End not near for Dick Vitale, Heather Cox talks Jameis Winston, more
Vitale's broadcasting future, Cox defends Winston interview (cont.)
Nantz comes up big on Matt Prater call (cont.)
Dick Vitale is crying. This is not uncommon for the 74-year-old ESPN broadcaster. Vitale readily admits he is an emotional man, especially on the subject of his professional mortality. While there is always a lot of performance with Vitale, this moment during a 45-minute phone conversation appears genuine. The question was a simple one: How often do you think about when your broadcasting career will come to an end?
"I want to do it forever, obviously," said Vitale. "We all do. I see Vin Scully and I get excited. It gets me emotional, really. Thinking about the day it is over, I know it is going to tear my heart apart. I love it, man. I love it. ...
He is choked up. He puts down the phone. He needs to gain his composure.
"But I do think about it, man," he continued. "You can't hide the number (his age). I can't hide the number. I told my wife when I came back from doing the [Duke-Michigan] game last Tuesday that I walk into the arena and the kids chant "Dickie V, Dickie V." I go over to them, give them high fives and I can't tell you the rush it gives me. I get emotional about this a lot. I have shed some tears about it."
Last Thursday marked the annual anniversary of Vitale's first college basketball broadcast for ESPN -- Wisconsin vs. DePaul on Dec. 5 1979. The network sent around video of the opening of the broadcast and it is all kinds of fantastic, especially the look on announcer Joe Boyle's face as Vitale goes nearly two minutes without stopping.
Vitale and his wife Lorraine watched it last week, too, and found it hilarious.
"I went a minute and 40 seconds non-stop for the opener," Vitale said. "Today you do 15- and 20-second hits at the most. Back then nobody ever said a thing to me about television. Someone gave me a mic and said talk about the game. The one thing I was impressed with, though, is that I really knew the players.
"Let's face it, I am not a broadcaster. [The late ESPN executive] Scotty Connall told me when I first started; he said, "Dick, a lot of people don't realize this is about entertainment and education," and I never forgot those two words. I firmly believe -- and I know you probably don't agree with me because I know the kind of people you like -- but the bottom line is a lot of guys put people in Zzzz-ville. ..."
Personally, I like Vitale, and I really love him on Twitter. As a broadcaster, I believe he Gods up coaches far too much (his butt-kissing of Bob Knight is legendarily annoying) and that too often he gets trapped in living up to the Dickie V persona rather focusing on the game in front of him. But his passion for college basketball is undeniable and his mind remains sharp. He has boundless energy and his work raising money for the V Foundation is to be commended.
"I can X and O with anyone; I know that in my heart," Vitale said. "But I don't want to bore people. So I always have Scotty's words coming in my head: Educate and entertain. If a game is a close game, you listen to it. I will stay with that game. When I get away, is when the game is away."
A conversation with Vitale is a bit like riding a wave -- he pops from topic to topic with zero warning. Over the course of one 20-minute stretch he moved from his love of singer Josh Groban to praise for the doctor who did his eye surgery to how much he enjoyed Carrie Underwood in The Sound of Music to the number of Hall of Fames he is a part of to his love for his wife and family to praise for his ESPN college basketball partner Dan Shulman to meeting the cast of Motown.
Vitale said he believes what keeps him feeling young is that he became obsessed with exercise in his 60s. Every day Vitale plays a couple of sets of tennis singles or walks for a minimum of 45 minutes. He also has a couple of Nautilus machines at home, including one that focuses on his core muscles and another for leg lifts. He never misses a day, even on the road. Vitale said he does not eat red meat, nor drink or smoke and cannot remember the last time he had a beer. His colleagues call him Mr. Cranberry juice because that is his preferred drink at gatherings. Vitale was driven to this exercise fanaticism after watching the health of his father John -- who worked in a factory pressing coats and also as a nighttime security guard -- slowly deteriorate while watching the Yankees in a living room chair after he retired. "I vowed I would not let that happen," Vitale said.
"I always find him to be happy that he's still able to do something he loves, but also occasionally nostalgic because he knows nothing lasts forever," said his partner Shulman, in an email. "He feeds off the energy, and he loves connecting with people, and I think that is in some ways as big a part of this for him as calling the games is. I can understand him getting emotional. He's a passionate guy, and his work and his connections with people are two things he's very passionate about."
Vitale said he has a traditional broadcast contract -- it was recently extended for another year -- but ESPN management has told him that he has a contract for life as long as he is physically, emotionally and mentally able to work. There might not be another sports broadcaster (perhaps outside of Vin Scully) on television with that kind of guarantee.
"[Former ESPN president] George Bodenheimer told me that when he was there," Vitale said. "He passed it on to [his successors] and they have said that to me, flat up and down. I have a specific contract with specific years, about three more, but they told me that verbally. But I also told [ESPN vice president of production] John Wildhack that I will never allow myself to go there and be embarrassed."
Vitale said the toughest thing for him today is travel, which is consistent with what other broadcasters in their 70s, such as Verne Lundquist and Brent Musburger, have said.
"I see no reason why he can't work many more years," Shulman said. "He loves what he does, his energy is still tremendous, and from my perspective, he's a lot of fun to sit beside while calling a game. I hope he and I are a team for years to come."
That is Vitale's goal, too.
"I know in my heart that if I cannot deliver what I want to deliver, knowing the players and teams and the memory retention, I will go," Vitale said. "But I told Dan Shulman that I want 50 years at ESPN. How old is Scully? 86? Well, if I go 16 more, that would get me there. He's my idol, my dream and goal. I want to get to where he is."
SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week.
1. ESPN's Heather Cox took a lot of heat on social media this weekend -- especially from Florida State fans -- for her postgame questioning of Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston following the ACC Championship Game. Many accused her of ambushing FSU's freshman quarterback. Others felt her line of questioning was inappropriate given the timing and setting of the interview. Winston's attorney, Tim Jansen, delivered a series of tweets expressing his disgust.
I reached Cox Sunday night to ask her about the interview. Earlier in the day ESPN stood behind its reporter in this statement to SI.com: "Florida State agreed to the interview with no restrictions," said ESPN executive vice president of production John Wildhack. "Heather did a terrific job asking a variety of topical questions"
Cox said that in the days prior to the broadcast, she and a group of ESPN colleagues (including management) discussed the possibility of a Winston postgame interview. They spoke about how the broadcast would handle questions, especially if Winston had yet to speak out publicly. "I certainly knew if we talked to him I needed to ask questions about the [alleged sexual assault] investigation," Cox said. "I had thought through the way I wanted to handle it and presented the questions to our team. We all decided it was the correct way to handle it. It was not an issue of me going rogue and deciding last-minute that I would ambush him.
Cox said that ESPN asked and received permission from FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher and two football sports information directors regarding asking Winston questions about the investigation. Cox did not forward her questions, nor did FSU officials ask for any questions, according to Cox.
"They were fully aware that I was going to ask about the investigation," Cox said. "I was never once asked not to ask about the investigation and if I had been asked not to ask those questions, I would have declined to do the interview because I would not have been able to do my job. I think a lot of people out there think I ambushed him (Winston) and went against Coach Fisher and the Florida State PR group, and that is not at all the case. They were fully aware of my intent to ask questions about the investigation."
Cox said she discussed the subject with Fisher when the broadcasters met with the Florida State coach. "We talked about it during our meeting with him," Cox said. "We said we would talk to Jameis first. That is not typical. Usually we talk to the coach after the [postgame] handshake and then to the players. But in this case we felt it was important to talk to Jameis first and let him go. Coach Fisher agreed. He said he'd rather stand around and wait than make Jameis wait. It went according to plan and the way Florida State had approved us doing it. We didn't do anything that they did not know about it or were not aware of."
Cox said the game was going to dictate how and what questions she would use. She said because the game against Duke was not close, she opted not to ask a lot of game-related questions of Winston.
"That's why I asked one big-picture, celebration question to start and then I felt like it was then time to ask the questions that everybody wanted to know the answers to since Jameis had not spoken yet," Cox said.
Cox added that had she been afforded the opportunity to ask her final question, it was going to be about Winston's upcoming month, including the Heisman Trophy show and other awards. She said she then planned to talk to Fisher and do nothing but a game-related interview with him. Cox said she wanted people to know that Winston did not turn around and walk away. "He was pulled away," Cox said.
After the postgame trophy ceremony -- both ESPN management and Cox said colleague Dari Nowkhah was previously scheduled to host the postgame trophy celebration; some speculated Cox had been removed from it following her Winston interview -- she went up to an Florida State official and asked to speak to Fisher to resolve any issues.
"It was important to me to clarify things," Cox said. "The last thing I wanted was for him to think I intentionally went against anyone's wishes. I pride myself on my integrity and my relationships that I have developed with these coaches and players. That is critical to me doing my job well. The last thing I wanted was for Coach Fisher to think I broke that trust."
Cox said she and Fisher spoke for five minutes in a tunnel after the trophy presentation. She said they have known each other for a long time and have a great working relationship. Cox said she could understand if he was frustrated by her questions but she did not want him to think that she blatantly disregarded a request not to ask something.
"I told him, 'Nobody ever told me not to ask about the investigation'. He said, 'I did not realize that.' I went on to tell him that if they had, I would have just declined to do the interview. I said I would not be doing my job if I did not ask. If I got Jameis and didn't ask questions about the investigation, considering this is the first time he was made available to talk, I'd be as heavily criticized today as I am already. I explained that to Coach, and after he realized that, he apologized and understood that there was a big misunderstanding. I felt much better after having that conversation.
Cox said she did not know the person who could be heard off-camera saying, "Heather, that's cheap" as Winston was pulled away. She thought it was someone who was part of the FSU traveling party but did not know the person specifically. "When I am doing interviews like that I have no idea what is going on around me," Cox said. "It's just me and the subject. I could tell there was a huge presence around me but I had no idea who was there."
Cox is assigned to the BCS title game so she will see Winston again prior to any potential postgame interview in the BCS title game.
"I've had a great relationship with him up until that point and I feel like at no point in that interview until he was pulled away [that] Jameis was getting uncomfortable," Cox said. "To the contrary, he seemed kind of relieved to be talking about it. ... I really felt like he was comfortable with what we were doing until he was pulled away. At that moment, I think he got really nervous, as anybody would getting pulled away from a live interview and not really knowing why. It did not end the way any of us wanted to."
1a. There's a fair debate to be had about the timing of Cox's questions and I certainly understand why FSU fans were not happy. Personally, I felt Cox's questions were fair. She's paid by ESPN be a reporter -- not an auxiliary member of the Florida State staff, not a standup comic and not someone who tells players and coaches to go celebrate with their team.
In my opinion, Cox did not ask Winston four direct questions about the investigation. Her first question for Winston was about how he felt about Florida State going to the national championship. As positive as it gets. Her second question was about what the last month had been for Winston as "news of the investigation was sharing headlines with your on-the-field performance." That's not specific to details about the investigation unless Winston answers it as such. Her third question was totally non-confrontational, though a bit of a repeat. ("What did you learn during the month, during the investigation?") Her fourth question tangentially referenced the investigation, but the specific question was about what having the trust of Fisher meant to Winston. If you watch the tape during that question, Winston is smiling, animated and excited about answering. The fifth question ("Jameis, how come you decided not to talk during the process, and on Thursday?") was directly about the investigation and perhaps should have been asked second.
In short, Cox did her job and Winston did his, answering the questions asked of a major college star. It will no doubt go smoother next time.
2. Asked why he decided to join NBC's coverage of the Sochi Games next February, David Remnick recalled a famous Voltaire quote about turning down an invitation to an orgy, having attended one the previous night for the first time.
"You know the expression once a philosopher, twice a pervert?" said Remnick, in a phone interview on Saturday. "I think in life you ought to try something once if it is honest work and does not interfere with your main job."
In a move that will be formally announced this week, NBC has hired the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and editor of The New Yorker magazine for its coverage of Sochi Games. Remnick will offer commentary during NBC's coverage of the Opening Ceremony on Feb. 7, 2014 as well as selected spots on NBC News. He will also be used during the first week of the Games on various NBC Sports platforms when editorial dictates it. How did Remnick find his Voltaire? In March Jim Bell, the executive producer of NBC's Olympic coverage, invited him for a sushi lunch in Manhattan. The two worked through scheduling and came to an agreement in October.
"I think they want to have someone who has a familiarity with Russian politics and culture, various controversies, Vladimir Putin and all these questions I have stepped in for a very long time," Remnick said.
"We are facing an Olympics that have a number of issues around them -- substantial, meaty, news issues," Bell said. "For us to be able to have an opportunity to address them with someone like David made perfect sense. We would be remiss not to rely on some of the best and brightest minds to help present this to our viewers the right way."
Bell said Remnick's role for the opening ceremonies will come during what NBC calls the "creative part of the broadcast," where the host country usually tells a story about itself. Remnick served as a Moscow bureau chief for The Washington Post and earned a Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction and the George Polk Award for excellence in journalism in 1994 for his book Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire.
"I have an interest in sports and I grew up in a time where the Olympics were highly charged events," Remnick said. "I'm 55 so I have pretty vivid memories of Mexico City. I remember Bob Beamon, as apolitical an act as there could be, and John Carlos and Tommie Smith. I think that everyone would have benefitted in 1968 from understanding what a gesture of black power meant in the context of a sporting event because not everyone was paying attention to the splits between the Black Panthers and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. What happens invariably at every Olympics is there is a kind of non-athletic aspect to it that gives it dimension."
Remnick said he had been given assurances by NBC Sports that he would have editorial independence with his commentary. Among the topics he will surely address: LGBT issues within Russia, the relationship between Russia and the Ukraine and the nature of post-Soviet Russia.
"There is nothing in the world -- and I know they don't intend to hinder me in this way -- where I would not be honest in my analysis," Remnick said. "It would be a waste of everyone's integrity and time if otherwise."
This will be Remnick's second Olympics. In 1996 he traveled to Atlanta to write about NBC's coverage of the Olympics. He said he'll arrive in Sochi a few days before the start of the Games and will likely be gone before the end of the first week of competition. Remnick said he hopes to take in hockey and ski jumping but promised no commentary on the sports themselves.
"I really doubt I will be discussing triple axels," he said, laughing.
2a. Last week NBC Olympics announced that Mary Carillo, Cris Collinsworth and Ato Boldon will serve as correspondents for its coverage of the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, The trio joins previously announced correspondent, tennis player Maria Sharapova.
3. Nice touch by Fox NFL Sunday to dedicate two minutes of its show to the death of Nelson Mandela, led by host Curt Menefee reflecting on his trip to the country. The NFL Today also honored the life of Mandela.
3a. Impressive production work by CBS Sports' Charlie Bloom in a piece featuring NFL Today staffer Bill Cowher traveling to Moore, Okla., which endured an EF5 tornado last May.
3b. Fox NFL Sunday co-host Terry Bradshaw was unable to fly to Los Angeles for Sunday's pregame show due to the inclement weather in the Southwest. Fox said they believed it was the first time Bradshaw has ever missed a pregame show on either Fox or CBS since 1990. (Bradshaw did appear by phone from his home in Thackerville, Okla.)
3c. I thought CBS announcer Jim Nantz had a great call on the 64-yard field goal by Broncos kicker Matt Prater. "Sixty-three the record. Of course, Tom Dempsey, Jason Elam, a former Bronco, and now for the all-time mark from 64. Prater's kick is ... good! History is made." Nantz and partner Phil Simms then went silent for 10 seconds. Well done.
3d. Fox said its commercial inventory for Super Bowl XLVIII is officially sold out. The network said the Super Bowl will feature 43 advertisers who have purchased 30-second, 60-second, 90-second and two-minute commercials. Brands that have already announced their plans to run ads in-game include Anheuser-Busch InBev; Butterfinger; Chevrolet; Doritos; GoDaddy.com; Hyundai; Intuit; Jaguar; Mars; Oikos; PepsiCo Beverages; and Wonderful Pistachios.
3e. Nice work by Fox Sports producers with this graphic for NFL sideline reporter Molly McGrath.
3f. The upcoming SEC Network announced it will air a traveling college pregame show on Saturday mornings next year. Called SEC Nation, the show will be hosted by ESPN broadcaster Joe Tessitore from 10-noon EST. It will air opposite College GameDay on ESPN and Fox College Saturday, which is far worse news for the latter than the former. ESPN is going to put a ton of promotion toward this vehicle and FCS struggled to find an audience this year.
3g. Fox's broadcast of the 2013 Big Ten Championship Game drew 13.9 million viewers, the network's most-watched college football telecast since the 2010 Fiesta Bowl.
4. Following in the proud tradition of athletes taking mass transportation, Charles Barkley took the New York City subway Thursday from the SoHo neighborhood in Manhattan to Brooklyn's Barclays Center prior to working as a game analyst on the Knicks-Nets game for TNT last Thursday. It was the first time Barkley had ever taken a New York subway. I accompanied Barkley during the trip. Here's an abbreviated diary of the journey and some YouTube footage of Barkley interacting with subway patrons.
5. Vitale credited former ESPN anchor Jim Simpson and Bob Ley for teaching him the mechanics of broadcasting, and how to get in and out of commercial breaks. He spent a large part of our conversation praising those he worked with, from ESPN executives such as Bodenheimer, Steve Anderson and John Wildhack to talent such as Robin Roberts, Dan Shulman and Mike Tirico.
5a. As young production assistants, part of the jobs of Bodenheimer and Fred Gaudelli were to drive Vitale from the Hartford airport to Bristol. Bodenheimer later became the president of ESPN; Gaudelli is now the producer of NBC's Sunday Night Football.
5b. Vitale is a concert fanatic -- he's recently seen Toni Braxton, Smokey Robinson, The Eagles, Donny and Marie Osmond and Josh Groban. In fact, he spent five minutes during our interview demanding I go see Groban, promising "goose bumps" and "chills." Groban gave Vitale a shoutout on Twitter on Saturday.
5c. Speaking of Twitter, Vitale is obsessed with the social media service, often tweeting late into the night and asking his PR staff for tips. He's fun to follow. He said he reads as many responses as he can and that most of his interactions are positive. He finally (and wisely) started blocking people who are consistently profane toward him. "I like the fact that it helps me raise money for cancer," Vitale said. "That's why I initially started. My daughters started me on it because I have no technical savvy. I have a real good following on my Facebook. I love mingling with the fans. I love letting the fans share their moments with me. There are negatives about it. It just breaks your heart sometimes, but I enjoy it."
5d. How does Vitale's broadcast partner Dan Shulman balance between calling games and letting Vitale be Vitale? "Dick has a very good sense of when he can do his thing, and when it's time to lock in more on the play at hand," Shulman said. "He knows if I feel there's anything I have to get in right away, I'll just tap him on the arm or something, and he'll give it back to me right away. I like letting him do his thing. That's what has made him such a big part of college basketball over the years, so I'm happy to give him as much space as he needs."
6. This week's sports pieces of note:
• Terrific roundtable on sexism and blogging in the hockey media by the Puck Daddy blog.
• The MMQB.com's Peter King embedded with an NFL officiating crew for a week and produced a groundbreaking series on how NFL officials prepare for their job.
• Meet the New York Times' 4th Down Bot, which analyzes every fourth down of every NFL game and tell you whether a coach should have gone for it.
• Loved this Ben Reiter profile on Bears tight end Martellus Bennett, one of the league's most interesting players.
Non sports pieces of note:
• If you read one piece this week, read this from Indiana University student journalist Jessica Contrera on the death of an Indiana University freshman.
•The story of an 11-year old homeless girl in NYC. Stunning, sober, devastating work by Andrea Elliott.
• Front pages from around the world on the passing of Nelson Mandela.
• One of the best obits I've ever read -- a beautiful piece of writing by Tom Scocca.
• The competition for the best selfie ever is over.
• This is a remarkable infographic on gender inequality in the movies.
• The secret life of a gay neo Nazi.
7. Sports Business Daily media writer John Ourand reported that Fox will retain the television rights to the Champions League. Interestingly, ESPN did not make a bid on the property.
7b. Michael Ballack, Alexi Lalas, Steve McManaman, Santiago Solari and Taylor Twellman will be the analysts for ESPN's 2014 FIFA World Cup coverage in Brazil. Ballack, Lalas, McManaman and Solari will appear on pre-match, halftime and post-match shows, SportsCenter, ESPN FC, and FIFA World Cup-themed news and information programs. Twellman will primarily serve as a match analyst. McManaman will also co-commentate on select matches.
8. Former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Jeff Burton will work as the lead NASCAR analyst for NBC Sports and NBCSN starting in 2014. When NBC Sports Group's coverage of NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series racing begins in 2015, Burton will serve as a full-time analyst on NBC and NBCSN. "Jeff Burton was always the first person we would seek out when there was breaking news or an issue that needed to be covered throughout our previous contract with NASCAR, so he was the first person we called for this role," said NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood, in a statement.
9. NBC Sports also announced that Rick Allen will serve as the lead race announcer for its NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series coverage, beginning in 2015.
10. The Awful Announcing site paneled a number of media people (including yours truly) on what NFL coverage will look like in the year 2030.
10a. The MMQB.com's Robert Klemko on how NFL players feel about Thursday Night Football.
10b. MLB Network will air more than 30 live hours of coverage from the 2013 MLB Winter Meetings headquarters in Orlando, including a live on-site edition of Inside MLB on Monday at 10:00 p.m. ET. Former MLB player Mark DeRosa makes his debut as an MLB Network analyst this week.
10c. ESPN will also air coverage from the Winter Meetings this week including Baseball Tonight five times daily over various platforms. The network says it will staff 20 on-site commentators and reporters.
10d. In news that should make Keith Olbermann ecstatic, CBS Sports Network announced it will simulcast the "Boomer & Carton" radio show, which airs on WFAN-AM/FM in New York City, beginning in January. The four-hour morning show is hosted by CBS NFL studio analyst Boomer Esiason and Craig Carton from Monday-Friday (6-10 a.m. ET).
10e. Your weekly Outside The Lines-has-been-buried-by-ESPN management update: Last Sunday morning's (8 a.m.) Outside The Lines on ESPN2 drew 185,000 viewers. (Colin Cowherd's football show drew 15,000 more viewers one hour later.) As previously noted, OTL's last Sunday show on ESPN drew 846,000 viewers.
10f. In a manner that would make Tony Manero proud, ESPN's news director Vince Doria did some epic dancing on why Outside The Lines has been buried in this interview with The Sherman Report. I have great respect for Doria's career and I believe he cares about journalism very much but here's the dope: The show was moved from ESPN to ESPN2 and lost more than half its audience. The external message given OTL's current time slot is that the show is less important than Colin Cowherd's NFL picks.
10g. Here's Outside The Lines anchor Bob Ley speaking to The Jason McIntyre Show about the burying of Outside The Lines.
10h. In a bit of good news for OTL, ESPN announced that a daily digital clip previewing each afternoon's show will run on SportsCenter and ESPN.com. It will also link to OTL's Twitter and Facebook accounts.
10i. The NBA and SiriusXM are launching an exclusive NBA channel that will cover the league 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. SiriusXM NBA Radio can be heard on Channel 217 on SiriusXM
10j. NBCSN will air the television debut of the documentary The Good Son: The Ray Mancini Story at 10 p.m. ET. on Dec. 14
10k. Showtime Sports says its live boxing coverage has increased 60 percent increase in average viewership since 2011.
10l. How a Washington D.C. radio program landed disgraced Toronto Mayor Rob Ford as an NFL guest picker.
10m. ESPN management has asked its on-air television talent not to use the word "suck."
10n. This week's NBA TV Fan Night game on Tuesday will feature the Heat-Pacers, a reprise of last year's Eastern Conference finals.
10o. Ken Dryden wrote this moving tribute to his late agent Art Kaminsky, who also represented broadcasters such as Dick Schaap as well as the 1980 U.S. Hockey team and gold-medal figure skater Sarah Hughes. Kaminsky passed away last week and was an iconic figure in the business.
10p. The Twitter feed of NBC Sports Radio sent out a remarkably thoughtless tweet following Florida officials announcing Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston would not be arrested in an investigation into rape allegations last year. It was an epic social media fail, for which they later apologized.