By Jim Louk
When the Tampa Bay community lost Dick Wittcoff to cancer at age 79, USF Athletics lost one of its greatest benefactors.
“Dick Wittcoff was one of the first people I met at USF”, Athletics Director Doug Woolard recalls. “He was a pioneer supporter of the Bulls, whose generosity and genuine caring impacted generations of student-athletes, coaches and staff.”
Indeed, Wittcoff was a trailblazer at USF. The first endowed USF Basketball scholarship came from Mr. Wittcoff and his late wife Roslyn, who passed away in 2004. The scholarship was created in 1982, and USF basketball players including Reggie Kohn, B.B. Waldon, Chucky Atkins and Altron Jackson have benefitted from it. The Wittcoffs eventually added two more scholarships during the 1990s.
Longtime fundraiser Joe Tomaino recalls meeting Mr. Wittcoff for the first time in 1979, at the construction site of the still roofless Sun Dome. That was the beginning of Mr. Wittcoff’s USF days; the advent of over 30 years of philanthropy.
Mr. Wittcoff’s generosity was not limited to a single sport. He worked with Robin Roberts to secure improvements to the USF Baseball Stadium. He sponsored a golf tournament for many years. He sponsored buses so USF students could get to road games. When USF Athletics needed him, he was there.
“Dick Wittcoff had a profound impact on my life,” says Vicki Mitchell, USF Foundation’s Director, Development Program Enhancement. “He was a wonderful friend and mentor, always ready with a hug, a dose of wisdom born of experience, or a good laugh--whatever the doctor ordered. I think of him as one of the last of USF Athletics' first guard--those heroes who put a young program on their shoulders, gave of their time and treasure, and provided critical and credible community leadership for the fledgling Bulls. I will miss him, but will celebrate my great fortune in having had the honor and privilege of knowing him. If a measure of our lives is caring about others, then Dick Wittcoff truly stands tall.”
While Mr. Wittcoff was involved in many aspects of the university, there is no doubt his great passion was basketball. Roz and Dick Wittcoff weren’t known as the first family of USF Basketball for nothing. Yes, the giving was significant. But so were the personal touches.
The Wittcoffs traveled with the team when that wasn’t as fashionable as it is now. In an era of small airports, non-descript destinations, and dingy arenas, Roz and Dick were there with the team as we went from city to city. In the 1980’s it wasn’t uncommon for them to be the only two people wearing Green and Gold in a road arena. When you see a modern day road game with thousands of Bulls fans in attendance, remember it all started with the Wittcoffs. No, not in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago or some of the other glamour spots now frequented by the Bulls; more likely in Jacksonville, Mobile or Bowling Green, places the Wittcoffs cheered the Bulls, seldom missing a game or a trip. For many of us, the time they invested with us was every bit as special as the financial support. Game after game and year after year our small basketball travel party consisted of players, coaches, trainers, broadcasters, and two very special fans.
"Among the many wonderful boosters I came to know at USF, Roz and Dick Wittcoff were really in a class by themselves,” says longtime USF Sports Information Director John Gerdes. “As important as their financial contributions were to the growth of the program, their natural class is what set them apart. They treated everyone at every level with respect and dignity. Everybody at USF recalls the way they constantly traveled with the men's basketball team, but it was much more than being fans. They were family. They were teammates."
They were there for so many landmark moments. By luck of the draw, I got a plane seat next to them on a flight to Los Angeles, where we would join the team for the first ever USF NCAA Tournament game in March 1990. There were no prouder people that day than Roz and Dick Wittcoff.
It’s a testament to Mr. Wittcoff that his legacy extends through so many eras of USF Athletics, up to and including the present day.
"It's a sad day for USF men's basketball. We lost Dick Witcoff. Many called him the father of men's basketball for USF, whether it was donating time, money or jobs for some of the players on the team. He did a lot to really help this program get going and he endowed two scholarships as well. We're going to miss Dick tremendously and we thank him so much for all of his support over the years,” says Bulls head coach Stan Heath.
“It’s a big loss for the basketball family,” says Bulls radio play by play broadcaster Jim Lighthall. “He treated all of us very well; not just the team but the support staff as well. He cared about what we did.”
His passing marks the end of an era at USF Athletics, and the loss of a man intertwined with the history of Bulls basketball. He never played a game and never made a shot, but all members of the Bulls family should know his name.
“We will miss him greatly and send our thoughts and prayers to his family,” says Doug Woolard. “Our gratitude is enduring. The Wittcoff family legacy will live long at USF.”