Before he was awwwwwesome baaaaaby, Dick Vitale was a basketball coach, losing his voice screaming at his players, not about someone else’s.
Most of his coaching career was spent in Detroit, with the University of Detroit and briefly the Detroit Pistons.
Whether or not you like “Dickie V” depends on your capacity for withstanding Vitale’s manner of speech, which is punctuated with hyperbole, catch-phrases, and exclamation points. He’s famous for his squinty-eyed, raspy-voiced praise of former coaching legend “Robert Montgomery Knight” and young players who he describes as “diaper dandies” as a broadcaster on ESPN. But back in the 1970s, he had a part in a series of events that shaped the destiny of the Pistons and the Boston Celtics.
Yes, the Celtics.
After putting in time at a New Jersey high school and Rutgers University as an assistant, Vitale was hired as head coach of the U of D Titans in 1973. In four seasons with the Titans, Vitale built an exciting program that produced highlights on the hardwood. In his final year, in 1977, Vitale’s team won 21 straight games and advanced to the NCAA tournament after winning a school record 25 games. Once in the tourney they lost a hard-fought game to Michigan. The following summer, after a year as U of D’s athletic director, the Pistons lured Vitale to the suburbs to coach the team in their new home – the Pontiac Silverdome.
Only a head coach for four seasons prior to heading a call to The Association, Vitale was overmatched in dealing with NBA players. In his first season the team was built around Hall of Fame center Bob Lanier and swingman M.L. Carr. Lanier was an NBA veteran and he didn’t warm to Vitale’s rah-rah college style of coaching. The transition was made a bit easier for Dickie V by the presence of three of his former players from U of D – Dennis Boyd, John Long, and Terry Tyler. The Pistons under Vitale could put the ball in the hoop, but they had a very difficult time stopping the other team from scoring as well. They lost their first five games before getting Vitale his first NBA triumph against the Cavaliers on October 25, 1978. With Lanier, Carr, point guard Kevin Porter, and Long leading the way, the Pistons had seven players who averaged at least 11 PPG that year. They were an exciting team on their end of the court, and on March 9, 1979, they poured in 160 points in a rout of the Celtics at the Silverdome. But the team was too one-dimensional and they finished fourth in the Central Division with a 30-52 record.
After the season, Carr bolted the team via free agency, inking a deal with the Celtics, who had finished last with only 29 wins. In return for Carr the Pistons were entitled to compensation, and at Vitale’s suggestion they demanded forward Bob McAdoo in return. McAdoo was a great shooter who had won three scoring titles in the NBA already, but was coming off an injury. The Celtics asked for two 1980 draft picks in addition to Carr, which Vitale and the Pistons gladly coughed up.
Those two draft picks would end up bringing Robert Parish and Kevin McHale to Boston, and revitalizing the once proud franchise into a juggernaut. McAdoo played only parts of two seasons in Detroit.
Initially it looked as if the 1979-1980 Pistons would be an improved team – they won their first two games and three of four to start the season. Lanier, McAdoo, Tyler, and rookie Greg Kelser formed a solid front line rotation, but with the team at 4-8 after several disappointing losses, Vitale was axed in odd fashion. Team owner Bill Davidson showed up at his Dick’s house unannounced and told him the news in his kitchen. Vitale’s NBA coaching career was over after 94 games and just 34 victories. The 1979-1980 team would go on to win just 16 games in the worst season in Pistons history.
Though Vitale never coached again at any level, his impact was not forgotten by a few players who played under him.
“Dick Vitale was hard on me and he really pushed me,” Tyler said of his five seasons under the coach. “But I appreciate him more now for the work ethic he instilled and the way he created a sense of family. I realize now he was preparing me for life.”
After his exit from the head coaching ranks, Vitale was offered a job by ESPN, a fledgling cable TV network that was barely in 100,000 households nationwide and had a mission to be 24 hours of sports programming – an odd notion at that time. At first, Vitale resisted, since he knew nothing about broadcasting.
“I was a novice,” Vitale explained. “I didn’t know where the camera was or what I was supposed to do. But I knew how to talk about basketball.”
After calling the network’s first college game in December of 1979, ESPN made Vitale their top college hoops analyst and within a few years Vitale helped shape the network into a force. He became so popular on college campuses that students wore “Dickie V” bald wigs and mimicked his phrases. His name, likeness, and voice became synonymous with the sport.
“Mr. College Basketball” is so popular now that it’s hard to imagine college hoops without his over the top personality and legendary screaming into the microphone. Luckily for college hoops fans, Vitale’s brief NBA coaching career was unsuccessful, but he still serves as a footnote in the history of the Pistons, and ironically, that of the Celtics as well.