Mr. D’s bold move to hire Dick Vitale backfired, but it was worth a shot
True story: The only bumper sticker I’ve ever affixed to a car of mine read Re-VITALE-ized. It trumpeted the Pistons’ hiring of Dick Vitale in 1978 and that seemed reason enough to mar my prized ’74 Toyota Celica that had almost taken me through college by then.
I tell that story to suggest that the hiring of Vitale was viewed much differently at the time than it was in hindsight. Late Pistons owner Bill Davidson would come to recall the Vitale hiring as a disaster, a plunge he took on the advice of longtime Detroit sports columnist Joe Falls. (“And that’s the last time I ever took the advice of a sportswriter,” Mr. D would tell me 30 years later. “No offense.”)
At the time, it seemed, at minimum, a worthwhile risk, perhaps even a stroke of genius.
The Pistons had to elbow their way to the table back then. The Tigers were still the darlings of Detroit, living off of their feel-good ’68 World Series win and everything they’d done to help heal the city in the wake of the 1967 riots. Baseball’s roots ran unfathomably deep in Detroit.
The Lions were the Lions – never really breaking through but winning just often enough to keep the fans’ attention. Plus, they’d just moved to the cavernous Silverdome. And it was the NFL, on the brink of exploding into America’s No. 1 sport. The Red Wings had a three-decades head start on the Pistons, moved from Fort Wayne in 1957, established by the legend of Gordie Howe and the octopus and the winged wheel.
The Pistons had little in the way of an identity and nothing in the way of a legacy. Their signature moment in Detroit had been a thrilling, seven-game 1974 playoff series with Chicago – that they lost. In the first round. They’d yet to cultivate a significant fan base. With no NBA titles, few winning seasons or playoff berths and no face-of-the-franchise star – no Gordie Howe, no Al Kaline, no Bobby Layne – they were the orphans of Detroit sports.
Vitale offered a chance at establishing an identity. He’d branded an even more anonymous entity – the University of Detroit Titans – in four short seasons. Vitale arrived from Rutgers, where as an assistant he recruited the guts of a team that got to the Final Four unbeaten in 1976 only to lose to Michigan, in 1973 and immediately recruited a bunch of local kids that filled Calihan Hall and played exciting, winning basketball.
Vitale became a media star in Detroit, his bombastic enthusiasm making him a frequent and popular guest of legendary WJR morning host J.P. McCarthy. If nothing else, Vitale was going to put the Pistons on the front page and lure a few more thousand fans to help make the Silverdome – where the Pistons would be moving for the first season with Vitale – seem a little less drafty on those windswept winter nights at the corner of Interstate 75 and M-59.
The red flag was Vitale’s makeup. Stomach problems had already forced him into the athletic director’s role at U of D. If he couldn’t handle losing in college, how would he adjust to the NBA’s 82-game schedule – especially with the Pistons in need of rebuilding with Bob Lanier nearing the end on gimpy knees?
The answer: not well. Three games into his NBA tenure, Vitale needed five days in the hospital. When a 30-52 first season merged into a 4-8 start to the second, Mr. D pulled the plug.
Get this: He drove to Vitale’s house and fired him in person, over Vitale’s kitchen table. Vitale jokes about it now – how it was the best thing that ever happened to him, freeing him to help a fledgling cable operation called ESPN launch. He couldn’t be more right. He broke down and cried over that kitchen table – relieved that the gnawing pressure of coaching an NBA team had been lifted from his shoulders.
For the rest of that season, the Pistons were coached by Vitale assistant Richie Adubato, who shared Vitale’s New Jersey roots. Thanks largely to Vitale’s influence, the Pistons had gone heavy on local talent. A month after his hiring, Vitale spent the Pistons’ two second-round picks – they didn’t have a first-rounder that year – on two players from his foundational 1974 recruiting class at U of D, Terry Tyler and John Long.
Tyler had starred at Detroit Northwestern, Long at Romulus. In Vitale’s second draft, he spent first-round picks on Michigan State’s Greg Kelser (Detroit Henry Ford) and Michigan’s Phil Hubbard and a third-rounder on another kid he’d recruited to U of D, Terry Duerod (Highland Park).
All of them were NBA-level talents. Hubbard, before he suffered a catastrophic knee injury playing for Team USA in the 1977 World University Games, was as fine a college player as I’d ever seen. Kelser, now George Blaha’s partner on Pistons TV games, had his own NBA career limited by knee issues. Long and Duerod were both phenomenal shooters, Tyler a marvelous rebounder and shot-blocker at 6-foot-7. But the Pistons had no bellwether, not without a healthy Lanier.
Adubato would later serve as head coach for both Dallas and Orlando. He’s an NBA lifer, currently serving as radio analyst for the Magic. A few season ago, before an Orlando-Pistons game, he told me that he looked out at the court once that season, leaned over and told one of his assistant coaches: “We’d have a hell of a team – if we were in the Big Ten.”
The Pistons cleaned up quickly from the Vitale era, though. A mere 19 months after Vitale had been hired – and a month after he’d been fired over his kitchen table – Mr. D hired Jack McCloskey as general manager.
One of Trader Jack’s first attempted moves was to add another local talent to the roster. More on that in the next True Blue Pistons.