Basketball fans who came of age in the ESPN era might not know that Dick Vitale, before all the cutesy catchphrases and motormouth pomposity, was a successful college coach. He compiled a 78-30 mark at the University of Detroit before chasing down NBA money with the Pistons. As a professional, Vitale stumbled to a 34-60 record and was summarily fired, banished to the broadcast booth forevermore.
The high-water mark of Vitale’s coaching days came on Feb. 16, 1977, when the No. 15 Detroit Titans brought their 20-game winning streak to the Milwaukee Arena to take on Al McGuire and the ninth-ranked Marquette Warriors.
The Warriors had been inconsistent all season but still boasted a formidable lineup featuring Bo Ellis, Jerome Whitehead, Butch Lee and Jim Boylan.
It was clear from the start that Vitale desperately wanted to take down a national powerhouse. With a nearly silent crowd at the Arena in the first half, the broadcast easily picked up Vitale’s now-familiar rasp as the coach shouted out defensive calls and exhorted his players to crash the boards.
The defensive switches by Vitale kept the Titans in the game. Detroit mostly stuck to a 1-3-1 zone in the first half, but Dickie V. threw in some halfcourt traps and switched to a 2-1-2 several times. Detroit also held the ball for the final 2 minutes of the first half and went into the locker room down four points.
Vitale came out with a junk defense after halftime, using a triangle-and-two with Detroit’s two guards hounding Lee and Boylan. The Warriors could never get a handle on the Titans’ defense and never pulled away.
Vitale could sense that the upset was possible and, unfathomably, became more emotionally engaged. His comb-over was even more unruly and sweat stains began to form on his disco suit.
The Titans were down, 63-60, with over 2 minutes remaining when McGuire called for Marquette to stall. However, Vitale’s junk defense eventually caused some fits and the sometimes ham-fisted Whitehead lost the ball, allowing Detroit to grab a steal and sink a jumper to get within 63-62. Marquette again had trouble against Detroit’s swarming defense, which forced another steal and allowed the Titans a chance to win.
Vitale elected not to call a timeout as the Titans’ Dennis Boyd brought the ball up the court. McGuire called for the Warriors to get into their 1-2-2 zone and pack it tight in the lane. Detroit worked the ball around the perimeter for over 20 seconds and, with five seconds remaining, Boyd found himself with the ball at the top of the key. The Warriors, however, stayed way back in the zone, allowing enough room for Boyd to sink an open jumper as time expired for a 64-63 victory.
Vitale, ever the picture of restraint, sprinted to mid-court, where he proceeded to dance some variation of the Irish jig. Dickie V. also hugged all comers and planted a few wet kisses on the cheeks of some lucky Detroit cheerleaders.
McGuire thought the loss would keep Marquette out of the NCAA tournament. But the Warriors snuck into the 32-team field and eventually beat North Carolina for the title in McGuire’s last season.
Vitale’s team also made the NCAA tournament, falling to Michigan in the regional semifinals. That would be his last game at the University of Detroit.
After the victory over Marquette, Vitale told reporters. “I feel like crying. I haven’t been this choked up since I lost my eye when I was a kid.”
At least he didn’t call himself a “PTPer.”