Wednesday, March 19, 2014

3.19.14 Hero of the Day: Mike Ilitch

Bee-otch of the Day honors are awarded Monday through Thursday, Bee-otch of the Week is awarded Friday on




Name: Mike Ilitch
Age: 84
Occupation: founder, Little Caesars Pizza, owner, Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers
Last Seen: Florida
Awarded For: being an inspiration for so many

For over 50 years, Mike Ilitch has been nothing short of an American success story.

In 1959, he and wife Marian started a small pizzeria in a strip mall in Garden City, MI. Mike wanted to simply call his new venture "Pizza Treat", but since his wife loved his good looks brought on by his Macedonian ancestry, she chose the name "Little Casears". The two compromised and combined the names "Little Caesars Pizza Treat". Eventually, the "Pizza Treat" portion of the name was dropped after the little pizza shop they started great to other locations and started franchising.

Over the years, Little Casears grew, especially with their popular "Pizza! Pizza!" promotion of two pizzas for the price of one. Ilitch became very, very wealthy and made sure that a portion of his cash went into good use. Ilitch invested lots of his own money to help rebuild and restructure Detroit, the city he was born in and still loves today. In 1982, he purchased one of the city's storied sports teams, the Detroit Red Wings. When he bought the team from the Norris family, they were playing in the fairly-new Joe Louis Arena, but with a losing record and empty seats, Ilitch decided to give out free cars to the first 100 people through the gate. Over the years, Ilitch instead invested in good players like Steve Yzerman, Brenden Shanahan and Sergei Federov. Instead of attracting people to the arena with cars, Ilitch brought in talent which equated to the Red Wings winning their first Stanley Cup in 41 years in 1996. Since Ilitch purchased the Red Wings, the team has won four Stanleys.

Ilitch also purchased the Detroit Tigers in 1992 from longtime pizza rival Tom Monaghan of Domino's Pizza. Although most of the seasons that Ilitch has owned the team has been rocky, in recent years the team has had a resurgence thanks to skipper Jim Leyland - who retired last year - and hot players like Justin Verlander, Miggy Cabrera and Torii Hunter. The team won two AL pennants in 2006 and 2012.

Alongside rebuilding the Tigers and Red Wings, Ilitch also brought Little Caesars back into prosperity in recent years thanks to their popular "Hot-N-Ready" promotion where already-made pizzas sell for $5 (depending on location; here in Grand Rapids, it's $5.55). Although some critics feel that the promotion cheapens Little Casears to a fast food joint, it has rebuilt the chain's sales.

Ilitch has also been a champion of revitalizing Detroit. He owns several properties downtown, including the Fox Theatre, MotorCity Casino and several other restaurants and businesses.

The reason why I'm making Ilitch the Hero of the Day is because sadly, I don't think he'll be around much longer. I remember when the Tigers won the AL in 2012, people were holding up the frail Ilitch. It's also noted that his last appearance was at Torii Hunter's signing two years ago. He missed out on a lot in the past few years. A few weeks ago, Ilitch's company sent out a PR letter supposedly written by Ilitch stating that he had an operation earlier this year and that he's feeling much better.

Now, there's conflicting reports that Ilitch has colon cancer and has had it for about a year now. Even more, his son, Chris has been running the family empire and even the sports teams. To some people, the younger Ilitch has been nothing like his father and even Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers' president has even "quit" at least once.

True, some in the Detroit internet sports world can say whatever they want - one site, tells its readers to help with their legal costs through donation - but judging by Mr. Ilitch's frailness, I scared to say that he'll be joining William Clay Ford soon. It's amazing that in the past decade, two of Detroit's team owners - the other being William Davidson - have passed on. In the case of Davidson and the Pistons, his widow sold it to Tom Gores a few years ago. So far, Gores really hasn't done much to the team. Now, time will tell what the Fords have in store with the Lions, although some speculate not much.

Since the last time we saw Mike Ilitch, the Tigers have been doing good in Spring Training, but the Red Wings are a different story. They're fifth place in the Atlantic Division and many are speculating that the team will not make it to the playoffs this year for the first time in 25 years. But since the Wings are now building a new arena to replace the aging Joe Louis Arena, chances are that once again, the Ilitches are rebuilding interest in Detroit.

It's just that there needs to be more Mike Ilitches out there.   

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