By Jamie H. Vaught
Dick Vitale has seen the unbeaten Kentucky Wildcats play basketball in person and on TV this season.
Like most folks, if not all, the charismatic ESPN sportscaster is awfully impressed with the top-ranked Cats, who are 12-0 going into Saturday's road matchup with rival Louisville. Coach John Calipari's current edition reminds Vitale some of the memorable great teams that you read about in college basketball history.
"Kentucky has the potential to be the best defensive team that I have ever seen in my 30-plus years at ESPN," said Vitale in a recent e-mail. "They have size, athleticism, depth and all of the qualities that you would want in a premiere defensive team.
"Over the years, Bob Knight’s Indiana teams in the mid-70s were phenomenal defensively as were the Patrick Ewing teams (of Georgetown) in the mid-80s."
When there is an abundance of talent on the same club like UK's nine McDonald's All-Americans (plus national Player of the Year candidate Willie Cauley-Stein), many such teams loaded with superstars often will have chemistry problems in playing together as an unit. But not at Kentucky this winter.
Vitale was asked if he was a coach today, would he be able to handle the talent of several McDonald's All-Americans?
He didn't reveal an answer about himself but instead said Calipari is a superb choice to handle them, adding the Kentucky coach deserves the credit in getting his star players to believe in team concept.
"John Calipari is the perfect coach to handle the egos of so many great stars," said Vitale. "He does a fabulous job getting them to play with a sense of pride and passion and for the name on the front of the jersey, K-e-n-t-u-c-k-y."
Vitale later tweeted that UK is a legitimate threat to finish the season at 40-0 after watching Kentucky destroy UCLA 83-44 this past weekend.
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When Vitale was a college coach during his early days, he didn't have that many prep All-Americans. He only had a couple of highly-regarded high school stars in Terry Tyler and John Long.
"I was happy to have that All-American(s) but nine McDonald's All-Americans (at UK), I would go crazy for that," he quipped.
Interestingly, Tyler and Long went on to become stars for Vitale, both in the college and NBA ranks.
As you may recall in my previous columns about Vitale after a sit-down interview with him at his Florida home in late June, he was actually a pretty good coach who has worked at four different levels in middle school, high school, NCAA and NBA.
Long before Vitale began his new TV broadcasting adventure in 1979, he enjoyed a productive career in coaching as well as teaching. He was the head coach at the University of Detroit and NBA's Detroit Pistons for several years.
At University of Detroit, he guided the Titans to a four-year mark of 78-30, including a trip to the 1977 NCAA tournament. After one year as the athletic director of the Titans program, he coached the Pistons for one full year before he was dismissed in the following season after a 4-8 start.
Going to the NBA was a mistake, admitted Vitale, who won 73 percent of the games on the collegiate level as compared to 36 percent in the pro ranks.
"I didn't belong in the NBA," he said last summer. "(Even) with my enthusiasm and my energy, I didn't win because of, you know, egos and money.
"My superstar Bob Lanier (who played for the Pistons) used to say, 'Dick, we can't have these 2 1/2 hour-long practice. We don't need this intensity. We're playing three or four times a week and I don't want to hear it.'
"And he was right. I belong to college. It's been a bad, bad move, but you know what. That's what life is, though. In life, you have ups and downs."
While he obviously is best known for basketball, Vitale, who was born in New Jersey, is very well educated. He graduated from Seton Hall University with a bachelor's degree in business administration. Vitale also earned a master's degree in elementary education from William Paterson College and has 32 graduate credits beyond the master's degree in administration.
After graduation from Seton Hall in 1963, he got his first teaching job at Mark Twain Elementary School in Garfield, N.J., while coaching junior high school in various sports.
"I loved it," said Vitale. "I coached all three sports -- baseball, basketball and football. We were thrilled. I had some (career) goals. I had some purpose to what I wanted to do and I said it's easier going in basketball to try to get to the top."
So his biggest goal at the time was to be a basketball coach in the collegiate ranks.
And he began to focus more on hoops and a young Vitale was fortunate to have an early start in his career as a program leader when he became the head coach at Garfield High School (for one year) before landing at his alma mater, East Rutherford (N.J.) High School, where he served as the head coach for seven years.
"I started out lucky at around age 24 (when) I was named the head coach at my alma mater," recalled Vitale, a sixth-grade teacher who guided his East Rutherford teams to two straight state championships, four state sectional championships and 35 consecutive victories.
While coaching in high school, he still chased his dream of getting a job on the collegiate level. Vitale mailed tons of applications to different schools but had no luck.
But after gaining some valuable coaching experience, he finally ended up at Rutgers as an assistant coach, beginning a new journey in the big-time atmosphere of college/pro basketball and eventually television.
Years later, in 1979, not long after Vitale had lost his coaching position with the Pistons, he got a call from a brand new television network with an obscure name, ESPN. Even though he was basically doing nothing, sitting around the house, he first declined an opportunity to be an announcer since he wasn't that familiar with TV work.
But when the network called again, Vitale said fine and covered ESPN's first-ever NCAA basketball game (Wisconsin at DePaul) on Dec. 5, 1979.
As you can see, the rest is history and Vitale became a household name.
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Vitale, 75, is the face of college basketball who is always so enthusiastic about the winter sport. The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer gives out a positive energy that you don't see very often in these days.
Where does he get the excitement or passion from?
"I've had it basically all my life. I've been an enthusiastic guy growing up," said Vitale, who loves to be around people and credits his loving parents for good upbringing. "As a kid, I've developed the love and passion for basketball, the spirit, the competition and I got involved in coaching."
In Vitale's words, his parents were hard-working, blue-collar people and did not have much education. His father had two jobs, working in a factory and as a security guard, while his mother was a seamstress.
"My mother and father were phenomenal," said Vitale, who with his wife Lorraine took a trip down memory lane last summer in seeing his first and second homes in New Jersey along with East Rutherford High and took pictures to show their grandchildren.
"I miss them so much. My mom and dad had a doctorate of love. They didn't have a formal education, but they taught me in this great country that you should have pride and joy about yourself, passion about yourself, and a lot of beautiful things is going to happen."
They also advised their son to be good to people.
"I must heard that at least 10 times a day," said Vitale, who is Catholic. "Be good to people and people will be good to you. And I've tried to use that in my life, every day of my life. I may be 75 but act or feel like 12 because I get excited about life. I try to take care of myself and I tried do anything I can do to help people to the best of my ability."
In addition to raising funds for charitable causes, such as V Foundation for Cancer Research, Vitale does a lot of speaking engagements.
"In my motivational talks, I've always tried to talk to people about how if you live your life with a lot of energy. I quote the three -- 1) energy, 2) enthusiasm and 3) excitement for life. If you have that, which should be every day, try to enjoy life to its fullest. I really believe you will enjoy life a lot better if you do.
"If you think positive, have faith and make good decisions, a lot of beautiful things are going to happen. And that's the way I've tried to attempt life."
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle360.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. Reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle360@gmail.com.