Vitale’s Only NCAA Tournament Run Was Ended by Wolverines

One of the most recognizable voices in sports broadcasting is the raspy, New Jersey accent of Dick Vitale, also known as the irrepressible “Dickie V,” the ultra-hyper, uber-enthusiastic college hoops analyst who still fills the airwaves with his catchy sayings.

Vitale coined several phrases like “Awesome Baby!” after a highlight play, or “PTPer” for a “Primetime player.” Freshmen who contribute to their team’s success are called a “Diaper Dandy.”

But before he was making a living as a basketball analyst on ESPN, Vitale coached the game he loves. And in 1977 he took Detroit Mercy to the NCAA Tournament. His crushing loss in the second round came at the hands of the Michigan Wolverines. That defeat was the last time Vitale coached in the college ranks.

Building a Program at Detroit Mercy

It’s hard to believe now with Vitale serving as basically a cheerleader and cartoon-like character on ESPN college basketball broadcasts, but once upon a time, he was a successful coach.

He was hired by the University of Detroit in March of, 1973, 50 years ago. The program was limping along, not terrible, but nothing notable either. Vitale introduced an up-tempo, quick-shotting offense. He recruited players who could run and were versatile and athletic.

In his first season in Detroit, Vitale led the team to a 17-9 record. An independent with a fairly small enrollment, Detroit defeated three Big 10 schools that season, including Michigan and Michigan State.

In his second season with Mercy, the 35-year old Vitale welcomed freshmen John Long and Terry Tyler. The former led the team in scoring. Within short order, those two foundations would help the program get into the NCAA Tournament.

He took the Titans to the 32-team NCAA tournament in 1977 after Mercy went 25-4. The team had a 21-game winning streak, with victories over ranked Arizona and Marquette, the team that would eventually win the NCAA in March.

In February of 1977, the Titans cracked the Top 20 poll, and eventually reached as high as No. 12 in the country. They drew Middle Tennessee as their first round opponent in the tournament.

Tyler scored 29, and Long scored 20 in Detroit’s 93-76 win over Middle Tennessee in the first round of the 1977 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Their next game would be against Michigan.

The Wolverines were Big 10 champions and the No. 1 team in the polls as the tournament began. They were heavily favored to beat Mercy in round two. But in the first half, Michigan struggled to match up against the Titans in a game played at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky.

“We had a great shooting team,” VItale remembered, “and that first half was great for our confidence. But we had no business with Michigan, they were bigger and faster, and deeper.”

The Wolverines pulled away after halftime and produced a five-point win. The loss was close, but Vitale felt his team was intimidated by the bigger, highly ranked Wolverines.

“After that game I thought we needed to remember how much success we had [that year]”, Vitale remembers. “I wanted to set the tone for the following year [when] Long and Tyler [would] be seniors.”

But Dick didn’t get to coach Tyler and Long the following season. Instead he was asked to step into a new role as athletic director. The job meant more money and possibly more security, so Vitale accepted it. Mercy won 25 games again under a new coach in 1977-78, but an invite to the NCAA Tournament did not come.

Vitale had a 78–30 record during his tenure at Detroit Mercy as head coach. But he did not remain in his role as athletic director for long. In 1978, he was lured away to coach in the NBA by the Pistons.

Coach of the Detroit Pistons

Vitale was hired to coach the Detroit Pistons for the 1978-1979 season. He had a record of 30-52, which landed the team in fourth place in the Central Division.

The Pistons were led by Bob Lanier in Vitale’s brief tenure with the team. Lanier averaged 23.6 PPG and 9.3 RPG in 1978-79. But even Lanier couldn’t save Dickie V in the NBA.

In his one full season at the helm of the Pistons, Vitale’s team ranked 18th out of 22 teams in the NBA in defense. They could score (10th overall), with Lanier being joined by M.L. Carr, former Mercy stars John Long and Terry Tyler, Kevin Porter, and Leon Douglas as the top offensive options. A shooting guard on that team was Chis Ford, a 30-year old “chucker” who gained more fame as a coach in future years with Boston and other NBA teams.

Vitale was hired by the Pistons after Herb Brown was fired. However, Vitale’s coaching style did not mesh well with the Pistons’ roster, and he was fired 12 games into his second season, with a 4-8 record.

Vitale was never meant for the tough NBA ranks. He was asked by a friend to apply for a position with a fledgling broadcast cable channel called ESPN in 1979. At first, Vitale was not interested.

“I wanted to get back to coaching in college, and I didn’t like being behind a microphone,” Vitale said later.

But more than four decades after entering his new career, Vitale has found his perfect home. He’s a legend in college basketball. At the age of 83 in 2023, he still works about 40 games each college basketball season.

That five-point loss to Michigan in his only NCAA tournament as a coach isn’t even in his mind any more.

“I wasn’t meant to love this game with a whistle around my neck,” Vitale says. “I have to scream into a microphone, baby!”

One reply on “Vitale’s Only NCAA Tournament Run Was Ended by Wolverines

  • Tom Whinham

    Dickie V last coached in 1977, when they were still the University of Detroit. I believe it was not until 1991 that U of D merged with Mercy College of Detroit to become Detroit Mercy.

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