Over three decades of broadcasting, Dick Vitale has built a reputation as one of the most enthusiastic announcers in sports. For better and worse. Vitale's greatest strength is his weakness. He's such a great ambassador and spokesman for college basketball and such a fan of the game (and beyond Vitale the broadcaster is a likable and charitable fellow who interacts with fans and critics on Twitter) that he's no longer a college basketball analyst, but a college basketball advocate. He has faced more criticism in recent years because, much like Chris Berman, his television personality has remained unchanged for a generation.
Dick Vitale has built another reputation too – as a massive Duke homer. That's a reputation that wasn't just randomly assigned to Dick Vitale, it's been earned over decades of fawning over Mike Krzyzewski, how Duke is somehow morally superior to the rest of college basketball, their fans, their school, their city, and even the Duke of Wellington and other famous Dukes throughout history.
Ben Cohen of the Wall Street Journal wanted to put Dukie V's reputation to the test and see just how biased Vitale was towards the Dukies during five college basketball telecasts. Surprisingly, Vitale was negligibly more positive towards Duke than their opponents. Here's a selection of Cohen's findings:
"True to perception, 13% of these comments were positively gushy about Duke's players, its coach Mike Krzyzewski, its quirky arena (Cameron Indoor Stadium), its rabid fans (the Cameron Crazies) and the SAT scores these fans may have attained.
Let's be clear: By gushy we're not talking about straightforward praise doled out for specific plays, like "good job by Kelly to come up with the loose ball." We're talking about statements like: "Talk about a P-T-P-er, baby, a prime time performer! Mr. Kelly's been on fire! Somebody call the fire chief, man, he's burning up the nets! Here he is, nothing but nylon! NBA time! Ryan Kelly, what a show!"
While the percentage of slobbery comments about Duke was higher than the percentage for the other teams, it isn't clear that the nickname "Dukie V" applies. Duke's opponents got 11% of the love too. The sample also contained more Duke wins than losses and an extra Duke home game, plus two phenomenal Duke performances in Kelly's 36-point explosion Saturday and last season's Austin Rivers buzzer-beater against the Tar Heels."
The results were quckly applauded by ESPN PR as proof of Vitale's neutrality as a commentator… but in the words of Lee Corso, not so fast my friend. The pursuit of statistical research and hard data is appreciated and respected, but I'm not sure the argument that "Dick Vitale is only slightly more positive towards Duke than its opposition" erases a reputation that's been built over a quarter century. The research and data does not dispute that Vitale is overly positive towards Duke as I'm sure the positive to negative ratio would be something like three billion to one, especially when it comes to Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Where would this reputation for Dukie V come from? Let's check our own research:
From 2001: "I've gotten to know Coach K over the years, not only because I'm a broadcaster who covers the team but also through his involvement with the Board of Governors of the Jimmy V Foundation and as the co-chair of the Jimmy V Classic (with ESPN's John Saunders). I have watched this man away from the basketball arena, and let me tell you, Krzyzewski is one special human being. We're talking about a humanitarian. He's a guy who goes beyond the realm of teaching skills for the game of basketball. He's about people and about winning in life!"
From 2005: "Krzyzewski is a winner, and he has a great way of getting the most out of his people. I'm surprised the Dukies are still unbeaten, but am I shocked that they've been successful again this season? No, because Coach K is a brilliant leader and motivator who is able to guide his team through adversity."
From 2008: "It all started with leadership, and that is the word that defines Mike Krzyzewski. When all is said and done, the Hall of Fame coach may pass his mentor, Robert Montgomery Knight, as the winningest college basketball coach. Right now, Coach K can savor the moment of leading the U-S-A back into a place of dominance on the international basketball scene."
From 2010: "It is time to include Mike Krzyzewski in the argument beyond college basketball. I feel he should be considered among the best coaches in sports history. Think about it, why shouldn't he be up there with names like Vince Lombardi, Joe Paterno, Paul "Bear" Bryant and John Wooden? His legacy was in place long before that fourth championship. His ability to lead, to motivate and to teach puts him on a different level. He should be included in a greater class, because he is truly the best of the best."
From 2010: "Moving into the number two slot is a tribute to what Coach K has been all about. He has been more than an architect of a team, he has built an amazing program. Think about the fact that Duke struggled during his first three seasons under his leadership. In this day and age, where fans and administrators want instant gratification, many coaches would not have been retained at that point."
From 2011: "Four national championships. Dominance in the ACC. Players who have developed as men. He analyzed opponents' weaknesses and his own team's strengths. Coach K does an incredible job of motivating people and building team chemistry."
From 2011: "I am going to make a statement that anti-Duke fans are going to go wild about. They will scream that I am biased and chants of "Dukie V" will come out. But I think that at $5 million per year, Mike Krzyzewski is underpaid! There is nothing wrong with praising a team or a program that has been very successful. I know some will think that I'm kidding, but Coach K gets results on the court and deserves to be rewarded for that."
From 2012: "I have heard arguments about whether Duke should be in the hunt for a number one seed. Are you serious? Look at what Coach K's team has accomplished."
Maybe claims of Dick Vitale's "bias" towards Duke and Coach K is unfair. Maybe we should just label it for what it is – unconditional praise and adulation. Not that unconditional praise and adulation of college coaches has led to any major problems recently. At least one half of ESPN's "Difference Makers" special still has their reputation in tact.
UPDATE: Via Deadspin, the author of the WSJ piece, Ben Cohen, is a Duke graudate who has authored such things as "An Illustrated History of Duke Basketball: A Legacy of Achievement." Cohen's affiliation and history with Duke was not disclosed in the WSJ piece, but at least he and Vitale share something in common with regards to Duke basketball.