There was no Mercy at the University of Detroit when Dickie Vitale coached there – and there also was no mercy.
Vitale is one of the finalists for induction into the James Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame this year in Springfield, Ma. He’s eligible because of his work blabbing into a microphone – certainly not for his prowess on the sidelines.
Not that he was lacking in that area. Vitale coached at U-D – long before the school merged with Mercy College and grew a third initial: UDM. It was a grand time at McNichols and Livernois in those days, from 1973-78. Players running thru papered hoops with the lights out and faux pyrotechnics going off as they were being introduced. Making the NCAA tournament a couple times. Upsetting powerhouse schools like Marquette on the road – and with Vitale dancing a jig at center court afterward, captured by the TV cameras that beamed the images back home.
I have mixed emotions as I mull over Dickie V’s candidacy – because I’m not sure if being a loudmouthed basketball analyst on TV and radio qualifies one for Hall status, and because it made me pause and think about what’s happening now at UDM, which isn’t all that good.
Vitale came to Detroit from out east, where all the basketball coaches seemed to come from in those days. He started at a New Jersey high school. And he talked his way onto the campus at U-D, promising the fathers there that he could put the university’s basketball program back onto the map. There had been some success at U-D prior to Vitale’s arrival, but not for several years. We ARE talking about the school of Dave DeBusschere and Spencer Haywood, after all.
So Vitale invaded living rooms in the southeastern Michigan area and convinced some of the top high school players to come play at his university. Talking was never Dickie’s weak suit.
And it worked. Vitale built a powerhouse – a basketball program that began to give Michigan and Michigan State a run for their money. Terry Tyler. John Long. Terry Duerod. Earl Cureton. All were recruited by Dickie V, and all spent various lengths of time in the NBA – and all for the Pistons. But more on that later.
U-D was an independent in those days, and it opened up the schedule for top hoops schools from conferences across the Midwest. DePaul would come to town, sometimes Marquette. And there were road games against Michigan, Notre Dame, and other big boys. And U-D acquitted itself well; sometimes the Titans would pull off the upset – only it wasn’t an embarrassment to lose to U-D, because Vitale’s teams were pretty damn good. Calihan Hall, smack in the heart of campus, was bedlam in those days. The big boys stopped wanting to play there, because it was such a hornet’s nest.
I find myself in Calihan several times a year now, working for the fine folks at Catholic Television Network of Detroit, helping them with their high school basketball coverage. And not much has changed at Calihan, which is part of the problem.
Oh, it’s still intimate. And cozy. But now, those words are just polite substitutes for antiquated and outdated.
There’s not much excitement around the Titan program nowadays, and the ancient Calihan Hall does nothing to help that.
The Titans are gamely coached now by Perry Watson, who gained his chops by steamrolling over his opponents in the Detroit Public School League, at Southwestern High. Then Perry was an assistant at Michigan for a few years, before taking the UDM gig. Watson, though, is now out – taking an extended leave of absence for an undisclosed personal issue. The team is lucky to win once every five games or so. They scrape the bottom of the Horizon League.
But Watson has done some good things at UDM. He’s led the team to some NIT appearances, and even won a few games during March Madness. But his strong ties to the inner city coaches hasn’t done what Vitale was able to do in the 1970s, as an outsider from New Jersey.
The entire campus at UDM looks like time forgot it. It’s terribly devoid of any new construction, and Calihan is now, to me, nothing more than a glorified high school gymnasium – which may have been fine 30+ years ago, but now it must be a recruiting nightmare for Watson and his staff. How can you get any top high school kid excited about playing in a 50+ year-old dungeon like Calihan Hall? And for a school that rarely gets any TV or media exposure?
Vitale’s been gone for about 30 years now from campus. He quit, sobbing at a press conference, because of stomach problems. He was kicked upstairs, as the school’s athletic director. Then he started lobbying for the Pistons’ coaching job.
The man he convinced to make such a bad hire was owner Bill Davidson, who in wonderful irony is up for induction into the Hall along with Vitale this year. It would be enough to make me choke on my pancakes if they both went into the Hall together. My belly would hurt, I’d be laughing so hard.
Yet it might happen, and that’s OK, I suppose. Vitale was a disaster as Pistons coach, demonstrating almost immediately that he had no clue what he was doing. He had a fetish for local players, drafting Long, Tyler, Duerod, Phil Hubbard from Michigan, and Greg Kelser from Michigan State. You almost wanted to show Dickie V a map, and let him know that there were other states in the Union that he could draft his players from.
Davidson is a no-brainer for induction, as far as I’m concerned. He’s been a pillar of an owner with the Pistons, and he’s helped the NBA immensely. He committed a personal foul when he hired Vitale, but it wasn’t the only bad hire he made. However, his good choices have far outweighed his poor ones – which is one reason why he’s a Hall candidate.
We laugh at Dick Vitale today, for his buffoonery on the air – though he’s mellowed some. And we laughed at him as Pistons coach, mainly because the only alternative was to cry. We even laughed at him at U-D, even while he was winning basketball games and creating a frenzy on campus.