A little more than 30 years later, Vitt finds himself in the middle of one of the biggest stories in the league's recent history — and one of its biggest scandals.
Though the 57-year-old New Orleans Saints assistant coach has been suspended by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for the first six games of the 2012 season for his role in an illegal bounty system, Vitt was named interim coach Thursday by the Saints.
It means that Vitt will run the team's organized team activities beginning Monday and coach the team in training camp as well as its preseason games. After serving his suspension, Vitt will coach the last 10 regular-season games. He also would coach the team if it makes the playoffs.
Saints head coach Sean Payton has been suspended for the entire season and recently had an appeal of the penalty rejected by Goodell. Former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who offered to pay players for big hits and was videotaped telling defensive players to injure members of the San Francisco 49ers on the eve of last season's NFC championship game, has been suspended by the league indefinitely.
Gordy Combs, who coached Vitt at Towson and has been in touch with the former Tigers linebacker for most of his NFL coaching career, said the selection of Vitt as interim coach "makes sense" because Vitt has been in that position before. As interim head coach in St. Louis while Mike Martz was sidelined with a bacterial infection in 2005, Vitt coached the Rams to a 4-7 record. Martz was later fired, and Vitt joined the Saints.
"I think Joe is very well-regarded throughout the league," said Combs, now an assistant coach at Johns Hopkins. "I know a few years ago when I visited Joe when he was an assistant with the Eagles, Emmitt Thomas was the defensive coordinator but Joe was doing most of the talking."
Combs said Vitt, a linebacker in college, was an "average" player at Towson who played mostly on special teams but struck up a relationship with former Colts coach Mike McCormack, who brought him on as one of the first strength coaches in the NFL. Vitt followed McCormack to Seattle when McCormack became coach of the Seahawks in 1982.
Vitt has been one of Payton's most trusted assistants throughout the six years they've been together in New Orleans, and Vitt took over many of the coaching duties when Payton broke his leg last season.
Saints GM Mickey Loomis said in a statement released by the team Thursday that keeping continuity during a tumultuous time was important in naming Vitt.
"It is important that we keep Sean Payton's philosophy front and center during this season," said Loomis, who was suspended for the first 10 games of the regular season. "Sean has been the driving force behind the tremendous success our team has enjoyed during the past six years; his leadership will be missed. But we need to set a course of action that gives us the best chance to win this season without our head coach, and that is why I am announcing today that Joe Vitt will assume Sean's duties.
"We considered a number of great options to handle Payton's duties both internally and externally but believe this will provide the most seamless transition for our players and our coaching staff, allowing our offensive and defensive staffs to remain intact with the fewest changes. This is the same structure we used last season during Sean's knee injury."
Saints owner Tom Benson said the move to name an interim coach from within the organization — there had been speculation that veteran NFL coach Bill Parcells might take over — was made "for the the continued success of our program.
"Joe has been part of building our success along with our head coach Sean Payton and our general manager Mickey Loomis," Benson said. "We are looking forward to the start of the offseason program, the NFL draft, our minicamps and training camp. We are looking forward to the start of our season, as I know that all of our fans are and we are looking forward to competing and winning a championship right here in our own city, in our own stadium this year."
It is not certain who will take over for Vitt for the first six games of the regular season. ESPN has reported that offensive line coach Aaron Kromer would assume Vitt's duties.
"We will work through the offseason under this plan, and when we get to training camp we will decide on a course of action for the first six weeks of the season while Joe Vitt is unavailable," Loomis said. "We are fortunate to have a great veteran coaching staff well-equipped to handle this challenge. Joe and Sean have worked closely together to build our program, one of the most successful in the NFL in the past six years, and I have the fullest confidence that Joe will continue that success that Sean has brought us."
Efforts to reach Vitt through the Saints were unsuccessful.