There’s no greater ambassador and evangelist for college basketball than Dick Vitale, who was on the mic for ESPN’s first college hoops broadcast on Dec. 5, 1979 (DePaul 90, Wisconsin 77) and has been sharing his passion for the game with appreciative audiences ever since. Athlon Sports sat down for some preseason analysis, banter and bombast in an exclusive Q&A with Vitale
North Carolina-obvious number one team in the preseason this year. Is there a reason the Tarheels might not win it? Are there any warts on this team?
Vitale: I think the one stumbling block for North Carolina is very simple, the system. I think if it were four out of seven like in the NBA, they would no doubt stand tall as the champs. But as you know, in college basketball, one bad night and the party’s over. And there’s going to be some quality teams.
Who else do you like?
Vitale: Well, here are my “super seven.” My No. 7 team is Duke. I think Austin Rivers will be an impact diaper dandy.
No. 6, I’ll go with Vanderbilt. I think they’re gonna be phenomenal this year. Strong in the post with (Festus) Ezeli, and then scoring galore with (John) Jenkins and (Jeff) Taylor. I think that Kevin Stallings has the makings of a special team.
Five, I’ll probably go, right now, I’m going to go Syracuse. I think Syracuse, with Kris Joseph & Co., is going to be very good. Very athletic. That Jim Boeheim knows how to win.
No. 4, I’ll go with the Buckeyes. I think anytime you start in the middle with a player like Jared Sullinger, you have a chance to be special.
No. 3 is Connecticut. The arrival of Andre Drummond was the Christmas present that came really early. The 6-11 diaper dandy should be a major impact player, and I look for a big year out of the kid Jeremy Lamb.
No. 2, Kentucky. Actually, I just talked to John Callipari and he is thrilled with his talent level this year — I think even better than last year. Last year, they came very close to winning a national title. I think if they had gotten by Connecticut they probably would have stood tall in the title game. What hurt them big time was the free throw line.
Then, No. 1 is North Carolina. I think they have the best frontcourt in basketball, three NBA players in Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Harrison Barnes.
Name a few coaches who don’t get a ton of publicity but who you really think can get the job done, who really know what they’re doing.
Vitale: There are a lot of guys you can throw into that mix. But it is so hard to rate people. It’s so difficult to compare one coach with another because everything is not equal.
They don’t have the same recruiting budgets. They don’t have the same fan support. They don’t have the same visibility, TV exposure — which all of those factors lead to the most important element involved in college basketball — the most important thing is recruiting. But to answer your question, you take a look at a guy like Fran Dunphy.
The guy does a phenomenal job down in Temple. Also, you have to talk about Bo Ryan. He doesn’t get a lot of national publicity, but all the coaches know the guy can flat out coach. But if you ask the average fan, they don’t even know who he is. Bo Ryan, what he’s done with that program is absolutely amazing.
You think about Vanderbilt, Kevin Stallings. He’s done a heck of a job in a tough conference, a tough scenario dealing with Kentucky, Florida, and programs like Tennessee and all, and he has had Vanderbilt, you know, up there battling, a very dangerous basketball team. You have to mention Jamie Dixon, who has done a great job with the Pitt program. Hey another coach that doesn’t get a lot of publicity is Jimmy Larranaga, now at Miami. He does an outstanding job and doesn’t get much PR at all.
I could go on and name so many guys that really don’t get a lot of PR, a lot of notoriety, but who are legitimate big-time coaches.
What are some of your favorite arenas to call a game?
Vitale: Obviously I love Cameron Indoor Stadium. How could you not like it? If you like baseball like I do, going to Wrigley Field, Fenway Park is special, and that’s what Cameron indoor stadium is all about.
You gotta like Rock Chalk Jayhawk land up at Allen Fieldhouse. The tradition man, you feel it. You feel it as you walk into the arenas like Cameron. You feel it when you walk into Allen Fieldhouse. So special, so unique. You gotta like it when you think about going, if you want a museum, a place more like Yankee Stadium to me is like a museum, the new Yankee Stadium, and that’s what Chapel Hill is all about.
You walk in you see the Jordans and Worthys and all the great players that have played there, their jerseys, the Player of the Year awards, and it just has that special feeling. You can just feel it. Rupp Arena is Lexington. The most passionate fans — you feel the passion as they explode in the blue and white, blue nation going crazy down there in Kentucky.
You can feel that. You feel the energy and the spirit, very, very special. Those places jump at me.
How much does it pain you as a basketball guy, a guy who loves the sport, to see all this realignment stuff and realize that it’s just all about football?
Vitale: Don’t even get me started because we could go on for seven hours. I think when I’m picking up today, reading about Missouri joining this league or that league … I’m really fed up with it. I just think it takes away from the essence of what college sports are supposed to be about. And most of all, it makes no logical sense. Geographically, some of the matchups — nobody can convince me that Pitt and Syracuse belongs in the ACC. They are Big East all the way. Penn State should be in the Big East.
I mean, geographically, it makes no sense in many of these cases, and it’s all because of greed. It’s all because of dollars, and it’s all because of football, and I think it’s wacky, and I think it’s totally ridiculous.
We got leaders out there, college Presidents, who talk about integrity and talk about loyalty and talk about all the qualities they want their athletes to represent and yet they, as the leaders of the universities, violate all of it. I mean, you got a scenario where I have been told, the Pittsburgh president is sitting as the executive committee in the Big East and telling all their people, “We must trust one another. We must unite. We must do all the things that are, to stay together.” And in the meantime he’s wheeling and dealing and going to the ACC.
Gimme a break. Gimme a break. I have a problem with it. I have a major problem with it, and I think that the President of the NCAA, Mark Emert, is 100 percent right when he said the perception they are sending out to the people is really, really bad. But it’s all about, it’s all about football. It’s all about dollars, dollars, dollars. And it just breaks your heart. The loss of Pittsburgh and Syracuse from the Big East is monumental.
Now, are there any negatives you think to the amount of basketball that is on TV now? It’s amazing, you know four, five games a night. Is there an oversaturation or do you just think that’s just all good for the sport?
Vitale: It’s a positive in the fact that when you look at the number of people watching, in terms of if you factor in all the games, a lot of people are watching the sport.
They say ratings may be down or something, but like you just said, the quantity, the number of games that are being played and you factor in a lot of people watch it, that’s why I think the sport has become so popular.
I mean it has grown. You get down and everybody is excited about March Madness. Grandma, grandpa, the alums all over, people that never followed a game go wacky about March Madness. They find a school they love, the Davids, the Goliaths, so many of the Butlers and people just get really enthused about that.
But, I just think, you know what bothers me about all the games on TV, the way they are, is it takes away a little bit in terms of high school games and people, rather than going out, stay in front of the TV and watch game after game after game.
Especially, you know, I have a problem, I’ll be honest, with football. It used to be a situation where Friday Nights were always geared for high school football, but now with college football being shown on Friday, there’s a lot of people now who stay home and watch that college game.
Back to basketball, though. The exposure is a great thing for the fans. They are getting to know that there are more quality teams than just the so-called Goliaths out there.
Years ago, all you ever saw on TV were the Carolinas, the Kentuckys, the UCLAs. But now, you get a chance to see all the teams — it’s like a smorgasbord. So everybody gets an opportunity to get their moment on TV. And for those kids playing, that moment becomes the most special of their career.
I mean to be on national TV, whether it be ESPN, ESPNU, ESPN2, I mean, they really, really treasure that moment. And coaches utilize that. It’s become a great tool for recruiting.
Who is the best college basketball player you have seen since you’ve been at ESPN. If you are coaching the game, and you need one guy for one game, who would it be.
Vitale: In my 30 plus years at ESPN the one guy that dominated the game, his presence in the middle, just absolutely would change the complexion of how a team played, would be Patrick Ewing from Georgetown. He changed the complexion of a game just by his presence. Thou shall not enter thy lane man! You can forget about driving — you better make your perimeter shot. His presence was so special and so unique. He was just such a talent.
Who is your favorite athlete in any other sport other than basketball?
Vitale: Because he represents everything I believe in, off the field as well as on the field, everything he does is the right way, the way he deals with people — Derek Jeter of the Yankees. I just think that Jeter is what we should strive for.
We should have more Jeters in the world of sports. We have a lot of guys who forget where they come from. They forget what got them to the top of the mountain, and we see entourages, and we see all the things around them that get in their way and prevent them from reaching greatness.
Can I take two players? My other guy, and I love him because he is everything about energy, spirit, excitement, loves to play — in fact I have said time and time again that if I had to pick one player I would want to coach it would be Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
He played multiple positions. He was a winner. He’d do anything to get you to the winner’s circle, and he really did it with a smile on his face with an unbelievable enthusiasm that was contagious to everybody around.
Is there any one rule in college basketball, if you were the czar of college basketball, that you would change?
Vitale: The one I’ve been screaming about is the alternate possession on a jump ball. I think that is ludicrous and absurd. And I don’t understand the logic, how you penalize a great defensive effort by alternating possession or by the fact that “Oh, yes, the arrows pointing that way, give it to them.” And in the meantime, a guy made a great defensive play to force the jump ball. That rule bothers me tremendously. It really, really disturbs me. But saying all that, college basketball has been 32 of the greatest years of my life.
I said this when I got into the Hall of Fame, and I’ll say it again, I can’t believe the dream that I’ve had, to be able to sit at courtside for some of the greatest games. I just got my schedule yesterday, most of it, and I’m looking … I’m going to be doing a Carolina-Duke game, I’ll be doing a Kentucky-Florida game, the Carrier Classic-up there with Michigan State and Carolina, the Jimmy V classic. To sit there and look, Ohio St. and Duke, and get paid, Wow! That’s stealing money my friends. I’ve been blessed.
The work, to do something that you love, is unreal and I think this year, more so than the past few years, we are going to see many quality teams, because a lot of good kids have come back to school, didn’t go to the NBA Draft, like Terrance Jones (Kentucky), like Sullinger, like Harrison Barnes, like (Perry) Jones up in Baylor, I mean you are going to see some really really, really quality players. It’s going to be a special season.
Go to Dickvitaleonline.com to learn about how you can help Dick raise money for cancer research. He has raised one million dollars in each of the past six years for kids battling cancer.