SI Vault
Myron Cope
December 18, 1967
Since 1949 Fred Zollner, owner of the Detroit Pistons, has juggled players, coaches and general managers in search of a winning team. This year he may be close to the right combination
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December 18, 1967

The Big Z And His Misfiring Pistons

Since 1949 Fred Zollner, owner of the Detroit Pistons, has juggled players, coaches and general managers in search of a winning team. This year he may be close to the right combination

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It is somehow fitting that the name of the Detroit Pistons' coach is Butcher. During 18 years in the NBA the Pistons have yet to win the league championship, and they have not won even a divisional title since 1956, when their home was Fort Wayne. Since moving to Detroit the following year, the team has never had a .500 season, and in the past four years it has finished last, last, next to last and last again in the Western Division.

It is not as if the Pistons' management had not tried harder. Owned by millionaire Fred Zollner, who is known around town as the Big Z, the Pistons are generous to players, honorable in their dealings, classy in grabbing a tab, dying to field a winner and, alas, sensationally given to lousing themselves up. The Big Z has been a sparkling success as an industrialist, bank director and board chairman of Tri-State College, but as a basketball boss he has consistently rolled snake eyes.

Logically enough, Detroit has steadily treated the Pistons as a civic embarrassment, yet the big news in town this year is that the team is winning. Under new Coach Donnis Butcher, the Pistons have been over .500 all season and are currently third, behind the 76ers and Celtics in the Eastern Division (divisions were realigned this year when the Seattle and San Diego franchises were admitted). Anyone familiar with gracious Fred Zollner must root for the Pistons to continue winning, but anyone aware of the club's tradition must wonder what method the organization will find to destroy itself this time.

Fred Zollner is the perfect man to own the Pistons, not only because he can afford them but because he has been able to endure them without once raising his voice. Zollner, going on 67, is short and stocky, a dapper man sporting peak lapels, a silk shirt, a constant tan and an unruly coiffure that suggests he is about to mount a podium and conduct Beethoven's Ninth. He is the sort who would not harm a fly; rather than swat one, he would catch cold holding the door open till the fly got ready to leave. Considerate to one and all, Zollner turns to his general manager, a moonfaced man named Ed Coil, and says, "In 11 years I've never hollered at you, have I, Ed?" Coil, just as all but one of the Piston general managers before him, came into the job with absolutely no background in pro basketball. He was an auditor in the Zollner Corporation, which manufactures pistons in Fort Wayne. His predecessor as general manager, an ex-sportscaster named Don Wattrick, was the one executive with basketball experience, having played semipro in the 1930s for—no kidding—the Hamtramck Belmont Trenchers. In the fall of 1965 Wattrick died of a heart attack—shortly after reviewing Piston prospects in preseason training, Detroit fans add morbidly.

"So I prevailed upon Ed Coil to accept the job," Zollner explains, as though he had lured Red Auerbach. "To show you what kind of fellow he is, he sold his house and moved to Detroit." Deeply grateful that a hired hand would accept a transfer, Zollner exclaims, "He sold his pride and joy!"

Zollner's own pride and joy is a red brick factory complex where 1,300 employees turn out nothing whatever except thousands upon thousands of silver-colored, bowl-shaped pistons—big pistons for air compressors, medium-sized pistons for trucks, little pistons for lawn-mower engines and classified pistons whose destination only the high command knows—$30 million worth of pistons a year, all told. Surrounded by pistons, Zollner is able to march through his plant and know that practically every soul there loves working for him. The pay is tops and the shop is air-conditioned. Twice union organizers have forced recognition elections, and twice they have been walloped. In the 35-year history of the Fort Wayne plant, not one salesman has resigned or been fired. "A workman is worthy of his hire," intones Zollner. "Hi, Fred!" the workers call out.

Fred does not want to be called Mr. Zollner. Born in Little Falls, Minn., he came from humble beginnings himself. His father, Theodore Zollner, an inventor and manufacturer of machinery, had to struggle, for he lacked capital and sales know-how. It was his son Fred who, at age 24, put the family firm over the top. One of its customers, a nearby bus line that sawed Packards in two and converted them into buses, had run into trouble obtaining a suitable piston from an eastern manufacturer. So Fred Zollner designed a better piston and sent it East. The response, he says, was: "What does that kid in the sticks know about pistons?" Rebuffed, the Zollners themselves began making pistons for the bus company, and as the bus line burgeoned through a merger and became the Greyhound Corporation it carried The Zollners along in its prosperous wake. In 1931 father and son moved to Fort Wayne, a central location for shipping.

In 1937, responding to a request from the boys in the shop, Zollner decided to sponsor a company basketball team. Because he offered good jobs to new players, the best talent in industrial basketball came to his door at a fast dribble. "We rarely lost," Zollner says, "and since we were playing neighboring industries, we were making enemies instead of friends."

That being the case, Zollner turned the team pro, enrolling it in a Midwest circuit—the old National Basketball League—in 1941. The coming of World War II made the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, as they were then called, as successful an athletic organization as there was in the land. The country was full of topflight athletic competitors who, because they were working at draft-deferrable jobs, did not have to join the Army and go to war. Working in the Zollner plant by day, they could indulge their competitive instincts by night. Zollner's basketball team dominated the NBL four straight years.

He eagerly joined the new NBA in 1949 and in his efforts to win a championship he has run through nine coaches, five general managers and enough money to build an annex to his piston plant. Is the goal worth the pain?

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