overthinking the idiot box

April 4th, 2005

Everything you ever wanted to know about sports on TV.

At The Buzzer
Awesome with a Capital 'A'?
The Pros and Cons of Dick Vitale’s Presence in College Basketball

by Alan Bloom

He may not be known the world over, but Dick Vitale is certainly a household name in the world of Joe Sports Fan, particularly Joe College Basketball Fan. Vitale first came on to the college basketball scene as a coach for the University of Detroit where he manned the sidelines and blew practice whistles from 1973 to 1977, enjoying great success that lead to a job with the NBA's Detroit Pistons in 1978. Alas, his stint in the pros lasted for one brief season and from there, the boisterous 'Dickie V' has cemented himself as an institution with ESPN's college basketball team ever since the worldwide leader in sports began broadcasting the sport back in the season of '79. That would be twenty-six years and counting for the coach-turned-broadcaster, for those keeping score at home. It is not, however, Vitale's longevity that is the reason for his multiple appearances in television commercials for companies like Chevrolet and DiGiorno. No, anyone who is familiar with Dickie V in the slightest knows him best for his unbridled enthusiasm for the game of college basketball and for life in general. Enthusiasm that many college basketball fans believe detracts at times from his abilities as an analyst and firmly puts him in the camp of cheerleader. Widely credited as college basketball's top ambassador, Vitale was actually named a finalist for induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a contributor in February of 2004 — lending a great deal of validity to his image as an enthusiast and philanthropist, but not necessarily as an analyst. Is Dick Vitale a legitimate college hoops analyst or merely just a bantering jack-in-the-box?

It's no secret that Vitale is infatuated — almost sycophantic — over Duke Blue Devil basketball, earning him the dubious nickname, 'Dukie V.' Or that his strength in commentary lies almost entirely within the ACC, specifically with Duke and rival national powerhouse North Carolina. Granted, that is because, with rare exception, the only games you'll see Mr. Vitale calling involve either Duke or North Carolina. The ACC is the conference that he primarily covers, but that is arguably more by choice, now, than it is by assignment. Consequently, his expertise of teams with a lower profile than the juggernaut programs of college hoops tends to be a bit lacking, as is the case with programs on the west coast (no thanks in part to the Pac 10 not having a contract with ESPN) and it becomes quite evident when he's brought into the studio for some round table analysis with Chris Fowler, Digger Phelps, and Jay Bilas. He was ready to give Duke sharpshooter J.J. Redick the National Player of the Year honors way back in early February. An honor, mind you, that is still the center of much debate, where-in national consensus seems to favor Utah's Andrew Bogut. I've heard him claim during one of his rants while calling a Duke game that he didn't care what the percentages were, Redick (having just nailed a three-pointer) was the best shooter in America (Arizona's Salim Stoudamire had, in fact, a far superior percentage and nationwide recognition). Yet he's an analyst on the national scale. Am I being too harsh? Well, let us see how insightful Vitale can be about players not from a power conference like, oh, Andrew Bogut:

Q: What do you think of Andrew Bogut? What are his strengths and weaknesses? -Down Under hoops fan (Australia)
VITALE Andrew Bogut is having a big-time year, averaging a double-double each night (19.5 ppg, 11.7 rpg). He hit 11-of-12 field goals in a 63-51 home win over Air Force in late January. Utah shot 80 percent from the field in that game that's right, 80 percent, baby! A 7-foot sophomore from Melbourne, Australia, Bogut has been dominant in the lane, and it's a shame he doesn't get more visibility. Coach Ray Giacoletti is doing a great job replacing a legend like Rick Majerus at Utah. Bogut is a star. He is under-the-radar but he shouldn't be.

Tell me, does that answer the e-mailer's question fully? Strengths? Weaknesses? These aren't addressed. Vitale's response is as store-bought as his annual magazine season preview, offering statistics available to anyone rather than insight about where Bogut excels and where he needs improvement.

However, if Vitale has so many shortcomings and still remains on the air, it would stand to reason that there would be, well, a reason as to why. Here are a few:

'Dipsy-doo Dunk-a-roo!'
'He's a PTPer!'
'A high riser!'
'He's a three 'S' man — super, scintillating, sensational!'
'He's a diaper dandy!'
'It's awesome, baby, with a capital 'A'!

Dick Vitale has brought along with his energy a completely new vernacular. He has invented a new set of terminology which add such flare and verve to whatever it is that he is ranting about, you tend to dwell less on whether or not he is making sense and end up getting completely enveloped by the positive vibes he effortlessly exudes. Unlike some of the more sedate color-commentators like Digger Phelps, for example (a fine job that man does), Vitale pops. He possesses that college-age vision and passion with which a student section watches the game. I need only refer you to the Midnight Madness in 1993 when ESPN visited the Shoemaker Arena at Cincinnati. On the court, there was a challenge for one student to hit a half-court shot with the prize of fully paid tuition should he make it. Vitale was the MC on the floor next to him. 'I tell you what, you hit that shot and I'll even throw in the books for free,' bursts Vitale. Guess what? The kid hit the shot. The whole arena went bananas and the first person to hug the winner of a fully paid tuition is the guy who just sprung for his books: the happiest guy in the building. It wasn't even a game, but at that Midnight Madness, the images of a jubilant Dick Vitale bear-hugging that college sophomore captured the essence and spirit of college basketball.

His commentary is criticized mercilessly on message boards and chat rooms all across the land. His frenetic, louder-than-loud delivery earns him scorn or love depending on a viewer's disposition. He's incredibly polarizing. He's so polarizing, in fact, that he is made for TV. If there's anything sports fans love to do, it is argue, and the merits of Vitale's analysis offer plenty to dispute over. One thing that cannot be questioned, however, is his love for the game and his excitability, which, by extension, excites you. It's a bit like watching the game with your favorite uncle. But is he really good at what he does? Well, that depends. Are you a Duke fan?


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