Amico: Bill Fitch Was First Face Of Cavs As First Lone Coaching Candidate

For the first nine seasons of the Cavaliers existence, Bill Fitch was the face of the franchise. That’s a rarity in pro sports, even back in 1970, when the Cavs were an expansion team and Fitch was the coach.

Bill Fitch

Usually, it’s the players who serve as the most relatable members of a team. And oh man, those expansion years weren’t easy, especially not at the start. The original Cavs started 0-15 before winning their first game in late November at Portland. Then they lost another 12 in a row.

In his first 30 games as an NBA coach, Fitch won two. He died early Thursday morning at the age of 89.

Fitch seemed to gravitate to projects such as the Cavs as a coach. He liked trying to make something out of nothing. Eventually, that’s what Fitch did, leading the Cavs to their “Miracle of Richfield” season in 1976.

Later, he won a title as coach of the Larry Bird-led Celtics (1981) and took Hakeem Olajuwon and the Rockets to the Finals (1986, when they lost to Bird and the Celtics).

As for the Cavs, Fitch is undoubtedly one of the five most-important figures in team history. Without Fitch, there probably is no Joe Tait, the late Hall-of-Fame radio play-by-play man.

Fitch started as a small-college coach in Illinois. That is where Tait started as a broadcaster, calling small-college games and serving as a disc jokey. Fitch liked Tait’s work. So when the Cavs were looking for a radio man in their first season, Fitch recommended Tait.

In an odd twist, more people familiar with the Cavs probably know Tait more than they do Fitch. But Tait had been fired or laid off about a dozen times from little radio stations across the Midwest before coming to the Cavs.

One time, Tait told me that upon learning he had been fired, he reached across the desk and grabbed the radio station manager by the tie in an act of rage. He held on for a minute before coming to his senses. Tait said he figured that would be the rest of his career until Fitch came along.

Fitch finished with a 944-1,106 record in his 25 NBA seasons. But he led each of the teams he coached to the playoffs — Cavs, Celtics, Rockets, Nets and Clippers, before retiring in 1998.

He coached a number of players who will live on in Cavs lore, including Austin Carr, Campy Russell, Jim Chones, Nate Thurmond, John Johnson, Foots Walker and Bingo Smith. Carr, Russell and Chones remain with the team in broadcasting roles today.

There are a lot of others who have written extensively about Fitch, including noted sportswriter Terry Pluto. I highly recommend his book, “Vintage Cavs” for a complete early history and to learn much more about what Fitch meant to the franchise.

Fitch was a bit before my time. It does seem like every time I see a picture of him he’s wearing one of those plaid suits that were so popular in the 1970s, sporting the exasperated look of a man who just spent 82 games tumbling in a clothes dryer. But that was just the early Cavs.

Through it all, Fitch kept things light, realizing it takes time to build something. Sometimes, it takes five or six years.

“At times, Bill can be a smart-ass,” Tait told Pluto, via Vintage Cavs. “But he’s a good guy.”

That, in a nutshell, was Fitch. “Bill was driven and ambitious,” Tait told Pluto. “I could see that when he was coach at Coe College.”

Coe is where Fitch’s coaching career began. Before coming to the NBA, he also coached North Dakota, Minnesota and Bowling Green. While at North Dakota, he coached future NBA forward and eventual coaching legend Phil Jackson. Eventually, Fitch became the lone candidate for the expansion Cavs.

As Pluto wrote, that would be unthinkable in today’s world — a man who had coached just three seasons of Division I basketball becoming an NBA coach. But it was a different world back then, a world that enabled a man such as Fitch to bring relevancy to pro basketball in Cleveland.

For that, Fitch will never be forgotten with the Cavaliers.

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