What comes to mind when you think about college basketball? I suspect most people would respond with answers like the Duke Blue Devils, or March Madness, or maybe even vivid imagery of the late, revered Jimmy Valvano running around in disbelief after his NC State team slayed Hakeem, Clyde and Phi Slama Jama in the 1983 National Championship game.
Dick Vitale is on that list, too. The enigmatic ESPN announcer doesn’t just call college basketball games for a living; he is the unquestioned ambassador for the sport. This makes sense. His existence kind of epitomizes the whole thing.
While Vitale calls a game, you almost feel like he’s advertising the sport. “YEAH, BAAYY-BEEE!” and “ARE YOU SERIOUS?!” aren’t catch phrases, they are slogans. He’s a hype man, on stage, joyously imploring us to revel in the glory of what’s happening, because "IT’S AWESOME BAYY-BEEEEEE!" And when he taunts a coach while advising to “GET A T.O., BAYYY-BEEE! GET A TIMEOUT!” it’s reminiscent of that one pal in college who’d goad you to come out “just for one drink.”
The allure of college basketball – and of college life itself – is the idea of unpredictable madness. In college, anything goes; the only commitment you have is figuring out oneself (whatever that means). Conversely, an underdog pulling off an upset is a normal occurrence college basketball; in fact, a truly shocking result would be if the seeds played out accordingly, and there were no upsets during March Madness. But that’s not the case, and the notion that any team can fall at any time is exciting, because chaos is a compelling possibility in sports.
Dickie V.’s personality is tailored to meet this madness. An incredibly endearing figure, the 74-year-old willingly spent the last few decades touring the country, perched atop legions of mosh pits containing delirious 18-year-olds. Vitale is over-the-top, excessive, and prone to bouts of hysteria – so, really, he’s college … personified.
He’s the perfect punching bag – loud, brash, and slightly obnoxious – but on last Sunday, something amazing happened. Vitale tweeted out his bracket using the hashtag #DicksPicks, and the Internet gave him a pass (in part because he was born in freakin’ 1939, but mostly because he’s full of charm and spirit). How amazing is this? Ask poor Brent Musburger and Katherine Webb’s agent - there are NEVER free passes on the Internet. Not in 2014.
This begs the question, "Will we ever see another Dick Vitale again?"
John Madden, Dickie V., and Howard Cosell were all guys who were beloved – by young fans and older generations – to the point that they were bigger than the game they covered. The younger crop of announcers don’t have that luxury; even a personality like Bob Costas gets made fun of for coming down with pink eye during the Olympics.
As he nears retirement, I’ve come to a realization: Dick Vitale was not only one of a kind, but, quite possibly, the last of his kind.
Follow Ryan Hadfield on Twitter @Hadfield__