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SPORTS MEDIA

Studio role doesn’t cool Vitale’s ardor

By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / March 16, 2012
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Would you believe Dick Vitale turns 73 in June? In his parlance, Dickie V is no diaper dandy, baby. But make no mistake, he’s still a prime-time player, even if it’s not in his preferred role.

Perhaps it all adds up once you do the math and realize he was fired as coach of the Detroit Pistons (yes, kids, Vitale was a genuine NBA coach) in November 1979, leading to a gig that would change his life: providing color analysis on ESPN’s first college basketball broadcast, a DePaul-Wisconsin matchup on Dec. 5 of that year.

Do not pass up a chance to listen to that game or another from Vitale’s early days as a broadcaster should you ever luck into finding something interesting between the World Series of Poker replays and “American Gladiators’’ cheese on the channel now called, without apparent irony, ESPN Classic. The early Vitale is practically subdued, the persona (some may say shtick) that would make him a broadcasting icon yet to be conceived.

It may take a moment to recognize that the voice belongs to him, but there’s something right about him being part of that inaugural broadcast. It was the perfect marriage at the perfect time of sport, network, and personality.

When Vitale comes on the line for a conversation with reporters about this year’s NCAA Tournament earlier this week, there’s no mistaking the voice on the other side of the phone. Let’s just say that Vitale, whose famous full-court press of enthusiasm has made him something akin to the beloved uncle or celebrity guest of honor at every college campus he visits, does not require prodding to talk about his favorite time of the year.

“It’s my 33d year [as a college basketball analyst] and I’ll act like a little kid, there’s no question about it,’’ said Vitale, who is a significant part of ESPN’s studio coverage since it does not have rights to tournament games. “I’ll act like a little kid. There’s no question about it, some of you people criticize me for acting a little foolish at times, but that’s the kid in me. It’s a game that has a lot of passion, emotion, and I try to be myself.’’

Being himself, at least when the red light is on, usually doesn’t include subtlety, and so it does not require particularly discerning listening to recognize that there’s a certain wistfulness to Vitale this year. CBS and Turner Sports are in the second of a 14-year, $10.8 billion agreement to broadcast every game of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament on four networks: CBS, plus Turner properties TBS, TNT, and truTV. ESPN was the presumed front-runner when CBS and Turner won the bidding in April 2010, and Vitale does not or cannot mask his disappointment that the games air elsewhere.

“I eat my heart out for that week now that we don’t have the games,’’ he said. “I feel that during the course of my 33 years, I’ve been blessed to sit at courtside for so many great, great games. I love the games. Something I look to is doing the games, being at the games, being with the crowd, that’s the hot dog in me, the mustard in me. It’s what brings out my excitement.’’

But he finds his silver lining in the green room - or war room, as he calls it - where he watches the games and banters with his cohorts on ESPN’s college basketball studio programming: host Rece Davis and fellow analysts Jay Bilas, Digger Phelps, and Hubert Davis. As much as Vitale longs to be at the events as they happen, he does savor the camaraderie of watching with his peers.

“We evaluate and analyze and second-guess,’’ Vitale says, that voice rising enthusiastically. “Our best stuff, we share [with each other off camera]. Man, when Jimmy V [Jim Valvano] was living, if you guys ever could have taped some of our conversations, watching the games, it was totally off the record. If I ever wrote a book, called ‘Off The Record,’ of coaches telling me stuff, it would be the greatest seller in the history of writing.’’

The tournament began earlier this week with what the NCAA is trying to dub “The First Four,’’ though all are encouraged here to refer to it as the “truTV Round,’’ since the obscure network is where the games aired. The real fun began Thursday with the first 16 games in the Round of 64, with 32 more teams playing Friday. It’s arguably the most enjoyable two-day stretch on the sports calendar, especially when the favorites get a scare or something more from the underdogs. (It’s all right to exhale now, Syracuse.)

While Vitale notes that there are more quality midmajor teams in the field this year than he can recall seeing before, he believes the Final Four will ultimately be devoid of surprises. He has Kentucky beating North Carolina in the championship game, with Missouri and Florida State also making it to New Orleans.

“I think this year is a little different than most in that the Goliaths up there are going to be tough to beat,’’ Vitale said. “Players of great stature coming back to school, like Jared Sullinger [at Ohio State] and [Harrison] Barnes and [John] Henson [at North Carolina], have made those teams stronger. And I think saying all that, I don’t believe we’ll see ‘shock city’ within the Final Four as we witnessed with the Butlers and VCUs and George Mason [in recent years]. I think we’ll be dominated with the [big programs]. I still think that when push comes to shove, the tournament will be dominated by the teams at the top.’’

Chad Finn can be reached at finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globechadfinn.

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