Basketball broadcaster and coach
Born: June 9, 1939, in Passaic, New Jersey
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2015: Sports
In four decades as a sports broadcaster, Dick Vitale’s unbridled enthusiasm brought unprecedented attention to college basketball.
Raised in Garfield and East Rutherford, Vitale was the product of working-class parents. His father worked a clothing press by day and had a second job as a security guard at night. His mother was a seamstress in a factory. At his New Jersey Hall of Fame induction, Vitale remembered the lessons of his childhood in Garfield. “I learned about love. I learned about family. I learned about togetherness. I learned about dealing with adversity,” he recalled.
Vitale attended East Rutherford High School and went on to Seton Hall University, earning a degree in business administration. He later earned a master’s degree in education from William Paterson University, then known as Paterson State College.
While still in college, Vitale took his first basketball coaching job at an elementary school in Garfield. Eventually, he became head coach at Garfield High School for two seasons before settling in at East Rutherford High School, where he coached from 1964-1971, leading the team to two state championships.
After establishing his coaching prowess at the high-school level, Vitale moved to Rutgers University as an assistant coach for several seasons before being named head coach at the University of Detroit in 1973.
For Vitale, the Detroit job was the fulfillment of a dream. His successful tenure at the university included a 21-game winning streak in 1977, the year he took his team to the NCAA Division I “Sweet 16.”
In 1978, Vitale made the jump to pro basketball as head coach of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons. His heart was broken when only 12 games into his second season, the Pistons gave him his walking papers. But Vitale’s rebound was swift. Within weeks of his firing, the brand-new ESPN network hired him as one of its first commentators. He made history on December 5, 1979, calling ESPN’s first college game.
Vitale was not a natural broadcaster, but in time his passion for the game and his work ethic made him a legend. Developing his own, over-the-top style, Vitale coined phrases like “awesome, baby,” that became part of the basketball vernacular. He spent 41 years calling games and providing analysis for ESPN, working well into his 80s. In 2008, Vitale received his sport’s ultimate recognition when he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
In his later years, Vitale’s work was interrupted by bouts with several different cancers, including vocal-cord cancer. Each time, he fought back and returned to the broadcast booth. Not one to take his disease lying down, Vitale has become a tireless worker for cancer research, raising money through the V Foundation.