If you’re a college basketball fan, you definitely know Dick Vitale. While the broadcaster might not be everyone’s cup of tea, he’s become a fixture on ESPN over the years. His television career, however, almost came to an untimely end.
While Vitale may seem like a cartoon character buoyed by his love of basketball, the veteran broadcaster is still a human being. During his early days at ESPN, that reality became abundantly clear as a particularly pointed piece of criticism cut Dickie V to his core.
Dick Vitale’s basketball coaching career
These days, Dick Vitale is an iconic member of college basketball media. His career, however, started as a coach rather than a broadcaster.
After getting his foot in the door as a junior high coach, Vitale moved up to the high school level. While the long hours on the court and in night classes would have broken a lesser man, Vitale didn’t quit; he wanted to become a college basketball coach. In 1971, after claiming two high school state titles, he took another step toward that goal and joined the Rutgers coaching staff as an assistant.
Vitale spent two seasons on the Scarlett Knights bench before accepting the head coaching gig at the University of Detroit Mercy. While the Titans might not be a traditional NCAA powerhouse, Dickie V still found success; in four years on the job, he led the team to a 78-30 record and a berth in the 1977 NCAA Tournament.
Based on that success, Vitale got a shot at the big-time, landing the Detroit Pistons head coaching job. The NBA proved to be a bridge too far for him, though. After struggling through one disappointing season on the job, Vitale got the ax 12 games of the 1979-80 campaign. His coaching career ended with a 34-60 record and a stomach full of ulcers.
Facing criticism at ESPN
While losing his coaching job crushed Dick Vitale, it did set a stage for his greatest success. That would, of course, come with ESPN.
Although Vitale was skeptical about leaving the sidelines for the TV studio, his wife, Lorraine, urged him to give it a shot. Thanks to his passion for basketball and his personality, Dickie V blossomed into a star.
Early in his television career, though, the iconic broadcaster almost called it quits. As a boy, Vitale lost vision in his left eye; from then on, it drifted to the side, and understandably, it became a source of self-consciousness, even into adulthood.
“One night during his early years at ESPN, Vitale was walking out of the network’s studios in Bristol, Conn., when he asked a receptionist if there were any messages,” Seth Davis explained for The Athletic. “She told him a viewer had called repeatedly to complain about his crooked [left] eye. ‘It was like a knife went through me,’ he says. He tried to quit, but his bosses talked him out of it.”
Dick Vitale didn’t quit and became a broadcasting icon
Thanks to the encouragement of his bosses, Dick Vitale didn’t leave ESPN on that fateful night. That proved to be one of the best decisions he ever made.
While Vitale is a divisive figure—some feel his over-the-top calls and unique lexicon distract from the game rather than enhance the viewing experience—he’s become an inescapable part of the college basketball landscape. Although he’s no longer calling the marquee matchups, Dickie V has spent more than four decades on ESPN; it’s impossible to argue with that track record.
“I’m living the American dream,” Vitale said, according to ESPN Press Room. “I learned from my mom and dad, who didn’t have a formal education, but had doctorates of love. They told me that if you gave 110 percent all the time, a lot of beautiful things will happen. I may not always be right, but no one can ever accuse me of not having a genuine love and passion for whatever I do. And ESPN has been grateful enough to recognize this.”
That American dream, however, could have ended due to some cruel comments from a TV viewer. Thankfully, Vitale didn’t throw in the towel.