Words usually come easily and quickly, enthusiastically, to Dick Vitale, but Monday there wasn’t much he wanted to say – or could say – about ESPN’s decision to remove him from coverage of the Duke-North Carolina game on Wednesday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Vitale in some ways has become synonymous with the rivalry and if that’s too strong a description, then this certainly isn’t: He at least has become the voice of what many consider the greatest rivalry in college basketball, if not college sports.
Since ESPN’s inception in 1979, Vitale has called every Duke-UNC game aired by the network. During that span, he has called approximately 50 Duke-UNC games – it’s difficult to keep count after so many – and he was planning on that streak continuing Wednesday.
ESPN decided Vitale won’t be part of the coverage team at Cameron Indoor. The broadcast will go on with play-by-play man Dan Shulman and analyst Jay Bilas. During the past several years, Bilas and Vitale had been co-analysts for Duke-UNC games.
Understandably, there wasn’t much Vitale could say when reached by phone. He’s approaching four decades with ESPN and his relationship with the network has been a good one – for both parties.
Imagine the hurt Vitale must feel, though, after learning he won’t be a part of the one game that has most defined his identity as a broadcaster – the one game he seems to savor calling more than any other.
“I told them that I cannot lie when a writer asks me what’s my feeling not doing the game,” he said. “I said I have to be honest. And my honest reply to you is, obviously, I’m a loyal, team player. I will go where my bosses tell me to go.
“But in my heart I will absolutely miss being a part of North Carolina-Duke.”
Vitale will undoubtedly be missed, too. By the behind-the-scenes folks – the sports information directors and others – at Duke and UNC who have grown so fond of working with him. By media members who have grown used to Vitale’s warmth and kindness and pregame handshakes.
By the college kids who will fill the student section at Duke. Vitale has been known to body surf on a wave of Cameron Crazies. In more recent years, they’d hold up signs and chant his name, and Vitale always seemed just as enamored with them – and with the environment – as they were with him.
Most of all, the viewers at home will miss Vitale. A great number of them will, anyway.
Sure, it’s easy for the so-called haters to hate on Vitale. He’s loud. He punctuates a lot of sentences with “baby!” and uses phrases like “diaper dandy” and he often finds a way to extoll coach Mike Krzyzewski and Duke, even when he’s not calling a Duke game.
To some, Vitale isn’t so much Dickie V. as he is Dukie V., but those who criticize his appreciation for all things Duke – especially those locally – might have forgotten how he always referred to Dean Smith as the “Michelangelo of college basketball” or how, back in the mid-90s, he routinely fawned over Dante Calabria’s hair, or how close he was with Jim Valvano.
Vitale might love Duke and Krzyzewski, but he loves college basketball as a whole, too. There has never been a more vocal ambassador for the game.
Interviewed recently about the memorable 1995 Duke-UNC game at Cameron Indoor, Calabria, a former UNC guard, laughed when reminded of Vitale’s appreciation for his hair.
“Mr. Vitale is a really good guy and he does so much off the court and he gets so excited about the competition in college basketball,” said Calabria, who now coaches high school basketball at Montverde Academy outside of Orlando, Fla. “I mean, he’s done so much for just the general public of college basketball. He’s a phenomenal guy, phenomenal man.”
Genuine, too. The Vitale people see and hear on television – the positivity, the enthusiasm – is the same Vitale people who work with him see, and the same Vitale who greets local media members, whether you work for the largest outlet around or are from the small town.
It doesn’t matter. Vitale treats people with respect and care, which is why ESPN’s decision is all the more disappointing. This is how you treat your Hall of Fame college basketball broadcaster – by removing him from the one game that means more to him than any other? This is how you treat a man who, for nearly four decades, has been an ambassador for the sport, and for ESPN’s coverage of it?
It’d be one thing if Vitale, 75, was on his way out with the network. But he was preparing to call Kentucky’s game at Tennessee on Tuesday, and ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz told the Tampa Bay Times that Vitale remains an “integral” part of the network’s college basketball coverage.
ESPN has a funny way of showing it. As good as Shulman and Bilas are, the broadcast simply won’t be the same without Vitale, who always authentically reflected the passion of the Duke-UNC rivalry.
Vitale said he’d miss not being there in the rafters of Cameron Indoor, seated next to Shulman and Bilas. He said he’s sure those two will do a great job, and that he loves working with both of them. But it will be difficult, too, not being there while the game goes on without him.
“It’s been a special part of my basketball and my announcing career,” Vitale said. “And I will never forget the magical moments that I’ve had, being able to be part of such an incredible of rivalry.”