So it’s hard to imagine he was virtually unknown in 1973, arriving as basketball coach at the University of Detroit Mercy.
He started in 1959 as an elementary school coach in Garfield, N.J., moved up to head coach at Garfield High School for one season and then to East Rutherford High School, his alma mater. In 1971, he joined Dick Lloyd’s coaching staff as an assistant at Rutgers.
Two year later, he went to Detroit and a four-year career that changed his life and Titans basketball. In 2011, the school even dedicated its basketball court to Vitale.
He led Detroit to the best season in school history in his final year. The Titans won a school-record 26 games, and reached the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16.
The Titans also won 21 consecutive games, the longest winning streak in school history. That last game in The Streak, as it came to be known, was the sports moment judged the greatest in school history.
It helped set in motion a game-changer in sports broadcast history.
On Feb. 19, 1977, 15th-ranked Detroit tangled with No. 6 Marquette in Milwaukee. Al McGuire’s team led most of the way, including 63-62 with 35 second remaining. With Marquette holding the ball – this was in the days before the shot clock – Terry Tyler swatted the ball away from Marquette’s Bo Ellis and grabbed the loose ball.
“I’m just glad nobody called a foul,” said Tyler after the game. “I think I may have hit him, but I know I also got the ball.”
The Titans played for the final shot and Dennis Boyd hit a 20-foot jumper at the buzzer for a 64-63 victory, Vitale’s first against McGuire.
“I haven’t been this choked up since I lost my eye when I was a kid,” Vitale said after the game.
Another memorable moment followed. The guy who promised to stand on his head if Austin Peay upset Illinois in the 1987 NCAA Tournament — and did — kept a promise he made to the Titans.
To help his players relax before the Marquette game, Vitale told them he would dance at center court after — not if — they won. When they did, Vitale recalled to the Associated Press in 2011, “The kids reminded me, ‘You said you were going to dance.’ So, I did a little Disco Dick for them.”
The victory against the eventual national champions helped send the Titans, who played then as an independent in NCAA Division I, to the Big Dance for the second time in school history.
Three future NBA players Vitale recruited to Detroit — Tyler, Terry Duerod and John Long — led the Titans to the Sweet 16 with a 93-76 rout of Middle Tennessee in the Mideast Region quarterfinals.
Next up was No. 1 Michigan, a team Vitale said would make the Titans “salivate” just at the thought of playing. “They would’ve died for the chance, but Michigan wouldn’t play us,” Vitale said in his book Living A Dream.
Now was their chance at the Mideast Region semifinals in Lexington, Ky. Before the game, Vitale spoke at a function attended by Scotty Connal, ESPN’s first head of production. After hearing Vitale, Connal made a note: “If I ever become head of a network and this guy’s not tied up, I want to give him a buzz.”
In the regional semifinal, Detroit nearly buzzed past Michigan. The Titans tied the game at 68 in the second half, but Michigan pulled away for an 86-81 victory. Long scored 25 points and Tyler added 17 for the Titans. Michigan’s Phil Hubbard set an NCAA Tournament record with 26 rebounds.
“Until my dying day, I will believe we cost Michigan that national championship because we played them in such an emotional, all-out Maalox Masher that went down to the final minute,” he said in Living A Dream. “We took so much out of them that they didn’t have anything left for UNC Charlotte and Cornbread Maxwell 36 hours later in the regional finals. They lost in a major upset.”
Vitale became Detroit’s athletic director following the season and left to become head coach of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons. After going 30-52 in Vitale’s first season, the Pistons started 4-8 in 1979 and Vitale was abruptly fired.
A couple weeks later, Connal gave Vitale a buzz and offered him a job at a fledgling sports network, ESPN. “That sounded like a disease,” Vitale said.
But after his wife talked him into it, Vitale accepted. He called ESPN’s first college basketball game — Wisconsin at DePaul on Dec. 5, 1979. He has called more than 1,000 since, with a passion that helped him get inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008.
There’s even an online glossary of Vitale terms and teams, including Diaper Dandy (top freshman) and All-Marco Polo Team (best transfer players).
“I can’t run, I can’t jump, I can’t shoot, and yet I’m in 10 Halls of Fame because of passion,” he told the AP in 2011. “Passion plus hard work ethic plus good decision making equals wins in the game of life.”
Above and middle: Dick Vitale coaching his Detroit players. (Courtesy University of Detroit Mercy Archives)
THIS WEEK’S GREATEST MOMENTS
• Tuesday: Dartmouth and Davidson
• Wednesday: Dayton and Delaware
• Thursday: Denver and Detroit
• Friday: The Web Show starring The Judge