In Praise of Dickie V
Ex-Piston Terry Tyler stands by Vitale, ‘a great man’
That’s what Vitale’s most celebrated recruit while at the University of Detroit and one of the players he chose to be a building block with the Pistons, Terry Tyler, believes to be the case, at least.
“The NBA is a very, very demanding level,” Tyler said when we talked for the Throwback Thursday feature we launched on Pistons.com this week. “I think if the opportunity would have presented itself again, it could have worked out differently for him. Maybe he would have taken an assistant coaching job. Maybe he would have taken another approach and waited, took over a team where he could learn the system. It was just one of those situations where it just didn’t work out for him.”
Vitale stepped away from coaching following Tyler’s junior season at U of D, a 26-3 season that saw the Titans upset eventual national champion Marquette and win a game in the NCAA tournament during the days of the 32-team field, to become athletic director when stomach ulcers threatened his health. A year later, he took over as head coach of the Pistons, where he suddenly had 82 games to stew over.
Three games into his NBA career, Vitale needed a five-day hospital stay to address his condition. Twelve games into his second season, Bill Davidson drove to Vitale’s home and fired him over the kitchen table. Vitale still credits Davidson, perhaps only half-jokingly, with saving his life. Vitale, of course, landed with fledgling cable venture ESPN and has flourished over the past 30 years as the industry giant’s face of college basketball.
“I would never say the pressure got to him,” Tyler said. “He’s still the fiery personality he’s always been, especially on ESPN when he’s doing games. He’s still competitive. I think a part of him misses coaching a little bit. That’s just human. When I’m watching college or pro ball, I miss it. It still gets my juices flowing.
“He can be sitting there, especially when he’s announcing a Duke-North Carolina game, I guarantee you he gets a little juiced up. That’s just him. God bless him for that. I think that’s the thing he instilled in us. Getting ready for games wasn’t hard at all. Putting on our uniforms, lacing up our shoes, we were all business. We just were.”
Vitale proved a master promoter during his time at U of D – one of the things that appealed to Bill Davidson, about to move the Pistons to the cavernous Pontiac Silverdome – in turning the city and beyond on to Titans basketball. But his showmanship masked a solid basketball coach who above all got his players to play hard and play as one, Tyler remembers.
“Coach Vitale never, never let us think we were better than the next guy. We were a team, one through 15. At U of D, that included walk-ons. We still stay in contact with each other.”
When Vitale drafted Tyler and his U of D teammate, John Long, in the second round in 1978, Tyler – while naturally happy to be staying in his hometown to play for the NBA team he watched growing up – was wary of the perception that he was being handed a job by his college coach.
“I was open-minded to everything, but once he drafted me I felt I would have the opportunity to play but I had to go out there and prove myself – there were never days off,” Tyler said. “Even in the off-season, I committed myself to being in great condition.
“I always came to camp in shape because I knew I had to go out there and prove myself to win the job. It was never handed to me. That’s the one thing I appreciated. Looking back to my college days, I’m glad he was hard on us.”
Sometimes when he watches an ESPN game Vitale works, Tyler, who works with youth in juvenile detention in Albuquerque, N.M., gets the bug to pick up the phone.
“Sometimes when I hear him on TV, I’ll say, ‘I need to give coach a call and see how he’s doing.’ I always feel he was a father figure to us. He had two daughters, but he had a group of sons who looked up to him. He’s a great man and he’s done a lot for the game of basketball, but he’s done a lot for people. I can’t thank him enough. Even today, when I go out doing my job, I want to be the best I can be.”