March Madness has officially struck, and the ringmaster of the activity is taking his seat behind the ESPN studio desk.
Dick Vitale, who called the cable network's first college basketball game in 1979, then made his Final Four debut working North Carolina State's 1983 upset of Houston, has become the face of the hysteria connected to the buzzer-beating, upset-packed action.
As the 68-team field of the NCAA men's basketball tournament became set Sunday, Vitale weighs in.
I'm not sure there's better paid days off than the first Thursday and Friday of the tournament. When did you notice how big this was becoming?
"It really started with the Bird-Magic final [in 1979], but now this time of year is just hoops hysteria. Everyone has a team, or adopts a team. The fever is just incredible. I'm here watching my grandson's Little League game and can't even walk around without getting 30-40 questions: 'Who's going to be in the final?' 'Who's this year's Cinderella?' "
A few years into the "one-and-done" era, do you mourn the talent that has left to the NBA that would be still playing if this were college basketball's "good ol' days"?
"That used to really trouble me, but now we have to make the most of it. It used to be an unreal time, having [Michael] Jordan, [Sam] Perkins and [James] Worthy on the same floor against [Ralph] Sampson. Those games were unbelievable. The one thing that remains beautiful is these kids playing for the school on the front of their jersey. I see it: the passion, the intensity is unreal."
Who wins the tournament and why?
"Kentucky has all the elements I look for in a team. They defend exceptionally well. They suffocate you, leading the nation in total defense, blocked shots. Anthony Davis is the great equalizer no other team has. You won't get nothing on the inside against them. And with great team defense, you're in every game — they have a super six of players. It's not an automatic, though. North Carolina has an all-NBA front-court. Syracuse with its zone defense is tough. Or a mid-major could break through. I like to see those Davids — George Mason, VCU of the recent past — and I'll be watching Drexel, Middle Tennessee State, Iona and Oral Roberts."
For years, it's been clear Kentucky Coach John Calipari is your guy. You admire him so why?
"What he did at UMass, getting them to the Final Four, was magical, and so were five-straight 30-win seasons at Memphis. You've got to respect his coaching ability.… John can coach, that's the bottom line. He can motivate, recruit, and I always said if he got to a place like Kentucky, it'd be, 'Are you kidding me?' Like him or don't like him, he gets his players every year to put aside their egos and their high school dominance to play as a unit, especially defensively."
Who is your Cinderella?
"Wichita State is real dangerous from a totally underrated conference. Creighton, with [Doug] McDermott — you've got to defend well with strong perimeter play. You need a star to make big plays and someone who can make threes. That's McDermott."
What other players can single-handedly take over the tournament?
"[Tyler] Zeller at North Carolina. [Jared] Sullinger at Ohio State. They can both score inside at will. We don't have a Danny Manning in here — that multi-talented perimeter player — those kids all go to the NBA now."
College basketball is the gift that keeps giving, isn't it? What moments from this season will stay with you?
"They named a court for me at Detroit, which is amazing. The best game of the year was Indiana-Kentucky, which was as special as a college game could be considering the traditions at play. The last time Kansas is coming to Missouri for a while, Missouri coming back to win dramatically from down 10 or 11 in the last three minutes. And Carolina-Duke. Carolina was up 11, but it comes down to an Austin Rivers three with his father and mother going crazy in the stands. I'm 72 years old, and I feel like I'm 12 at this time of year."
That enthusiasm is infectious. Where does it come from?
"Growing up in a home where my parents were uneducated but there was so much love and finding joy in every day. My mom called me Richie, and she'd say to me, 'Richie, if you're good to people, people will be good to you. Treat everyone with respect. None of us are better than anyone else.' I've always stuck to that.… I lost my eye as a kid, and my mom and dad taught me to never ever believe in the word can't. My mother had a way to make me feel like I was the best. She'd say, 'They can't hold back your spirit, Richie.' Because of that, I've lived a life that has exceeded every expectation I could have possibly had."