Brains, energy give you vintage Vitale, ba-beee!

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's just before noon on a cold, blustery and rainy December Saturday afternoon, and there is a buzz running through the Baltimore Arena.

Granted, a lot of the feel of electricity in the air is in the anticipation of the Massachusetts-Maryland game, maybe the biggest college basketball game played here.

But when ABC/ESPN analyst Dick Vitale makes his way into the Arena a few minutes later, working the room like a Las Vegas casino greeter, with his wife, Lorraine, and play-by-play partner, Roger Twibell, in tow, what was stored energy a few moments ago quickly shifts to kinetic.

Middle-aged security guards, little boys and their fathers, college students and their dates alike all fall under Vitale's spell.

"Why shouldn't I be good to all the people? The people have made me what I am," said Vitale. "I make a heck of a living. America is a great place for an ugly, bald, one-eyed guy like me. If I can make a great living, I guess I'm giving hope to everybody else."

With almost anyone else in sports broadcasting, the kind of unabashed enthusiasm on display between Vitale and the fans would seem, well, unseemly, or at least, insincere.

But this outpouring -- the people who line up for Vitale's autographs on his books and magazines, not to mention the loud cheers as he shoots free throws and three-pointers before the teams come out for opening warm-ups -- is honest and real, as is Vitale.

"You can't match his unabashed enthusiasm," said game director Drew Esocoff. "There's nothing contrived about him. He's become a great broadcaster. He understands the common man and communicates to him. A lot of guys can't do that."

The tendency, of some, is to dismiss Vitale as all show and no substance, as a lot of jargon and no basketball insight.

It's a criticism heard more than once by Vitale, who worked his way through the coaching ranks to a disastrous stint with the Detroit Pistons, then was hired by ESPN just after its debut in 1979.

"Do I talk a lot? Yeah. Am I loud? Yeah. Do I have a lot of fun? Yeah. Do I prepare? Yeah," said Vitale. "The bottom line is the game is an emotional game and I think my personality fits with the game because I happen to be an emotional kind of guy."

Said ABC producer Kim Belton: "I think if you chart him over the past three years, he's toned his act down considerably. He's unbelievably knowledgeable.. . . . Either you like him or you hate him, but you have to listen to him."

It's obvious that Vitale, who with Saturday's telecast has worked eight games in 12 days, is an unabashed fan of the game. It is also obvious after listening to him chat with UMass coach John Calipari and Maryland coach Gary Williams that he is a student of the game as well.

For instance, he asks Calipari if Maryland plays a 1-2-2 zone defense out of a press as Williams used to do when he coached at Boston College in the early 1980s.

During the game, won by UMass, Vitale first diagrams how Maryland will beat the Minutemen's traps by passing up court diagonally, then shows how UMass will get by the Terps' trap by passing to the sides and then back inside.

But at his core, Vitale simply wants to make the viewer happy.

"There are so many guys that get on the air and they want to be this analytical reserved guy. You know what happens? After a while, you're in ZZZs- ville, sleeping because you're bored,"said Vitale.

"We forget that the average person listening at home wants to be entertained. They want to be educated and entertained. If you can combine both and have a balance, I think you've got a good deal going."

In the world of televised college basketball, Vitale's deal is the best.

Heisman hypocrisy

Here's hoping ESPN analysts Lee Corso, Craig James and Beano Cook along with ABC's Keith Jackson can all sleep more peacefully now, since Alcorn State quarterback Steve McNair didn't threaten the hopes of world peace by winning the Heisman Trophy Saturday.

Corso, James, Cook and, to a lesser extent, Jackson, all took hTC their shots at McNair throughout the season, with disparaging remarks about his record-breaking stats, accumulated against Division I-AA schools.

To be sure, McNair, who finished third to a deserving Rashaan Salaam -- the Colorado running back who ran for more than 2,000 yards -- faced high odds in that no non-Division I-A player had won the Heisman.

But Corso and James led the charge, and in tones that seemed downright nasty.

James, for instance, once said McNair was facing "high school" opposition, and Corso said during a teleconference last week that McNair had consciously taken himself out of Heisman contention by going to Alcorn.

Corso glossed over the fact that McNair went to Alcorn when Division I-A schools wouldn't offer him a chance to play quarterback.

To add insult to injury, Corso and James hypocritically smiled as they interviewed Alcorn coach Cardell Jones and his star quarterback, who each showed a lot more class than their interrogators.

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