His ‘Pizza! Pizza!’ served Detroit’s re­de­vel­op­ment

The Washington Post Sunday - - OBITUARIES - MIKE IL­ITCH, 87 FROM NEWS SER­VICES AND STAFF RE­PORTS new­so­bits@wash­post.com

Mike Il­itch, who founded the Lit­tle Cae­sars pizza em­pire be­fore buy­ing the Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Tigers and won praise for keep­ing the pro­fes­sional sports teams in the city as oth­ers re­lo­cated to new sub­ur­ban sta­di­ums, died Feb. 10 at a Detroit hos­pi­tal. He was 87.

Fam­ily spokesman Doug Kuiper con­firmed the death, but no other de­tails were pro­vided.

Mr. Il­itch and his wife, Marian, launched Lit­tle Cae­sars — later known for its “Pizza! Pizza!” tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials — in sub­ur­ban Detroit in 1959. They ex­panded the busi­ness into one of the world’s largest car­ry­out pizza chains. Lit­tle Cae­sars and its sev­eral spinoff com­pa­nies now em­ploy 23,000 peo­ple world­wide, with rev­enue last year of $3.4 bil­lion.

Mr. Il­itch broke into sports own­er­ship in 1982, when he paid a re­ported $8 mil­lion for the strug­gling Red Wings. Once a Na­tional Hockey League pow­er­house, the team had be­come an NHL bot­tomd­weller be­fore it be­gan to win again un­der Mr. Il­itch. The Red Wings took home the Stan­ley Cup in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008.

Mr. Il­itch was in­ducted into the NHL Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003, and into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame and Michi­gan Sports Hall of Fame a year later.

In 1982, Mr. Il­itch also bought Olympia En­ter­tain­ment, which man­ages sports and en­ter­tain­ment venues in the Detroit area. Five years later, he and his wife bought Detroit’s down­town Fox The­atre and started a $12 mil­lion restora­tion. It re­opened in 1988 and be­came a pop­u­lar venue for mu­si­cals, plays and other pro­duc­tions. The Lit­tle Cae­sars world head­quar­ters also was moved down­town, help­ing spur a com­mer­cial re­vival in the strug­gling Mo­tor City.

“Re­vi­tal­iz­ing the his­toric Fox The­atre and re­lo­cat­ing his busi­ness head­quar­ters to the city were bold moves, but ones that ul­ti­mately set down­town on a course for in­cred­i­ble in­vest­ment and re­mark­able trans­for­ma­tion,” said Rip Rap­son, pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Kresge Foun­da­tion, based in Troy, Mich.

In 1992, Mr. Il­itch — who once played in the Detroit Tigers’ mi­nor-league sys­tem — bought the base­ball team for $85 mil­lion. He moved the team in 2000 from the sto­ried-but-fad­ing Tiger Sta­dium to Comer­ica Park, across from the Fox The­atre.

Un­like pre­vi­ous own­ers of Detroit sports fran­chises, Mr. Il­itch opened his check­book to sign top play­ers — find­ing solid suc­cess in hockey and mixed results in base­ball.

The Tigers lost an Amer­i­can League record 119 games in 2003, but ad­vanced to the World Series three years later, los­ing in five games to the St. Louis Car­di­nals. Near the end of a dis­ap­point­ing 2008 sea­son, Mr. Il­itch said he was not con­cerned by the team’s $138 mil­lion pay­roll.

“I’m not afraid to go out and spend money,” he said. “It’s been very costly, but I’m not go­ing to change my ways.”

The Tigers de­feated the New York Yan­kees to win the Amer­i­can League pen­nant in 2012 but lost again in the World Series, this time to the San Fran­cisco Gi­ants in four games.

The team also made the play­offs in 2011 and 2014, but the Tigers never won the World Series un­der Mr. Il­itch, de­spite spend­ing mil­lions of dol­lars on con­tracts for such stars as Miguel Cabr­era, Justin Ver­lan­der, Vic­tor Martinez, Ivan Ro­driguez and Prince Fielder.

“I’ve never seen a man more ded­i­cated to this com­mu­nity and to base­ball than Mr. I,” Tigers Ex­ec­u­tive Vice Pres­i­dent and Gen­eral Man­ager Al Avila said in a state­ment. “What he has done for this fran­chise, and for Detroit, is im­mea­sur­able.”

Michael Il­itch was born July 20, 1929, in Detroit. His par­ents were Mace­do­nian im­mi­grants. He played base­ball in high school and, af­ter a four-year stint in the Marine Corps, spent three years in the Detroit Tigers’ farm sys­tem be­fore a knee in­jury ended his play­ing ca­reer.

He found his niche in busi­ness, open­ing the first Lit­tle Cae­sars restau­rant in a work­ing-class Detroit sub­urb. A dis­tri­bu­tion com­pany soon fol­lowed to sup­ply in­gre­di­ents and other prod­ucts for the grow­ing num­ber of restau­rants. Blue Line Food­ser­vice grew into one of the coun­try’s largest food ser­vice dis­tri­bu­tion com­pa­nies.

Il­itch Hold­ings was es­tab­lished in 1999 to man­age the fam­ily’s in­ter­ests in food, sports and en­ter­tain­ment. Mr. Il­itch’s son, Christo­pher Il­itch, is the com­pany’s chief ex­ec­u­tive. His wife is sole owner of Mo­torCity Casino Ho­tel, one of Detroit’s three casi­nos.

The Il­itch fam­ily’s in­vest­ments in Detroit spear­headed a re­cent devel­op­ment flurry in the be­lea­guered city.

When ap­proached in 2009 by or­ga­niz­ers of the Mo­tor City Bowl in Detroit, Mr. Il­itch agreed to spon­sor the annual col­lege foot­ball bowl game, which was re­named the Lit­tle Cae­sars Pizza Bowl.

“It’s a sport­ing event, and we need sport­ing events,” Il­itch said at the time. “It picks our com­mu­nity up to no end.”

Sur­vivors in­clude his wife, the for­mer Marian Bay­off; seven chil­dren; 22 grand­chil­dren; and three great-grand­chil­dren.

RYAN REMIORZ/ASSOCIATED PRESS

REBECCA COOK/REUTERS

Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Il­itch, at left and in suit be­low, and head coach Scotty Bow­man, cen­ter, are sur­rounded by play­ers af­ter the NHL team won the Stan­ley Cup in 2002. Mr. Il­itch, who also founded the Lit­tle Cae­sars pizza em­pire, led trans­for­ma­tion ef­forts down­town, with his fo­cus on keep­ing his fran­chises in the strug­gling city.

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