CHICAGO -- "Championship Week" began on ESPN yesterday morning, usually a joyful time for college basketball analyst Dick Vitale. But not this year. A couple of incidents this winter have left the usually manic Vitale "depressed."
Instead of preparing to work with longtime pal Jim Valvano in the ESPN studios, Vitale has to defend himself for using an obscenity-laced statement during a commercial break of a recent cable telecast.
The trouble started Jan. 14 when Vitale made an off-the-cuff remark about Ohio State forward Lawrence Funderburke's play against Indiana. It escalated Feb. 18 when Vitale made what he thought was an off-the-air remark about Funderburke's play against Iowa.
The obscenity-laced outburst, made by an admittedly excitable man, came when ESPN went to a commercial. A satellite-dish owner in Columbus, Ohio, picked up the audio, taped Vitale's comment and sent it to a local radio station. When the remark was replayed later that week, Vitale found himself awash in the kind of controversy he doesn't need. Or deserve.
"I was depressed about it," Vitale said of the controversy. "I was so mad at myself, why I allowed myself to get that low to do that on the air is beyond me."
Some Big Ten officials made noises about banning Vitale ESPN telecasts of conference games, while Buckeyes fans just wanted to ban him. Period. A rumor even made the rounds that the conference had leaned on ESPN to keep Vitale from last Tuesday's Michigan-Ohio State game in Columbus when he never had been assigned that contest.
According to a Big Ten official, the league doesn't have right-of-refusal provisions in either its cable or CBS contract, and, he said, Vitale had never been scheduled for Tuesday's game. According to an ESPN spokesman, "There was no ultimatum about taking Dick off Big Ten games. . . . While they don't have a right [to refuse announcers], at the same time, it's a partnership, and we would listen to what they have to say."
As for Vitale, he apologized to Funderburke and Ohio State coach Randy Ayers, but the issue won't go away.
"Randy's been great," Vitale said. "He's been so compassionate, because he knows I simply used a locker-room profanity off the air in a private moment. It doesn't make me right. I'm sorry for what I did. If I could hug the kid, I'd hug him. I've offered all my apologies. I'm apologized out."
Vitale has gotten help from his old pal, Billy Packer, who, while not agreeing with what Vitale said, defended his right to say it.
"What Dick Vitale said, you can't afford to say anywhere," Packer said. "We've all made statements like that in the privacy of our home, but you've got the responsibility that when the [microphone] is on, you've got to watch what you say. The thing I did not approve of -- and I think the networks ought to make a very strong stand on this -- is [Vitale] was violated basically in the privacy of his office."
If Vitale had made his comment on CBS, no one would have heard it. "We have a policy that during commercials, we ask each remote to bring their audio off the satellite," explained Ted Shaker, CBS Sports executive producer. "We don't broadcast to the satellite for just that reason."
Shaker said CBS' policy dates back to 1987, when ABC sportscaster Al Michaels made some comments about his Minneapolis accommodations during a commercial break that were picked up by dish-watchers. Michaels, like Vitale, had to apologize even though the remarks were meant for private consumption and were only heard by a few.
"We learn," said Vitale. "I now write down the words 'satellite dish' next to me. I'd like to feel I have a private moment during a commercial. When we take the headsets off, we have 60 seconds to let it all out with each other like two guys working in a little office."
What frustrated Vitale, also, was the end of a special relationship had with Ohio State. The university has sponsored sound-alike contests, book signings and speaking appearances by Vitale. Now all that is gone. At least temporarily.
"All those detractors who have been upset with that comment, I hope and pray they've been brought up like I've been," Vitale said. "My parents had [only] an elementary school education, but my mom and dad taught me never to hold a grudge, and. . . that's been my whole philosophy of life."