“I promised the players as we were coming here on the bus that if we beat Dayton, I would do it,” Vitale told the Dayton Daily News then. “But in the back of my mind, I’m saying to myself, I’m never going to have to. This is the greatest road victory since I’ve been at Detroit.”
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Detroit also beat Dayton 86-70 the previous season at Detroit’s Calihan Hall in what was a homecoming game for Detroit native and Dayton star Johnny Davis. The court there was named after Vitale in 2011.
The 1977 game was even more important for Detroit.
“They were one of the teams we were really concerned about because they were so strong,” Vitale said. “(Jim) Paxson was terrific, one of the best in the country. I remember (Erv) Giddings, who I tried to recruit like crazy and couldn’t get him. Don Donoher was as good as anyone in fundamentals and teaching and getting his players to play to the best of their ability. He did an amazing job with strengths and weaknesses. He was just a terrific coach.”
The victory against Dayton was the 10th of 21 straight victories for the Titans that season. They finished 25-4 and lost to Michigan in the second round, then the Sweet 16, of the NCAA tournament.
Vitale moved to the NBA the following season and had a 30-52 record with the Detroit Pistons, who fired him 12 games into the next season.
“I made a major mistake,” Vitale said. “There’s no question. I belong in college. I was really as down as I could be when I got fired on Nov. 8, 1979. Luckily, for me, 10 days later, my phone rings.”
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A TV executive named Scotty Connal was on the line and offered Vitale a broadcasting job at a new network: ESPN.
“ESPN? Sounds like a disease,” Vitale said. “What is ESPN?”
Vitale called ESPN’s first major college basketball game: Wisconsin at DePaul on Dec. 5, 1979. DePaul won 90-77. More than 40 years later, he’s still going strong. He’ll travel from Dayton to Charlottesville, Va., on Saturday to call Duke vs. Virginia.
Vitale is also an author. His latest book, "Dick Vitale's Mount Rushmores of College Basketball," is available for purchase on his website: DickVitaleOnline.com.
“Not bad for 80 years old,” Vitale said.
Vitale credits the work ethics of his parents for inspiring him. A reporter asked him recently, “Where do you get that energy and enthusiasm?” Vitale told him, “If you do something you love and enjoy what you’re doing, it’s not work.”
Vitale should enjoy his return to UD Arena. The Flyers bring a 17-game winning streak into the matchup and can clinch the Atlantic 10 championship outright with a victory. Vitale did his homework by calling Virginia’s Tony Bennett, who coached against the Flyers in the Battle 4 Atlantis last season, and Kansas coach Bill Self, whose team handed Dayton one of its two losses this season.
Bennett told Vitale, “They guard you. They know how to play. I’m a big fan of Anthony’s. They’re legit.” Self said Kansas “had to fight for our survival” to win in overtime in the Maui Invitational championship.
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In his preparation for the game, Vitale noticed what many have seen in this team. The Flyers love to play with one another. He praised Dayton guards Jalen Crutcher and Rodney Chatman and said Dayton’s guard play has been unreal.
Of course, Vitale has seen plenty of Obi Toppin highlights. ESPN has given the Dayton star love all season.
“He’s just got it,” Vitale said. “It’s a great story. Here’s a kid who wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American. Here’s a kid who’s busting his gut, working, always believing in himself.”
Fifty three years ago, Vitale saw what is considered the greatest Dayton team of all time, the 1967 group that reached the national championship game, in person when he drove to Louisville for the Final Four with a friend. They didn’t have tickets. They found them when they got there.
Now Vitale will see a team that has surpassed what that team accomplished — in the regular season, at least.
“I’m just thrilled and happy to get a chance to see this Dayton team,” Vitale said. “This will certainly be one of the greatest Dayton teams of all time.”
Davidson at Dayton, 7 p.m., ESPN2, 1290 and 95.7 WHIO