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A vital victory refuels the Motor City

Dick Vitale, a rookie college coach but a recruiting demon, took the University of Detroit job without even seeing the gym. Now his fightin' Titans are eight-game winners and champions of their hometown tournament

His name is Dick Vitale (rhymes with "Hi, pal") and he is the new basketball coach for the University of Detroit's fightin' Titans (known in Romulus and River Rouge and other car-making places as UD). He is blind in his left eye and the eye tends to drift to the side, making it seem that while he is talking to you he is also looking over your shoulder at some prize recruit in the distance. And maybe he is, because Dick Vitale has the reputation of being an energetic, persistent, hellacious recruiter.

The first time anybody had seriously to wrestle with the pronunciation of his name was in 1970 when Hi Pal won the first of two state championships while coaching East Rutherford (N.J.) High School, helped immeasurably by the presence of a 6'10" center named Les Cason. Later, as an assistant at Rutgers, he got most of the credit for bringing in Brooklyn hotshot Phil Sellers, going into Bedford-Stuyvesant at night, alone, and not even collecting hazardous-duty pay.

Just how good a college coach Vitale is remains to be seen, but he is not off to a bad start. Detroit beat Michigan, which was fun, and then, before a big crowd in Cobo Arena, slipped by Michigan State after being down by five points with only a minute and a half left in overtime. Last weekend, led by Boston import Owen Wells and a would-be cytotechnologist named Riley Dotson, Vitale's UD's took Montana State 96-85 and Fairfield 73-65 to win the Motor City Classic and improve their record to 8-1.

The all-Jesuit Detroit-Fairfield final was a reunion of sorts for two coaches who have known each other since less glamorous days in Bergen County, N.J. Ten years ago Vitale and Fairfield's Fred Barakat were coaching eighth-grade teams and decided to get their little kids together for a friendly scrimmage on an outdoor court in the town of Hasbrouck Heights. Vitale and his boys arrived late, piled out of their cars, and who should be among them but a 12-year-old (Cason) who stood 6'7" or 6'8", who could dunk and who scored about 40 of his team's 55 points.

Barakat became a college coach first. In 1966 he went to Assumption, his alma mater, and for the princely salary of $9,000 served as freshman basketball coach, assistant varsity basketball coach, scout, recruiter, physical-education instructor for 12 classes a week, sports publicist, soccer coach, tennis coach, equipment manager and trainer. Now in his fourth year at Fairfield (which is near Bridgeport, Conn.) he gets more money for less work and, in the parlance of the Xs and Os people, he has "turned the program around." Fairfield had an 18-9 record last season and looked good in the NIT, losing to Virginia Tech, the eventual winner, by one point.

Vitale would seem to be in a job with better potential. Detroit is a big-city Catholic school similar to Loyola of Chicago, the University of San Francisco, Providence and St. John's—not much campus, nothing very dazzling academically but close to the ghetto playgrounds, and no football to share the attention. In fact, UD's old football stadium has been leveled and the space is used as a parking lot for the field house. Detroit is overrun with basketball players, kids who will be just as good as the Denver Rockets' Ralph Simpson, the Indiana Pacers' Mel Daniels and umpteen other Motowners, including UD heroes Dave DeBusschere and Spencer Haywood.

Vitale would love to tap that well. DeBusschere personally helped him try to recruit a local high school star, Tom LaGarde, a 6'10" straight-A student with white skin, all of which the alumni would have appreciated. But North Carolina stole him away.

Vitale talked himself into the job, suggesting to the interviewing committee that they skip the questions and just let him expound on why they should hire him. They sat back, listened and were convinced. Immediately, he brought in two black assistants and one white and rounded up four top prospects from New York City and Newark. He had taken the job without ever having seen the Titans' gym, and two of his recruits never saw the campus until they arrived to enroll. In addition, Vitale inherited five pretty good players, most notably Wells, a senior who was MVP in the Motor City last year, and Dotson, a sophomore biology major whose choice of a career in cytology (the structure and function of cells) is as mysterious to the coach as the subject itself.

It was no shock last weekend when Detroit and Fairfield reached the final. Fairfield was 5-2, and among its early-season victims were William and Mary and Villanova. Still, the Stags, as they are called, played well only in spurts at Detroit as they edged Central Michigan 69-66. UD was also sloppy in spots while beating Montana State by 11 points. If there was a favorite for the final, it was Fairfield, mostly because of John Ryan's passing and Richie O'Connor's scoring. O'Connor, whose brother is the head coach at Dartmouth, played two years on the Duke varsity and was the team's leading scorer until he quit, transferred to Fairfield and stayed out a year waiting to become eligible.

Detroit had demonstrated its butter-fingers before the tournament—31 turnovers against Michigan State—but in the championship game Fairfield showed an absolute flair for walking and for throwing errant passes (25 turnovers). Slick passer Ryan got in early foul trouble, Wells and Dotson scored well, and it quickly became apparent that UD had more quickness and depth. The Titans trailed by three points at halftime, shot ahead by 16 points, then relaxed, played sloppily and won by eight.

All sorts of brochures, buttons, place mats and business cards put out by UD were proclaiming "a new era of basketball excitement," and maybe they were right. Certainly Wells was excited when he won his second successive MVP trophy. Certainly Vitale was excited when he earned a technical foul in the first five minutes of the game.

The Titans were not ready yet to challenge the Red Wings or Pistons as gate attractions, but they had won their 11th Motor City Classic in 22 years and, after nine games, Vitale had a .889 winning percentage as a varsity coach, considerably higher than John Wooden's .752 and Dean Smith's .639. With Minnesota, St. Bonaventure, Marquette, Louisville and other toughies left on the schedule, the Titans could still shrink into Tiny Tims, but chances are they will finish anywhere from 17-9 to 20-6 and get a bid to the National Invitation Tournament, where they could be rematched with Fairfield.

"I'm totally ecstatic," said Vitale in his locker room. "We said a little prayer here after the game, hoping that the new year will bring us happiness and more good health. Maybe we're better than even Dick Vitale thinks." As in Hi, pal.