Launching Vitale & Co. on America


It was late November, 1979. Six months had passed since Magic Johnson beat Larry Bird in the NCAA championship game. That cable box on top of your TV received maybe one or two extra channels, but one of those new television networks was about to have a major impact on college basketball.

The first college basketball game broadcast by ESPN? Depends on the definition. The network aired a series of exhibition games in November, including international affairs such as Maryland against the Yugoslavian National Team. It also took in local feeds of games in late November, broadcasting those to a national audience.

But one thing is for sure, and that's when a former head coach named Dick Vitale walked into DePaul's Alumni Hall on Dec. 5 to work on ESPN's exclusive coverage of the Blue Demons' season-opener against Wisconsin, college basketball broadcasting would never be the same.

ESPN celebrates its 25th season covering college basketball this winter. Its wall-to-wall coverage is taken for granted. But a quarter-century ago, the landscape of sports television was vastly different. ESPN was not permitted to show college football games live, but was able to do so with college basketball, which proved to be very important.

"Early on, we identified two sports that were underexposed, and whose rights were cheap -- college basketball and motor sports," said Loren Matthews, now the senior vice-president of programming for ABC Sports, but then ESPN's director of broadcast promotions. "(College basketball) was a cornerstone of our programming. It put us on the map."

It also made Vitale, who had been fired by the Detroit Pistons less than a month before his first broadcast, into an icon.

The first telecast was quite humorous. Vitale, thinking he was arriving early, got to the arena an hour before tipoff, as the crew scrambled to find him. The pairing of Vitale and play-by-play man Joe Boyle opened on camera by standing at courtside, with Boyle clutching the one microphone the pair shared. Boyle asked his first question, and Vitale flew into action.

In a breathless, 93-second monologue, Vitale never once looked at the camera. And, when he was done, Vitale asked his partner in what would eventually evolve a trademark line: "It will be a classic matchup. I'm ready. Joe, are you ready?"

As the game progressed, Vitale rolled out lines that have become common vernacular in today's game.

"He's the greatest sleeper since Rip Van Winkle!" said Vitale, analyzing DePaul point guard Clyde Bradshaw.

"Uh, oh! Uh, oh! Uh oh!. Yes sireee Baby!" described a dunk.

And, at one point, Vitale acknowledged, "I like this racket!"

"I just went out and had fun," Vitale says today. "I probably violated every rule in broadcasting that night."

Indeed, Vitale was quite raw. But as ESPN's head of programming and production at the time, Scotty Connal, told him, "You have a gift. You connect with people. They may not agree with you, but they respond to what you say.''

Fans did respond, from all parts of the country. A small but passionate following was established among sports fans who had either satellite dishes, or cable television, which was extremely rare in 1979. Vitale's family didn't even have cable, and his daughters still joke about how they never believed their father was on TV because there was no way for them to see him. Others, however, liked what they saw -- a lot.

Prior to ESPN, college basketball was only televised on weekends by the three major networks. There was no such thing as Big Monday or Super Tuesday. Everything was an experiment, but it was one that worked. The problem in those early years was getting the games into people's homes. ESPN executives made presentations to advertisers and athletic departments, but the question always came at the end. "What exactly is this ESPN thing?" ESPN as a network would grow, but only once cable became more commonplace.

ESPN showed in the neighborhood of 100 men's basketball games during the 1979-80 season. Programming personnel would get the rights to games and Connal scrambled to fill the broadcast crews. He would call announcers every day, asking them if they could be across the country within the next 48 hours.

The technology wasn't anywhere near the level it's today. ESPN used three cameras to show a game (the network now uses eight on most games). If a broadcaster wanted to comment on an instant replay, he had to cross his fingers and hope the technicians in the remote truck could turn it around and show it. Replays were stored on discs that looked like 78 rpm records, and often malfunctioned. Some games, the production truck wouldn't show up until the last possible instant, or on one cold-weather day, literally froze like a block of ice.

All this led to a library of bloopers.

"I went through this long description of Ralph Sampson, where I was going to compare him to a pterodactyl, because his big shadow covered the court like a pterodactyl's covered the earth." said ESPN analyst Larry Conley, who along with Vitale is entering his 25th season at the network. "Only I ended up saying 'He reminds me of an aardvark.' The next day, I was at another game and all of a sudden 20 fans yelled out in unison 'Larry, tell us about the aardvark.'"

Ready to show what it could do that first season, ESPN worked out some early kinks. The crew at the Yugoslavia exhibition game, for instance, didn't have enough cable to station a camera courtside. Early regular-season matchups included the Lapchick Memorial Tournament, Valparaiso-Notre Dame, Yale-Connecticut, Holy Cross-St. Peter's, Kansas-Oral Roberts and Missouri Illinois. In some instances, as was often the case that first year, ESPN took a local TV feed of the game and turned it into a national feed.

In December of '79, legendary columnist Red Smith of the New York Times wrote a story introducing ESPN to his readers and quoted a friend's reaction to the possibility of a 24-hour sports cable network as being "the ghastliest threat to the social fabric of American since invention of the automobile." ESPN was indeed a grand television experiment, with a need for live programming to fill its airwaves. Broadcasting college sports was deemed necessary for the network to succeed. ESPN executives eventually persuaded the NCAA to accept a deal to show its events.

"Because of Title IX, it was the first time the NCAA considered an alternative to network sports," said Stuart Evey, former chairman of ESPN. "It gave them a chance to show women's sports and other (not traditionally televised) sports. We were also able to get the rights to the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament. In those days, only the Final Four was televised. The rights fees were very little ... we couldn't even afford to pay them. Sometimes they were zero."

The first season concluded in March with telecasts of the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament. With ESPN's lead play-by-play man Jim Simpson anchoring in the studio, ESPN shuffled back and forth between games, showing some live and others on tape. The response was extraordinarily positive. At that point, ESPN had the potential to reach 1.4 million homes, but it was obvious that this was something that was going to not only work, but change the way that college sports were telecast forever.

"I remember sitting in the control room that first day," Matthews said."I said, 'This network is going to make it.'"

Mark Simon is a researcher for ESPN's college basketball telecasts. He can be contacted at mark.a.simon@espn.com