In the nine months I've done this job, no ESPN personality has generated as much response from viewers as Dick Vitale. ESPN's star basketball commentator has innumerable fans who love his knowledge and enthusiasm -- and equally as many detractors who believe he shouts too much, heaps too much praise on a favored number of coaches, as well as Duke University, and doesn't bring enough of a critical edge to his work.
Vitale has been covering the college basketball scene for the past 27 years, following stints as the head coach at the University of Detroit and the Detroit Pistons. His familiar voice, unerring personality and smile have become the face of ESPN's college basketball.
"Dick is the signature voice of college basketball," said Norby Williamson, ESPN's executive vice president for production. "He lives and breathes college basketball. When you assess Dick, you have to look at his whole body of work. And that would include an unmatched knowledge and passion for the game."
Regarding criticism from some viewers and newspaper critics that Vitale goes out of his way to prop up perennial ACC power Duke and coach Mike Krzyzewski, Williamson said: "I don't buy it. Duke is no different from any high-profile, successful team such as the New York Yankees or Dallas Cowboys. But while he gives Duke its deserved accolades, he's been critical of the team when necessary."
Vitale, who has a reputation for being sensitive to criticism, responded to the same negative comments he's heard for years.
"I try to be as objective as I can," he said. "But when I'm assigned Duke games, you have to understand their success warrants, for the most part, positive comments. And while I've been critical of, say, their defense, you can't satisfy all the people all the time. People hear what they want to hear.
"You develop a reputation, people take shots. But I haven't survived at doing this for 27 years by just saying 'awesome baby.' I'm proud of the research and preparation I do, as well as the knowledge and substance I bring to the table. When I do games involving Hall of Fame coaches, there's not a lot to criticize them about. But I often question their strategy and results. I know I talk a lot and I'm loud. But I love the game and feel blessed to do this."
My take: Williamson is so right about Vitale's passion and knowledge of the game. While some viewers may be turned off by Vitale, he is the network's signature face and voice of college basketball and that's good. He's entertaining. Also, his studio performances during the NCAA Tournament have been top-notch, adding to the coverage and overall event.
But everything and everyone evolves, and perhaps in future game coverage, Vitale might consider toning down the "awesomes" and "oh, oh, ohs," give us fewer "Diaper Dandy" rants and cut back some of the tributes to coaches. He also might use his vast knowledge to occasionally point out flaws in the college game in general. All this, while still remaining Dick Vitale.
A flap over ESPN radio host Colin Cowherd's use of the "Collegiate Wonderlic Test" for potential NFL players on his March 22 show was the result of a listener e-mailing eight questions from the test to Cowherd without telling him the feature came from the blog, "The M Zone."
Originators of the blog -- created for Michigan football fans -- were upset Cowherd did not credit the site.
"When I saw it, there was no attribution, and I thought it came from a listener," Cowherd explained. "We get dozens of items like that a day."
Some M Zoners were aggressive and abusive in their e-mail responses to Cowherd, who in turn, retorted by e-mail.
"I should not have responded that way," Cowherd said. "I should keep what I do on the air. It was my fault."
Four days later, Cowherd gave The M Zone credit for the item, satisfying M Zone creators.
My take: ESPN's radio and television hosts need to be vigilant in what they say and report over the airwaves and know the source of what comes over the Internet. And whenever ESPN staffers respond to anyone, via e-mail or postal mail, they, of course, need to remember they're representing ESPN.
Controversy over ESPN's Original Entertainment's arrangement with Tollin/Robbins Productions on a 10-hour series on Barry Bonds -- in which Bonds has business interest -- continues to swirl. Concerns by a number of ESPN staff members at a meeting last week regarding the ethics of the network carrying the show were reported by The New York Times and New York Post, among other publications. I've stated my feelings on the subject several times -- ESPN should not be doing business with someone it covers -- so I'm not going over that territory again, other than to say I'll be watching.
ESPN did wonderful work covering the exploits last month of 17-year-old Jason McElwain, who is autistic and had been the manager for the Greece (N.Y.) Athena High School basketball team. When given a chance by his coach to play in a game, McElwain scored 20 points, including six 3-pointers, and was carried off the court by teammates and fellow students. The piece was the work of reporter Tom Rinaldi and producer Dan Arruda.
College football commentator Kirk Herbstreit is in the second year of promoting a growing high school football tournament that will feature nine games over two days next September, in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. Herbstreit has the blessing of his ESPN bosses, but others might see his participation as a conflict of interest.
"I'm doing this to promote high school football," he said. "I believe it's all positive -- with no conflict."
My take: With high school sports becoming more of a business -- too much so, I believe -- Herbstreit should know his involvement, even with all of its good intentions, will be closely watched.
Coverage of the recent World Baseball Classic drew many compliments from viewers, but also some complaints over scheduling, tape delays and picking up games in progress.
"We came late to the project after a number of other programming commitments had been made," said Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice president for News. "You can't predict when some events we previously had committed to would end."
My take: Though the coverage of the WBC was good, ESPN might consider new ways of informing viewers of schedule changes.
Finally: Anchor Danyelle Sargent's reaction March 9 to some frustrating technical problems included an embarrassing obscenity that she should have avoided, even though she believed she was not on the air. ... ESPN doing SportsCenter from Disney World for two days the first weekend in March did not alter content or compromise integrity, Williamson said. "We tried to be a little different and have some fun." Again, the network could have been clearer to viewers in explaining the change of venue. ... Considering the major play in February given to the start of an investigation of a high-stakes gambling ring allegedly run by Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach Rick Tocchet -- a probe that includes allegations of betting by Janet Jones, wife of Wayne Gretzky -- ESPN needs to do more reporting on the topic. ... ESPN Baseball commentator Steve Phillips, while working an exhibition game Friday, seemed genuinely annoyed that MLB commissioner Bud Selig had announced an investigation into steroids use in baseball. I thought commentators and reporters look for news, not reject news.