Sunday, April 26, 2015

ESPN's Dick Vitale on the Final Four, the 76ers and coaching

Dick Vitale and Joel, the longhorn, go head-to-head in an NCAA tournament bracket pick ‘em contest at the Stockyards in Fort Worth, Texas on March 18, 2014. (Photo via Taylor Strategy/Cooper Neill)
Dick Vitale and Joel, the longhorn, go head-to-head in an NCAA tournament bracket pick ‘em contest at the Stockyards in Fort Worth, Texas on March 18, 2014. (Photo via Taylor Strategy/Cooper Neill)

While Dick Vitale is known throughout the land as “Dickie V,” the legendary college basketball analyst is just as devoted to the legacy of “Jimmy V” as he is to raving about “diaper dandies.”

As such, Vitale is taking part in Allstate’s March Mayhem Challenge during Final Four week, to help raise money for the V Foundation and to put his knowledge up against a literal Texas longhorn in a bracket challenge.

For his work with the company, Allstate is donating money to the V Foundation, one of Vitale’s pet causes as it fights cancer in the name of his old friend, the late coach Jim Valvano. Allstate is also giving money to the Fort Worth Herd, which chose “Joel the Longhorn” to match wits with Vitale in picking their NCAA tournament brackets.

Vitale vowed in an interview on April 1 that “I’m not losing to any longhorn,” since if he does, he will have to serve as Joel’s ranch hand for a day. But since Joel picked Manhattan and VCU to reach the national championship game, Vitale appears to be in good shape.

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  • “Coaching is part of the mindset,” the former coach explained, as he detailed how he helped direct Joel’s picks. “I played with Joel’s mind a little bit. Guided him, directed him the way I thought I had a great, great chance to win.”

    The one thing Joel got right was picking Connecticut to reach the Final Four, to the obvious dismay of Big 5 fans everywhere. Regardless, such is the magic of the NCAA tournament, according to Vitale.

    “That’s why we call it March Mayhem,” Vitale said. “That’s why, really, it’s incredible what transpires. There is nothing greater than the three weeks that we have for March Mayhem.”

    This year’s March Mayhem ends in North Texas, in the same stadium where the Eagles celebrated their NFC East title over the Dallas Cowboys four months ago. Holding Final Fours in such large, normally football-centric stadiums is the norm now, which is why there may never again be a Final Four at a city without a big dome – like Philadelphia.

    “The more people you can get in, the more dollars you can make,” Vitale explained. Yet despite the often less than ideal high seats for fans in these stadiums, “Just being part of the festivities” is a positive for them, Vitale said.

    The fans who come to Cowboys Stadium this weekend will see a spectacle featuring Kentucky’s five star freshmen, Connecticut’s red hot Shabazz Napier, and Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan finally coaching in his first Final Four.

    Yet it is all too easy to overlook the No. 1 ranked Florida Gators, although they have won 30 games in a row, have only lost to Wisconsin and Connecticut and are the top seed left by far. While Kentucky embodies the “one and done” new normal of college basketball, Florida is led by “a bunch of kids who play together as seniors,” as Vitale puts it.

    After losing in three straight Elite Eights, Vitale knows the Gators are out to “cut the nets down and celebrate as national champs” for coach Billy Donovan, whom he calls “Frank Lloyd Wright” for being the architect of Florida’s transformation from a “football football football” program into a basketball power.

    Most experts thus far, including Vitale, have picked the Gators and Wildcats to meet in an all-SEC national championship game. Nevertheless, Vitale isn’t sleeping on Wisconsin against Kentucky, or on Napier and Connecticut against Florida. Yet he predicts that the Gators’ “team concept” will prevail over the Huskies, although the Badgers and Wildcats are “a toss-up” to him.

    The NCAA tournament hasn’t just been appointment viewing for college fans. Teams like the Sixers are also getting a last glimpse at freshmen they could stake their future on, like Kentucky’s Julius Randle, Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins and Duke’s Jabari Parker.

    Of those three, only Randle has excelled in March, although Vitale doesn’t think this should give the Sixers pause going into the NBA draft.

    “They can’t do anything but get better,” Vitale says about the Sixers, praising them for already moving in a positive direction with Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel. Whomever the Sixers get to join them in this year’s draft, Vitale is confident that they will take “a quality player.”

    Vitale has spent over 40 years watching such quality players in some shape or form, dating back to his tenure coaching the University of Detroit from 1973 to 1977, as well as the Detroit Pistons in 1978 and part of 1979.

    Unlike in the old days, today’s college coaches have a tendency for “coaching on every dribble of the basketball,” Vitale said. But when Kentucky’s John Calipari gave his players “a little more flexibility,” they began making their turnaround. “You want to let the kids flow and play to get to the level of their ability,” Vitale said.

    The highest of abilities will be on display at the Final Four, which Vitale will cover for ESPN International. In between the semifinals and finals, he will sign autographs at the Final Four fan fest venue "Bracket Town" on Sunday, April 6 from 2-3 p.m., as part of his work with Allstate.

    Once the nets are cut down, Vitale will turn his sports fandom towards his home town Tampa Bay Rays, who he saw beat the Toronto Blue Jays in their March 31 home opener. He also has a busy offseason ahead with the V Foundation, including holding a gala on May 16 that will honor coaches Nick Saban, Tom Crean and Mike Brey while raising over a million dollars for kids battling cancer.

    Vitale will be personally well honored this summer, as he will head to New York to receive the NABC Hall of Honor award, which is “very unique and very special” to him. His alma mater Seton Hall will then name him as Humanitarian of the Year, and he will also receive the Vince Lombardi Man of the Year award in Bergen County, N.J., where he grew up.

    “I’ve lived a life that’s exceeded every dream,” Vitale declared. “It’s been unbelievable.”

    After 35 years of working with “his second family” at ESPN, Vitale certainly feels like “a blessed guy.”

    Rob is a lifelong Philadelphian and sports fan. He is a freelance writer for Yahoo Voices and examiner.com.

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