The 1979 NCAA Tournament, which culminated in a matchup between Magic Johnson's Michigan State and an upstart Indiana State Sycamores squad led by Larry Bird, may have marked the moment when March first went mad but it wasn't until 2013 that the Final Four finally became "Awesome, baby!"
For the first time in his 34 years calling college basketball games for ESPN, Dick Vitale will work the live broadcast of the Final Four. With CBS holding NCAA Tournament broadcast rights for almost the entirety of Vitale's ESPN career, the honor and responsibility of calling the most important games of the college basketball postseason generally fell to announcers like Billy Packer, Jim Nantz and Brent Musburger. Even this year, CBS and Turner hold the domestic television rights. While Nantz and Clark Kellogg narrate the action for most viewers, Vitale will make his Final Four debut with ESPN International. Vitale has contributed to studio programs and provided analysis during the Final Four over the years, but this will be the first time that he is actually calling a game. According to ESPN, Vitale's broadcast of the Louisville vs. Wichita State semifinal and the national championship game will be heard in 150 countries and territories.
"Are they going to understand me in China and Italy and all? People have a tough enough time understanding me here," Vitale said hours after the announcement in February. The 73-year-old was on the air in Ann Arbor announcing a high-profile Big Ten tilt between Michigan and Ohio State when colleague Mike Tirico brought up the news. "I'm excited about it. I've worked with so many great guys. You know, I was telling someone today on "SportsCenter." He said, 'Oh you're going to the hall of fame in sportscasting.' I said, 'It's been a great love. I've never looked at myself as a sportscaster. You're a broadcaster. Dan Schulman, Brad Nessler, [Brent] Musburger, Rece Davis [are broadcasters]. I'm a jock, man. Somebody gave me a mic and said talk about the game you love. and I've been a very blessed and lucky guy.'"
On Dec. 5, 1979, Wisconsin visited No. 10 Depaul at Alumni Hall in Chicago. A fledgling cable outfit headquartered in Bristol, Conn. -- a town perhaps best known to that point for the manufacturing of spring-driven door bells -- was broadcasting the matchup. For its first broadcast of a college basketball game, ESPN sent Joe Boyle to handle play-by-play duties. A veteran of calling the Twins and the Northstars in Minnesota, Boyle was teamed with an out-of-work coach fresh off an NBA firing.
"It should be a classic matchup," Dick Vitale said to begin his ESPN career. "College basketball excitement, enthusiasm."
WATCH: Dick Vitale's ESPN Debut
In a matchup that proved less than classic, Depaul dispatched Wisconsin, 90-77. Vitale and ESPN proved a pairing worth remembering, however. Over the year's Vitale's irrepressible excitement and boundless enthusiasm for college basketball would make him the ambassador for the sport.
Sacked by the underachieving Detroit Pistons just 12 games into the 1979-1980 season, Vitale was 39 years old when Scotty Connal offered him a gig with ESPN. A New Jersey native who had cut his teeth coaching high school hoops in East Rutherford, Vitale's rise through the coaching ranks -- from an assistant at Rutgers to the NBA by way of the University of Detroit -- had been as fast as his final season with the Pistons was brief.
"I'm very proud of the fact that I did the first game ever on ESPN, the 1979 game between DePaul and Wisconsin. And here it is 34 years later. I never thought that," Vitale told The Huffington Post during the 2012-2013 season. "I thought I was gonna do this temporarily until I got back coaching where I belonged -- in college. I didn't belong in the NBA. I didn't realize at first. I didn't fit. Eighty-something plus games? I really belonged with the spirit and excitement of a college campus. So that's where I thought I was gonna go back."
Vitale had yet to return to the sideline by the time the 1983 NCAA Tournament arrived. The '83 edition of the Big Dance proved significant for Vitale not just because his close friend, N.C. State coach Jim Valvano, cut down the nets after an upset win over Houston's Phi Slama Jama, but also because it was when he realized that his future was calling games rather than coaching them.
"Scotty Connal, he was the guy that hired me, used to always say to me ... and I didn't know what he meant ... but he used to always say, 'You connect, man. You gotta stay with this. You have a way of connecting with people. Whether they agree with you or disagree with you, you connect. Your words, they hit a button. That's a gift that you have.' I didn't know what he was talking about until 1983," recalled Vitale. "I went to the Final Four, my first Final Four ever as part of ESPN, part of our team. Then one day people were asking for autographs, pictures. Oh, it was unbelievable and I realized then, as Scotty told me, that's what he means about connecting, man. It's given me an incredible life. So I'm very blessed that I stayed with it and very fortunate."
Loud And Proud
As ESPN expanded its viewership in the 1980s and 1990s, Vitale expanded the list of signature acronyms that peppered his high-volume performances. There were P.T.P.ers and M&Mers who could turn a knee-knocker into a N.C. as well as MIAers and Dow Jonesers who might lose their P.T. if they weren't delivering Q.T. when it was time for bringing in a W. By 2000, ESPN.com produced a Vitale glossary perhaps as much out of necessity as for promotion.
Vitale's first words for network continued to define his work as he become one of the most recognizable ESPN personalities: "College basketball, excitement, enthusiasm." Fueled by his relentless enthusiasm for players and coaches and the boundless excitement that seemingly every college basketball game elicited in him, Vitale became the preeminent proselytizer for the sport and arguably the most willing pitchman for ESPN. True to Connal's assessment, Vitale's amped-up style connected with fans and critics alike over the years.
"With Vitale, as with ABC's Howard Cosell, you either love him or loathe him. But whereas Cosell can appeal to the intellect, Vitale only assaults the senses," wrote William Taaffe for Sports Illustrated in 1984, during Vitale's fifth season at ESPN. "You either like his act or, find yourself turning down the volume control (an L for the VC, no doubt)."
Nearly 30 years later, Vitale has avoided the arrogance and bitterness that consumed Cosell later in his storied career. For better and worse, he remains a staunch promoter of players, coaches the positive aspects of college basketball. Aside from a quiet stretch after vocal chord surgery in late 2007, Vitale has also avoided turning down his personal volume control.
"Vitale's shtick might not always feel real -- it honestly must be exhausting having to keep that up all the time -- but his enthusiasm is never faked," wrote Will Leitch for Sports On Earth ahead of Vitale's Final Four debut. "He's a walking smile. I think it is all real."
For millennial fans who lived their entire lives with ESPN, one of the chiefs criticisms of Vitale can be that he brings the same level of exclamatory exuberance -- and many of the same exclaimed catchphrases -- to every game that he calls month after month, season after season. Even as they have grown up, Vitale has managed to remain the same.
"There's no questioning Dick Vitale's place among the most significant announcers in the history of sports. He's been a bedrock in the foundation of ESPN becoming the number one sports network in the world. He's enshrined in the Hall of Fame largely based on his work as an announcer and pitch man for the sport of college basketball. His antics, personality, and catch phrases can be parroted by millions. When you look at the last 25 years, few men have contributed more to college basketball and I'd argue that no announcer is as synonymous with any one sport as Vitale is to hoops," Matt Yoder of Awful Announcing wrote to The Huffington Post in an email. "With that said though, his style certainly isn't for everyone. Vitale is in the same boat with Chris Berman. They've ridden their gimmicks to incredibly popular heights, but after two plus decades it begins to wear thin with many viewers. Many in my generation loved guys like Dick Vitale and Chris Berman growing up, but when you reach your mid 20's there's only so many times you can be entertained when you hear about 'Maalox Mashers,' 'diaper dandies,' and 'PTPers.' After a while, there becomes a disconnect when Dickie V calls members in Club Trillion "'AWESOME BABY WITH A CAPITAL A!'"
If there is any growing disconnect between Vitale and segments of the ESPN audience, his bond with students on campuses around the country seems as strong as ever, especially if you follow @DickieV on Twitter. Throughout this past hoops season, Vitale tweeted pictures of himself with fans, cheerleaders and hotel staff in various stop on his whirlwind schedule, not to mention seemingly anyone who stopped at his table at The Broken Egg near his home in Sarasota, Fla.
"We've been to, whether it's Duke or Kentucky or Syracuse, or wherever it is, we've been there lots and lots and lots of times, and every single time it's like Elvis or the Beatles have walked into the building," Andy Katz of ESPN told The Huffington Post about the reaction that Vitale receives. "So that says something of his popularity."
Before accepting the coaching job with the Pistons in May 1978, Vitale resigned in 1977 as coach of the men's basketball team at the University of Detroit. After coaching the Titans to an 78-30 record since taking the reins to start the 1973-74 season, the stress of losing had been been giving Vitale ulcers. While his post-coaching profession has enabled him to spend his nights calling upset losses rather than getting upset over them, Vitale still takes his work seriously and remains aware of his critics.
"That's the nature of the business. I don't think you can survive in this business, not unless you're gonna be able to handle that," Vitale told The Huffington Post. "Sometimes I get very sensitive to that, but I realize you can't please everybody. I mean you just can't. If you have do a game between Carolina and Duke, you got Carolina fans saying all you do is talk about Duke. If you go there, Duke tells you all you do is talk about Carolina. You just laugh about it. You go on and you move on."
Vitale's jovial on-air presence belies a work ethic that would likely seem familiar to those still in the coaching fraternity. He applies this same relentless drive to his fundraising efforts on behalf of The V Foundation. While he may be understanding when it comes to those who don't care for his style, he stands by his preparation.
"I have never ever been criticized for knowledge, for my preparation. And that's one thing I'm proud of. But, you know, let's face it, some people don't like people that are up tempo," Vitale added. "That's why we have different model cars, different kinds of wine. We have choices and I can deal with that. I understand. But if someone who has worked with me [doubted] my knowledge, my preparation, then it would really tear up my insides."
The Final Four Frontier
In 2006, CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus attempted to have college basketball's most ardent ambassador call a game during the NCAA Tournament but was rebuffed by ESPN.
"It seemed like an obvious no-brainer that would have benefited everyone, although I certainly respect ESPN's decision," McManus said of his attempt to incorporate Vitale into his network's tournament coverage, according to Michael Hiestand of USA Today Sports.
Thirty years earlier, Vitale missed out on another potential chance at the Final Four by virtue of being on the wrong team at the right time. With Mike Dabney and Phil Sellers, two players recruited by Vitale before the 1972-73 season, leading the team in scoring, Rutgers reached the 1976 Final Four. After beginning the campaign 31-0, Rutgers' "Unforgettable Season" closed with a loss to Michigan in the national semifinal and then a loss to UCLA in the third-place game. After helping recruit Dabney and Sellers in his role as assistant coach at Rutgers, Vitale accepted the head coaching job at the University of Detroit in 1973. The Titans finished 19-8 in 1976.
"Dick was certainly instrumental, the key guy," Dick Lloyd, the head coach at Rutgers when Vitale was hired and during the recruitment of Dabney and Sellers, told The Huffington Post. "His role primarily was recruiting. He went out on the road and got those two kids."
One year after Rutgers' memorable run, Vitale would coach the Titans to the Sweet 16. But that would be his last foray into the tournament as a coach. A year later he'd be on the NBA sidelines leading the Pistons. Two years down the road, he'd be making his ESPN debut in Chicago.
Over the ensuing decades, Vitale authored books, had his name on a video game, appeared in movies and television shows and arguably called more big regular-season college basketball games than anyone else with inarguably the most the gusto. Starting with that Depaul-Wisconsin game in 1979, he brought excitement and enthusiasm to college basketball. But for all his accomplishments and his impact, Vitale never truly reached the Final Four until 2013.
There are really only two words needed to describe that assignment: Awesome, baby.