By Jacob Walters
There are few sports owners that are respected solely on their will to win. These owners will spend endless amounts of money just to get a championship. In turn, this will generate fan interest and ensure that teams are in the hunt for a championship every year. There is a particular owner that has made this an art in two sports. His name is Mike Ilitch.
Born on July 20, 1929 in Detroit, Michigan, Ilitch is well-known for being the founder and owner of Little Caesar's Pizza. Ilitch also owned and operated Olympia Entertainment and helped renovate the legendary Fox Theatre during his efforts to revitalize Detroit. Ilitch purchased the Detroit Red Wings in 1982 and the Detroit Tigers in 1992 and served in the United States Marine Corps for four years. Ilitch even spent some time as a baseball player, playing second base for the Tigers', New York Yankees', Washington Senators' minor league teams.
If there is one thing that Mike Ilitch is well-known for amongst Detroit sports fans, it is his willingness to spend money. I am talking about paying-the-luxury-tax-to-win, where he spent millions of dollars to bring in Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez, Ivan Rodriguez, and Torii Hunter. He is also gotten some great players via trades, with Cy Young winner Max Scherzer and Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera being perfect examples. All of this would not be possible without Ilitch hiring general manager Dave Dombrowski to handle business. As a result, the Tigers have made two World Series appearances along with making the playoffs five times and winning the AL Central three times under Ilitch's watch. But the success does not just stop with the Tigers. In fact, Ilitch is well-known for his spending in the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings before the salary cap got instituted. Ilitch would spend money on players such as Dominik Hasek, Luc Robitaille, Brett Hull, and Curtis Joseph to ensure that he would get his Stanley Cups. And boy, did he win those Stanley Cups. During his tenure as the Red Wings owner, Ilitch won four Stanley Cups to go with six Western Conference championships and a playoff streak lasting up to 25 seasons (1990-1991 to 2015-2016). Do you remember the legendary head coach Scotty Bowman? Ilitch was the one who brought him on board and Bowman helped win three Stanley Cups for the Wings. Ilitch even spent money to bring in three 500-goal scorers on the same team (the first time that has ever happened in NHL history), with Brendan Shanahan becoming the fourth later in the season. Since Ilitch bought the Red Wings, the Red Wings have earned the most points in the NHL regular season six times. The Red Wings have also been known to sell out their games back in the day. A perfect example is 2002 (a Stanley Cup-winning season), where the Red Wings sold out all 41 of their home games. As a result, Ilitch was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003. Ilitch has even owned the Detroit Drive, an arena football team that went to the championship game six times (going 4-2 in those games). Talk about some "Hot 'N Ready" success!
Ilitch has also been known for doing a great deal of work in the Detroit area. For starters, he helped pay Rosa Parks' rent after she got attacked in her Detroit apartment in 1994, ensuring that she would live in a safer part of Detroit. Ilitch also founded the Little Caesars Love Kitchen, a traveling restaurant that feeds the hungry and assists with food aid during natural disasters. The program has served more than 2 million individuals in the United States and has been recognized by Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan. Ilitch also founded the Little Caesars Veterans Program to help honorably discharged veterans with job opportunities during their transition to civilian life. As a result, Ilitch received the highest honor given by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the Secretary's Award, for his program. Ilitch also created the Little Caesars Amateur Hockey Program in 1968 to help thousands of children in youth hockey and founded Ilitch Charities for Children in 2000. This non-profit foundation is dedicated to improving the lives of children in the areas of health, education, and recreation. In 2008, the charity was rebranded as Ilitch Charities and broadened their focus on promoting economic development and job growth as well as addressing poverty, unemployment, homelessness, and hunger. Wayne State University also named their School of Business the "Mike Ilitch School of Business" as a result of his philanthropy.
Ilitch also played an instrumental role in Detroit’s revitalization. Ilitch helped lay the foundation by moving his Little Caesars headquarters to downtown Detroit and kept the Red Wings downtown with the construction of the Joe Louis Arena. Ilitch also helped numerous black developers and contractors, including the Brinker Group and has hired native Detroiters for 51% of his arena construction jobs. In fact, the Ilitch organization has 7,500 jobs in Detroit, where a third of its Detroit-area employees are native Detroiters. Ilitch also gave away 5,000 tickets to every Tigers game when he bought the team in 1992 to build up interest among black residents. That is a strong move considering Major League Baseball has not done much to market to African Americans. On top of that, Ilitch built the “Pentagon” (not the federal building), a 42,000-square foot building where members of the Michigan Veterans Foundation call their headquarters.
Ilitch moved downtown not to become the martyr of Detroit, but rather to help the city he held dear to his heart. That is an amazing feat when you consider no one else wanted to give Detroit a chance. His selfless acts to his hometown combined with his winning spirit and grit is more than enough to don him the crown of the Best Owner Of The 21st Century.