Gowdy Award a measure of Vitale's impact

Media Watch

November 05, 1998|By Milton Kent

As improbable as the success of an all-sports, all-the-time cable channel like ESPN must have seemed 20 years ago, so, too, must the rise of a balding, then-recently fired college basketball coach named Dick Vitale.

Yet, two decades after the new channel took a chance on Vitale, he stands as one of the most popular figures in sports television, not to mention this year's recipient of the Basketball Hall of Fame's Curt Gowdy Award for his work as an analyst.

"I'm just flabbergasted and honored. I didn't even think of something like that when I got into it," Vitale said during a recent visit to Baltimore. "I've often said, the real broadcasters are the play-by-play guys. I'm just a jock. I came out of the locker room. I coached all my life. Somebody gave me a microphone and told me to go talk about basketball. And that's what I do."

You can appreciate Vitale's modesty, but truth is, with the exception of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird's 1979 championship game showdown, which helped sear college basketball into the nation's consciousness, no person has carried more water for the sport than Vitale.

His critics have accused him of being shrill and a huckster, but what they cannot deny is that Vitale brings a single-minded passion, affection and intensity to his work and his sport that no one this side of John Madden does in sports television.

Oddly enough, Vitale said he felt "depressed" three years ago because college basketball was taking some serious lumps, what with the procession of underclassmen leaving college early for the NBA, or, in the case of Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant, skipping school entirely.

But, as that season and subsequent seasons unfolded, Vitale saw that enthusiasm for college basketball on the campuses was constant and, in many cases, growing.

"I said, 'Wow, this is unreal. It's going to go on. The names just change,' " Vitale said. "College basketball is such an incredibly spirited event. As long as that name [on the jersey] says Maryland, Duke, Kentucky or North Carolina or UCLA, you'll always have excitement and spirit and enthusiasm."

But that doesn't mean it doesn't have problems. Vitale said there are too many college basketball and football players on campuses who don't want to be there and haven't prepared academically.

As Vitale wisely points out, however, the issue of college students leaving school early or skipping college entirely isn't just restricted to football and basketball.

"We don't make a big deal and I don't hear writers banging the typewriters about the fact that kids go to baseball or hockey. Nobody talks about it. A couple of kids leave to go to the NBA out of high school and everybody screams and yells," Vitale said.

Vitale's solution for the issue of basketball players who take off or skip the whole college party is to get the NBA to subsidize a league for players with substantial basketball skills but little interest in higher learning.

Under Vitale's plan, the players in this league would be required to learn trades in case their basketball careers fizzle.

"What people don't understand is, not going to college is not always bad, especially if one learns a trade," Vitale said. "I think it's a bigger crime when we take a kid who has not prepared in any shape or form academically and we force him into a college environment because he can shoot a jump shot or run with a football. What happens there is the kid's self-esteem is destroyed, he doesn't feel good about himself and now he wants to cut class."

The numbers game

ESPN is justifiably touting its NFL ratings for the first half of the season, which are up, but ever so slightly, from last year.

The channel produced stats showing ratings for its package of games over the first half of the season are up 3 percent from last year and the audience level is up 7 percent.

That's all fine and dandy, but you have to wonder why, with all the hype and publicity ESPN gives to its football coverage, those numbers aren't higher.

The gang from Bristol also reports that NFL-related and surrounding shows like "SportsCenter" and "PrimeTime" have experienced upticks in the ratings, with the numbers for the "SportsCenter" directly after games more than double what they were last year.

Pub Date: 11/05/98

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