The Dickie V Era


Dick Vitale was named head coach of the Pistons in 1978 after coaching at the University of Detroit.
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The Dickie V Era

by John Maxwell

Most basketball fans probably have vague recollections of Dick Vitale’s brief tenure as head coach of the Detroit Pistons, while most Pistons fans probably wish they could shove a Brillo pad in their ear to scrub away the memories of that forgettable 94-game stint.

Fresh off of resurrecting the University of Detroit basketball program, and brandishing the same colorful personality that would later make him one of the most well-known television broadcasters in the wide world of sports, Vitale was charged with the task of getting the Pistons back on the postseason track in May of 1978. Detroit advanced to the playoffs four straight seasons from 1974 to 1977, including two appearances in the conference semifinals, but a fifth place finish to the 1977-78 campaign opened the door for local hero Vitale.

Promising that his players and staff would give “120 percent” and that he would “reVITALEize” the team, Vitale was not the only new addition to the Pistons. The team moved from Cobo Arena to The Silverdome for the 1978-79 season and switched from the Western Conference’s Midwest Division to the Eastern Conference’s Central Division.

The season got off to a rather inauspicious start when during the first week of play, Vitale was hospitalized with stress-related stomach problems - a condition which had affected him during his collegiate coaching days as well. After dropping five straight games to open the season, Vitale finally picked up his first win as an NBA head coach on Oct. 25 with a 110-105 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Unfortunately, he wasn’t around at game’s end to enjoy it as he was ejected in the third quarter for arguing with the officials.

Given the team’s play, many doubted that Vitale would stick around to see the end of the season. An injury to future Hall of Famer Bob Lanier that kept him out of the lineup for 29 games certainly didn’t help, and the Pistons proved ill suited to battle the likes of George Gervin’s San Antonio Spurs and Moses Malone’s Houston Rockets, divisional opponents at the time.

M.L. Carr had one of his best seasons as a pro leading the NBA in steals per game and earning a spot on the All-Defensive Second Team, while Kevin Porter set a league record for assists. Terry Tyler was named to the All-Rookie Team and John Long showed promise as well, but the season ended with another five-game losing streak and a 30-52 mark.

As difficult as the 1978-79 season was, it paled in comparison to what awaited the Pistons faithful the following year. Vitale was retained as head coach, and there was some significant roster turnover as M.L. Carr signed as a free agent with the Boston Celtics during the off-season. What could have been a lucrative draft - the Pistons held the fourth, 10th and 15th picks - turned out to be a disappointment as the trio of Greg Kelser, Roy Hamilton and Phil Hubbard played in a mere 354 games for Detroit during their careers.

The main addition to the team, however, was 28-year-old Bob McAdoo acquired from the Boston Celtics as compensation for the Carr signing. Adding a five-time NBA All-Star to the lineup would seem to be a windfall on the surface, but McAdoo’s time in Detroit was marred by injury and he would be traded to the Nets less than two years later.

All concerned remained in the D longer than Vitale did, however, as a 4-8 start to the 1979-80 campaign brought an end to the Dickie V era. Vitale resigned on November 8, 1979. The Pistons were well on their way to a 16-66 record, and less than a month later, on December 5, Vitale was calling the Wisconsin-DePaul game for a fledgling cable network called ESPN.