(Editor’s note: This is one of a series of columns about ESPN’s DickVitale in the next several months.)
LAKEWOOD RANCH, Fla. — Before he became a household name as a colorful TV broadcaster, Dick Vitale was coaching basketball.
One of his stops was at the University of Detroit where he served as the head coach for four years during the mid-1970s. And he was a good one, compiling an overall mark of 78-30, a 72.2 winning percentage.
His 1976-77 Titans squad finished with a 25-4 mark, including an NCAA Sweet Sixteen appearance at Rupp Arena.
While in Lexington that season, Vitale got to meet a very important man who had been out of coaching for five years.
That man’s name was legendary Adolph Rupp, who held the record as NCAA’s all-time winningest coach for 25 years and won four national titles at UK.
The Vitale-Rupp encounter was very short one, though.
“I met Adolph Rupp during that time for two minutes basically,” said ESPN’s Vitale in a recent interview with this columnist at his Florida home. “But he is one of the legends of all time. It was kind of like the quick ‘How are you doing’ thing. I never sat with him but you know he was in the gym. I was a nobody by then.”
As it turned out, Vitale’s last game as a college coach was at Rupp Arena when his Titans played against No. 1 Michigan and coach Johnny Orr in the Mideast Regional semifinals before losing 86-81. And Rupp passed away several months later on Dec. 10, 1977.
That 1977 Detroit-Michigan matchup, by the way, was replayed on television earlier this summer in Detroit (WADL Channel 38).
Vitale also has some thoughts about Rupp’s successor, Joe B. Hall, and current UK coach John Calipari.
He was tickled when Hall was named to the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012. While Calipari’s Cats were winning the 2012 national championship in New Orleans, Hall and other newly-named Hall of Famers were recognized on the floor during the NCAA Final Four.
“I was happy for Joe B. Hall to finally get recognized like he did for the College Hall of Fame because I don’t think people ever gave him the kind of recognition he deserves for the years he dedicated himself to Kentucky basketball. You know he won the ‘78 national title with (Rick) Robey, (Mike) Phillips and the gang. They did a phenomenal job.”
Hall’s 13-year record at Kentucky was 297-100 with a winning percentage of 74.8, including three Final Four trips and eight regular-season SEC titles.
Hall also has a remarkable statue in his honor on the UK campus at the Wildcat Coal Lodge dormitory near the Joe Craft Center and Memorial Coliseum.
Added Vitale, who has seen the unusual sculpture showing the former Wildcat boss in his bronzed seat, “I personally feel the statue is a nice tribute for his dedication to Kentucky basketball. And I have NO problem of Joe sitting down (with a rolled-up program in his hand).”
Now Vitale has a favorite story about Calipari.
“Last summer he took my wife (Lorraine) and I for a tour of the basketball facilities, ” said the 75-year-old Vitale. “I was in awe and teased John that if he could not recruit the blue chip stars to Big Blue Nation, he is the worst recruiter in the world! John laughed. He is fun to be around.
“(He) showed us the new dorm for the players and it blew us away. He was hysterical when I said ‘This is a little different than your early days in coaching.’ “
And Vitale probably told Coach Cal, using one of his famous catch phrases, “This place is Awesome, Baby!”