited atmosphere that provided a home court advantage as we upset No. 1-ranked teams.

There is something else in common now.

Youth violence.

When I returned to my South Bend home after the 2012 NCAA Final Four, ready to relax after a season of travel and basketball analysis for ESPN, I was shocked by an April 10 front-page story in The South Bend Tribune.

Headline: "City sees youth violence spike." The story told of five young people shot in three violent incidents. One died. In earlier incidents, three teenagers were killed by gunfire.


This was my town. Not Chicago. Not New York.

No time to relax. Something had to be done.

And I went to work to do it.

We packed an auditorium with 700 people for a "Town Hall Meeting to Stop Youth Violence."

Public officials, educators, police officials, bankers, business executives, union leaders, members of the clergy, social service representatives and folks from the areas where bullets were flying took interest and took action in various ways.

We sought to expand mentoring of at-risk kids, provide more afterschool activities during danger hours right after kids leave school, encourage responsible neighborhood watch efforts and get dropouts into alternative schools and off of dead-end, violent streets.

I started a basketball league for at-risk kids. By January, there were 140 boys and young men, ages 16-24, participating. I bought the uniforms and equipment because I didn't want them going out to raise money in ways we discouraged.

Did we halt crime? Of course not. There's no magic solution. But our efforts helped.

What was shaping up as a violent summer saw fewer shootings. The Tribune wrote that there was only one homicide between the April town hall meeting and the end of the year.

Fort Wayne residents no doubt are shocked when they read stories in The Journal Gazette about shootings in their town.

On Sept. 27, a Journal Gazette story told of a fatal shooting at a Fort Wayne apartment complex and tallied it as the fourth shooting in eight days, the second fatal one.

Fort Wayne, like South Bend, isn't immune to youth violence. No city is in these days of gangs, drugs and widespread availability of guns.

Using what I've learned about combating youth violence, with experience going back to when I headed the anti-crime Operation Weed and Seed for President George H.W. Bush, I now coach the streets. We need to offer positive alternatives for the at-risk kids. We need to find a hook for these kids to hang onto to pull themselves out of a deadly trap on violent streets.

The hook could be basketball. I've seen success, getting troubled kids to stay in high school to play basketball – and get an education and an opportunity in life. I've seen success in persuading a dropout to get serious about basketball and education, get a high school diploma, go on to college, get on the college basketball team and earn needed financial assistance. I've seen failure with a kid I helped again and again. He showed promise, made promises. He finally committed a serious crime that will mean prison, not college.

Can't win 'em all.

Every community can find some hook to help troubled kids.

In New Orleans, known for great food, I promoted and prodded and pushed for turning an old, hurricane-damaged high school into a new culinary school. We were successful. That new school will offer a culinary hook, providing an opportunity to learn both culinary and academic skills for jobs and college.

In Memphis, "Music City," the hook is music. I've worked to promote Soulsville Charter School. The kids there are hooked on music, education and opportunity. I was honored to be a commencement speaker there for a class in which all 51 graduating seniors were accepted for college, with scholarships totaling more than $3.2 million.

A South Bend high school has training for careers in medical care as a hook.

I offer a smorgasbord of programs, ideas and concepts for combating youth violence in a book titled "Coaching the Streets." My hope is that cities with violence problems will find some things that could help. Fort Wayne and South Bend have something in common with cities all across the nation – the need to explore what might work and to come up with a game plan to make a difference.

Richard “Digger” Phelps, basketball coach at the University of Notre Dame for 20 years, is now an ESPN basketball analyst and author of “Coaching the Streets.” The book is available at,, ACTA and Hammes Notre Dame Bookstore. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.