When Michael Wittman decided to accept a scholarship offer from the University of Miami, he hopped on a train from New York to Miami in the summer of 1963 for a chance to play alongside the great Rick Barry. It was the beginning of an extraordinary 50-year career in basketball and sports broadcasting.
“Everything I’ve done in my whole life really was predicated on that decision and all the success I had,” Wittman said. “I was very fortunate for being at the right place at the right time.”
The U at that time was very different from what we now know. Hurricanes basketball home games were played in Miami Beach in front of a mostly nonstudent crowd, and the players shared their locker room with ensemble dancers who worked on famous programs like “The Jackie Gleason Show.”
Practices were different, too. Wittman recalls having to practice outdoors and sometimes share space with the ROTC.
Logistical issues aside, Wittman and his fellow Canes did well for themselves. Much of their success stemmed from Barry, whose number now hangs from the rafters. Although Wittman was never as good as Miami’s All-American, he came stunningly close.
He still ranks 15th on the Hurricanes’ all-time scoring list with 1,319 career points. Wittman is also in the top 10 in both field goal and free throw percentage.
“After Barry graduated … I think I scored 41 points, I had 19 field goals in a game and the headline of The Miami Herald was ‘Wittman a Barry for a day,’” he said. “On my best day I could be like him, but I didn’t have that many days. He was just an extraordinary player.”
Wittman was cut from the St. Louis Hawks after a short stint and had to pursue professional ball elsewhere.
“I decided to go to the industrial league which was a great, great move,” he said. “I played there for a couple of years and had good seasons, but it took me a while to get over the fact that I wasn’t an NBA player.”
Wittman ended up with the Goodyear Wingfoots in Ohio. It was there that his career would really take off.
“I got involved with the Goodyear blimps then,” said the man they now call the Father of Aerial Sports Broadcasting.
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Over time, he perfected the art of covering sporting events from the blimp.
“There were a lot of obstacles in the way of getting a picture from a thousand feet,” Wittman said. “The equipment was too heavy for the blimp. There was no reliable way of getting the picture down to the ground.”
After traveling the globe on a quest to find reliable equipment, Wittman finally encountered a Canadian company that used giro-stabilized cameras to locate defunct power lines in remote areas. Five years later, he was able to show golf balls soar through the air, football plays unfold from above and stunning aerial shots of stadiums.
His work will be honored on Dec. 17, when he is inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame.
Throughout his career, Wittman covered more than 2,500 live sports events from the Goodyear blimp, including six Olympics, 30 World Series and 26 Super Bowls. He also contributed to some ground-breaking television work. Literally.
“Probably the biggest event that I did that people remember forever is the 1989 World Series,” Wittman said. “As we opened up, there was an earthquake. A lot of the stadium crumbled, the hill next to Candlestick Park crumbled. But the blimp turned out to be a huge hero, because there were no helicopters and it stayed up in the air almost 17 hours and reported about the bridges going out, and it actually saved lives, because you couldn’t really tell what was going on.”
He got to fly in the blimp for three of Miami’s five football championship games, too. Wittman spent his career climbing to the top, but he still aims to ascend a few more peaks.
“I’m going to do Mt. Whitney the beginning of next year and then Mt. Kilimanjaro next,” said Wittman, an avid mountain hiker. “I try to get as many of the highest mountain peaks in the United States. I did the highest in the Andes. That’s kind of my new thing.”