Dick Vitale needs no introduction. V-Foundation, Diaper Dandies, Duke, Coach K, you know the drill. We spoke to ESPN’s most popular sports analyst Friday about a variety of topics ranging from his 70th birthday party, to his beloved Tampa Bay Rays, to two coaches who hogged the headlines this summer, his friends Rick Pitino and John Calipari. Vitale even addressed his alleged Duke/UNC bias.
Q: We once heard a great story from a friend – he spotted you in a restaurant eating breakfast and went up to say what a big fan he was. You took down his address and two weeks later he received this huge box containing assorted basketball paraphernalia. Is this something you do regularly?
Vitale: I love people. I’ve been very blessed in my life. Things like that are a regular occurrence. I was at a banquet last night and someone asked me if I could send an autographed picture to a girl who was battling cancer, and I said ‘sure, no problem.’ She doesn’t know it, but I’m going to send her a lot of other basketball-related things, like a basketball, the picture, and whatever else I can throw in. The way i look at it, I’ve been very blessed in my life, and a lot of good things have happened financially and every other way, and I love giving back.
To be good to people has been an important part of my makeup from the time I was raised by my mom and dad. My mother and father were uneducated factory workers in Jersey, in Bergen County, lived in Elmwood Park, and really had hearts of gold. I’ve been in the Hall of Fame all my life. I’ve been in the Hall of Fame because my mom and dad were Hall of Famers in the game of life. They taught me if you’re good to people, people are going to be good to you.
Q: Did you see that ESPN could possibly be getting the Final 4? It could happen if the NCAA backs out from its current deal with CBS. I looked up your contract and you’ve got four more years at ESPN …
Vitale: I hope I’ve got more than four to tell you the truth!
Q: How much longer do you want to work? You just turned 70 this summer …
Vitale: My idols are people like Vin Scully and Ernie Harwell. You work as long as you possibly can. Physically, emotionally, if you can handle the travel … Obviously ESPN has become a big-time player in all sports now, but I think it’s going to be really tough for CBS to give the NCAA tournament up.
Q: Do anything big for your 70th?
Vitale: I’m 70, but I act about 12. People say, “I can’t believe it when you say you’re 70!” And I tell them I’m 70 but I’ll match any 25-year-old for energy and enthusiasm. We had a special party for my 70th party. It was probably the greatest tribute I ever received in my entire life. It might bring me to tears now … my daughters and my wife had a party with friends from our area here – maybe 40-50 people. My two girls got up to speak. Now, I tell people this – I got a body by linguine, I can’t run, I can’t jump, I can’t shoot, yet I’m in nine Hall of Fames. The greatest tribute I ever received was when my two girls got up and spoke. They said, ‘to us, you’ve been such a role model and father for us to live our life the right way, teaching us about love, discipline and family.’ That was the greatest tribute of any honor I ever received. It’s more important to be a Hall of Fame dad than a Hall of Famer with a microphone. I was touched. It brought my to tears.
Q: This summer, two coaches dominated the headlines – Pitino and Calipari. How damaged are their legacies after Pitino’s sex scandal and Calipari had another Final Four scrubbed from the books?
Vitale: It certainly doesn’t help their image, or their resume, and it brings the doubters out in full force. However – remember this – Rick Pitino has said it once, twice, 20 times, 50 times: He made a mistake. He made an absolute mistake. No doubt whatsoever. What he did, as a married guy, he knows was wrong. However – saying all that … he was a victim of an extortion attempt. The trial is coming up. This woman has been charged with extortion, which is a criminal offense.
Rick, when I talked to him [Friday] … is so dedicated to two factors: Family and Louisville basketball. That’s all he wants to concentrate on and that’s all he wants to do. As long he has admitted to his wife and kids what a mistake he made … you know, people make mistakes.
Now, Calipari. They vacated his Final Four with Memphis and I think that’s a crime. I don’t think that should be vacated. On three occasions, the NCAA clearinghouse was there in Memphis and cleared Derrick Rose to play. Flat out said, ‘play him, he’s eligible.’ Why have a clearinghouse? If they tell you somebody is eligible … don’t you have to take some responsibility as the clearinghouse? I don’t think they have any right to take away that banner. You said he was eligible.
I think Memphis got a raw deal, and I’d be very surprised if Memphis doesn’t win that appeal. I know 90 percent of time you don’t win appeal, but I have a funny feeling here … Memphis has a legit argument in this cause.
Q: But this is the 2nd time Calipari’s had a Final Four scrubbed away.
Vitale: I’m trying to defend what’s right – in [the Massachusetts] case, the NCAA came in and said John Calipari, in no way, shape or form, was involved in the problem with Marcus Camby. He got involved with an agent, took things he shouldn’t have taken, but Calipari and his people were not aware of it. In today’s day and age, whenever you recruit the question mark student who is a great, great player, and he’s surrounded by an entourage, you are now opening yourself up for incredible scrutiny because you have no control of that entourage. You think you do, but you don’t. You don’t know what’s going on, you can’t live with a kid 24-7.
Until someone comes to me and proves without a doubt that Calipari is involved in those shenanigans and is involved … I can’t hold them guilty. If you’re anti-Calipari, you’re going to use that to bury him. If you’re a guy who just looks at what’s right, and see what he’s done, and about the graduation – that’s another thing he gets a bum rap for … his kids have graduated; he’s got a terrific graduation rate – but yet nobody wants to hear that.
Q: John Chaney once said that you can’t go 15 seconds without mentioning UNC or Duke during a telecast. I’m sure you get this a lot, but how do you address the claims that you show a heavy bias toward Duke and North Carolina?
Vitale: Who do I hear that from? Come on now – I’ve been doing games for 30 years, and I’ve done a lot of games that involve Duke and Carolina … I don’t force my bosses to put me on those games. They put me on those games. Why? Because they’re the most visible games out there! So obviously I have to talk about them. When you look at Duke and North Carolina … bias … I laugh when people say that … it’s hilarious.
I’m … biased? I’m telling the truth. They’re two of the great programs in America. They win. They graduate players. If you’re talking college basketball today, you have to talk Duke and Carolina. You can’t talk basketball without them. They’re a standard that a lot of schools try to emulate. I have no guilt. I might if they were 14-14 every year and I was singing their praises, but they’re 30-3 or 31-5.
Oh, I talk about Duke … I do 12 Duke games a year! If you got an argument, take it up with my bosses.
Q: I think some of it may come from fans who are watching, say, a Georgetown-Syracuse game and you seem to weave in a mention of Duke, UNC or Coach K.
Vitale: Who’s going to say that? Five or six people? If you listen to a telecast for two hours … the only reason I’ll bring in Duke or Carolina is because maybe we’re making a comparison. Or maybe because my producer is in my ear, saying, ‘hey, Dick, we have Duke coming up tomorrow, give them a pop. We have Carolina on Saturday.’ We’re in this business to get people to watch television. To promote a game, we have to talk about them. People are telling me in my ear to promote an upcoming game.
Q: One-and-done seems to be a problem plaguing college hoops right now – the latest ESPN 2010 mock draft has seven freshman going in the lottery. What needs to be done?
Vitale: I don’t like the one-and-done. I think it’s a disgrace to the game. I think it embarrasses the term “student-athlete.” It makes that a farce. Kids like Rose and Beasley – there’s no way in the world those kids wanted to be in college. Why should we deny them the NBA?
I’d like to see this plan, we can call it the V Plan – I would love to see a panel of experts – Jerry West, Larry Bird – guys that are GMs and presidents in the NBA and have great knowledge of players’ ability – designate 5-6 kids a year that they think are legit 1st round draft choices. Those kids should have an option – college or pros. But if they go to college, they should not be allowed out until they complete their 3rd year.
One and done is a joke.
Q: Since you’re such a huge baseball fan – rough year for the Rays. Are you monitoring the stadium issue?
Vitale: I just sent in my check for another year of season tickets, I think its our 11th or 12th year. I love baseball, I go to maybe 40-50 games a year. And not just in Tampa, all over the place, like New York or Wrigley, I love baseball. I think there’s no doubt it would be great here if they built a modern stadium, but it gets down to dollars. And fan interest and putting people in the seats. I dont blame the owners – how you going to spend csh and you’re not getting people out? That becomes a domino effect. That becomes a problem. I think eventually we’ll get a new ballpark. I’m trying to be optimistic. with a new ballpark and the environment to make it so exciting to come. I mean, Yankee stadium is like a museum.