Vitale, Dickerson, fans of all stripes mourn Ilitch

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — A Detroit legend in his own right, Dick Vitale sat courtside Friday night at the place where he once coached, Calihan Hall, scrolling through his cell phone and reading all the tributes to Mike Ilitch.

Ilitch, the long-time owner of the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings, died Friday at the age of 87. Vitale had met Ilitch decades ago, when Vitale was getting his start in coaching, and Ilitch was an up-and-coming pizza man.

“Just a guy who brought so much excitement to this area, a guy that had such a love for the Detroit area and the sports world,” said Vitale, who eventually left the city and became a star at ESPN. “May he rest in peace.”

Vitale always envied how Ilitch would spend whatever it took to get the biggest stars.

“He gave you every opportunity to win, he gave his team all the resources and the necessary dollars,” Vitale said of a Tigers team that last season and this coming season carried a payroll of $200 million.

“That’s all you can ask for out of your owner. He stepped to the plate.”

The news of Ilitch's death spread fast Friday night, and hit many hard — from dignitaries, locally and nationally, to the common fans, to members of the athletic community, even those who never worked for him.

Like University of Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson, who was the coach of the St. Louis Blues in 1979 when he guided that team to a win in the first-ever hockey game played at Joe Louis Arena. After his time with the Blues came to an end, Berenson interviewed for the Red Wings job in 1982.

"I spent the day with Ilitch and his family," Berenson said following Friday's Michigan-Michigan State game at Joe Louis Arena, where they held a moment of silence for Ilitch. "We always had a friendship after that. He would call me from time to time to talk about hockey."

Berenson was named the head coach at Michigan in 1984. Seven years later, Michigan and Michigan State would start playing an annual game at Ilitch's Joe Louis Arena, something Berenson said was a class move on the owner's part.

"The Illitches were the ones that supported the Great Lakes Invitational and the Michigan-Michigan State series," Berenson said. "It wasn't a money-maker, but it was the right thing for college hockey. Mike and Marian (Ilitch) were so good for college hockey and for Detroit."

Across town Friday night, Oakland University basketball coach — and avid Detroit sports fan — Greg Kampe learned of Ilitch's death just moments before tipoff for the game against Detroit Mercy at Calihan Hall.

After the game, he was visibly emotional remembering Ilitch.

"It's a legend's status that man has," Kampe said.

Ilitch bought the Red Wings in 1982, and the Tigers — his true love, as a former minor-league baseball player — a decade later.

He won four Stanley Cups with the Red Wings, but never got his Holy Grail, a World Series championship. The Tigers came close, making two World Series, in 2006 and 2012, but lost badly both times.

Still, he oversaw one of the best runs in Tigers history, from 2006-14, when they made the playoffs five times.

“It would be difficult to properly state the amount of enjoyment that I have derived while Mike Ilitch owned the Tigers,” said fan Steve Butts, 44, of Lansing.

Butts cited the biggest move Ilitch made as Tigers owner, signing star catcher — and future Hall-of-Famer — Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez to a fat contract in the winter of 2003-04, after the Tigers had just lost 119 games.

Rodriguez was coming off a World Series with the then-Florida Marlins. The move shook the baseball landscape, a superstar going from a champion to a chump. At that time, Detroit hadn’t had a winning season in a decade.

“To root on my Tigers, knowing Mr. I was doing everything in his power to ensure we fans were proud of our team, and the city of Detorit, was all I could ever ask for out of an owner,” said Ryan McDonald, 38, from Findlay, Ohio.

Detroit had a storybook season in 2006, making the playoffs for the first time since 1987 and the World Series for the first time since 1984.

“Mr. Ilitch tied the memories of my youth to my father’s and grandfather’s winning days of yesteryear,” said David Cable, 36, who grew up in Metro Detroit. “When he signed Pudge and Magglio (Ordonez) hit the AL(-clinching) home run, I know I wasn’t the only one to reminisce with Dad about his days with his Dad at Briggs and Tiger Stadium. He was Red Wings, hockey and Detroit baseball. I’m forever thankful.”

Not all fans were unconditionally in love with Ilitch. While they appreciated he spent whatever it took — with the Wings in the pre-salary cap days, and to this day with the Tigers, going above the luxury tax last season — many didn’t appreciate that he moved the team from Tiger Stadium for a publicly financed Comerica Park.

A billionaire several times over, he also was very willing to accept public financing for new Little Caesars Arena, which will house the Red Wings and Pistons starting this fall.

“There’s no question that he changed the city — and in many ways for the better,” said Vic Doucette, 60, of Southfield. “But let’s not forget that he got hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks from a city that has substandard schools, inadequate law enforcement, decrepit infrastructure and many neighborhoods that remain unsafe. I’m a fan. I love it when the Tigers and Red Wings win.

“But their success has been built upon the backs of residents who would have been better served by a billionaire who paid all the taxes he should have been assessed.”

But diehard fans of Detroit sports — the ones that cared only about championships, or championship runs — will remember him fondly.

“Mike Ilitch was passion for Detroit to me,” said University of Michigan student Zane Harding, 19, of Waterford. “Mike Ilitch made me feel always a bit more comfortable as a sports fan, knowing there will always be a strong team in Detroit as long as he is around. Mike Ilitch was a great uncle figure for Detroit.”

Ilitch employed thousands over the years, bettering the lives of so many — Dan Dickerson among them.

Dickerson has been lead radio play-by-play man since 2003. It was a rough first year, but so many better ones have followed.

“I always remember after the 2003 season, at the end of the season ... picture day, and I think he’s genuinely embarrassed by having a 119-loss team at the end,” said Dickerson, at halftime at Calihan Hall, where he was calling the Oakland-Detroit Mercy game on television. “He said, ‘This will never happen again.’ He was very emphatic, and you could just see it in his eyes this will change.

“I remember exactly where I was when he bought the Tigers in the ’90s, and you’re excited because, ‘Hey, he did this with the Red Wings, he can bring the Tigers back.’ It took a while, probably longer than he wanted.

“But you saw the passion that he had for the Tigers and the commitment that he had, which was incredible.”

Dickerson’s lasting image of Ilitch always will be in the locker room, in Kansas City late in 2006, after the Tigers finally had clinched a playoff spot.

Ilitch then was in his late 70s, but he might as well have been 7.

“He was an owner and he was just like a kid in that moment, and he just let his hair down,” Dickerson said. “It was so much fun to see.”

News freelance writer Geoff Robinson contributed to this report.