Dick Vitale has a Patrick Mahomes story, because of course he does.
You don’t become the face and voice of college basketball broadcasting on ESPN for more than four decades, know everyone in his sport (and many others) without collecting anecdotes. The one with Mahomes involves a photo request at the 2019 Final Four, just before the championship game between Virginia and Mahomes’ alma mater, Texas Tech.
Tipoff was moments away when Vitale, calling the game, got a tap and was told of the request.
“I sign pictures for everybody. I love fans — it’s the hot dog in me,” Vitale said. “So I go running over there and take the picture, come back, and the guy next to me says, ‘I don’t know if you know who you took a picture with.’”
Vitale didn’t. When he was told it was Mahomes, coming off that MVP season in his first year as the Chiefs’ starting quarterback, Vitale darted back to apologize.
The photo is now part of Vitale’s collection.
“Dickie V,” as he is affectionately known, is a Mahomes fan (“What a beautiful young guy. He seems to handle it really well. He’s a gift.”). But make no mistake about the Super Bowl. It’s Tampa Bay first and forever. And the region’s professional sports teams, Bucs and otherwise, don’t have a greater ambassador than the 81-year-old resident of Lakewood Ranch.
He calls games involving Duke, Villanova, Kentucky and Kansas — the latter two have games on his schedule this week — with down-the-middle but entertaining commentary.
But when it comes to the Bucs, Rays and Lightning, the allegiances are unabashed, and what a time to be a Tampa Bay fan over the last few months. The Lightning won the Stanley Cup in September, the Rays reached the World Series in October and now the Tom Brady-led Bucs face the Chiefs in Tampa on Feb. 7.
Vitale literally has a front row seat for much of it. He’s had Rays season tickets since their inaugural season in 1998, first row directly next to the visitor’s dugout.
He’s unsure if he’ll attend the Super Bowl because of COVID-19. The pandemic shortened some seasons and limited fans’ attendance at all of them.
But Tampa Bay and Vitale are riding high.
“There’s no doubt we’ll be an underdog, even though it’s at home,” he said. “But you never know. A one-game shot, Tom Brady, you just don’t know. My heart is certainly going to be with the Bucs, but my head is telling me we could be in a little bit of trouble.”
The Chiefs are an early three-point favorite for the game at Raymond James Stadium, where the Bucs will become the first team in Super Bowl history to play the championship game in their home stadium.
A regular-season meeting in Week 12 went to the Chiefs, but Vitale saw that trend work in his Bucs’ favor this season when Tampa Bay won the second of three games at New Orleans.
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“(The Chiefs) got the best of us in the first meeting, but you know what? The Saints got the best of us twice in the regular season, too,” Vitale said.
The Buccaneers have won seven straight since losing to the Chiefs, which Vitale sees as right on schedule.
“I think it took a while for Brady and these guys to get familiar,” he noted, “and because of the pandemic, there were no preseason workouts, where he really needed that. I don’t care how good you are — the game is really based on efficiency, timing, rhythm. I think they’ve finally got their rhythm.”
Some traditional college basketball bluebloods are having trouble finding that rhythm this season. North Carolina, Duke and Kentucky are absent from the Associated Press Top 25 as a group for the first time since 1961.
A common thread in their struggles? Vitale points to ESPN’s recruiting rankings for 2020, which produced this season’s newcomers. The top three in those rankings were Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina. Last season, the Wildcats and Blue Devils were national-title contenders and part of Vitale’s latest book, “The Lost Season: A Look at What the Journey to the 2020 National Championship Could Have Been.”
This season, they could all need strong finishes to reach the NCAA tournament.
“What it tells me is you better have veteran players,” Vitale said. “Look at Gonzaga, look at Baylor. Those teams are so strong in terms of veterans.”
Maybe the Zags and Bears, the nation’s top two teams, will meet for the national championship. It would be a battle of the best, just like the quarterback confrontation looming in the Super Bowl between PTPers — Prime Time Players, from Vitale’s dictionary — in Mahomes and Brady.
“We got the greatest of all time, the GOAT, going against The Kid,” Vitale said.
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