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Vitale gets the last word on Auburn coach

By JOHN C. COTEY and GREG AUMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2003


Dick Vitale has a message for Auburn coach Cliff Ellis: He did chase his hair that day.

"I just never caught it," Vitale said. "I was too slow."

Vitale was responding to Ellis' comments after the Tigers beat Saint Joseph's on Friday. Ellis said he met the bald Vitale in Sarasota and Vitale's hair was "blowing away in the breeze and he was too proud to chase it."

Ellis was firing back at Vitale, who along with several other analysts suggested Auburn did not deserve to be in the NCAA field. He also has said that Vitale and others held that view because they did not know the facts.

"Tell Cliff Ellis I love him," Vitale said. "Three years ago I said he should have been national coach of the year. But the facts haven't changed.

"It's very simple: Auburn lost nine of its last 14 games and played a preconference schedule that wasn't one of America's best. But no one ever said they weren't good enough to win games. Hey, I love Marquis Daniels. I think Auburn can beat any team in the country. Wake Forest will have to have its A game to survive."

While the Tigers think their overtime victory will silence the critics and prove they belong, Vitale is sticking by his comments and isn't letting Ellis get the last word.

"There's a lot of teams that aren't in the NCAA Tournament that can go out and win two to three games; that's very possible because of parity," Vitale said. "We weren't trying to be critical of Auburn. But look at that preconference schedule. They get blown out by Western Kentucky (89-70) and Western Michigan (72-54) while beating the likes of the Woffords of the world.

"If the criteria for making the tournament is to play a strong preconference schedule, the answer to that is, no they didn't. If the criteria is that you finish strong, they lost nine of their last 14."

Vitale said it is funny how bent out of shape coaches get over his comments. Ellis wasn't the first coach to call him out -- IUPUI's Ron Hunter also took some shots at a news conference before the tournament.

The ESPN lightning rod takes it all in stride. It is part of his job as America's pre-eminent college basketball analyst.

"Tell coach (Ellis) for me, Dicky V says to send me a check for motivating his team, baby," Vitale said. "Tell him I want the cash. If they make the Sweet 16, send me the cash."

THIS SEAT IS FINE: With 30 seconds left in regulation of a game his team would ultimately win in overtime, Ellis looked courtside Friday and asked Les Robinson if he would like to switch places with him.

The 60-year-old former coach smiled and said no, he likes his seat much better this time of year. Robinson, who once succeeded Jim Valvano at N.C. State, has been out of coaching since 1996 and said he doesn't miss the life he lived for 32 years.

"This is a way to be close to the game without a lot of the headaches," said Robinson, now the athletic director at The Citadel and in Tampa as a representative of the NCAA Tournament selection committee. "It's almost like this is a reward for all those years."

Two weeks ago, Robinson spent five days sequestered in an Indianapolis hotel with the other nine members of the committee, watching games, debating teams' merits and ultimately creating the brackets everyone has been following for the past week.

"As a coach, I never knew what went on in there," said Robinson, who met with the committee 10 times during the season. "I didn't go outside from Wednesday to Sunday. They let you go downstairs to exercise, but that was it. We do everything we can to make the tournament first class, from choosing the teams to evaluating and selecting officials. The end product is great matchups, and now for me, the closer the games, the better for me. I can't lose anymore."

Robinson can appreciate the importance of not counting out even the lowest seeds in the NCAA field. In 1989, his East Tennessee State team came as close as any 16th seed has come to knocking off a No.1, missing a shot at the buzzer in a one-point loss to Oklahoma.

Having seen the scrutiny given to the brackets today, he said that game would not have been possible -- with more thought put into the bottom seeds, his team would be a 14 or 13 seed now, and there is little chance his underdogs would have the homecourt advantage of playing a No.1 in Nashville, not far from campus.

"Now, we go over all the seeds with a fine-tooth comb," Robinson said.

Robinson is happy to watch from press row as an NCAA dignitary instead of the familiar fit of a coach's chair and said he enjoys the tournament more than he might have a decade ago.

"Coaches I talk to don't realize there can be life after basketball. It's kind of like going from a father to a grandfather," said Robinson, who now has more time for his seven grandchildren. "You're not on the front lines, you don't have to change the diapers."

THIS AND THAT: The NCAA has contingencies for every potential problem that could arise in a game. Not only are there backup backboards ready should someone do as Texas Tech's Darvin Ham did against North Carolina in 1996, shattering the glass with a thunderous dunk, but there are five backup shot clocks as well. The five are constantly running in the bowels of St. Pete Times Forum, with two of them as standard double-sided clocks that mount over the backboards and another three triangular versions, allowing more of the arena to count down. ... There's a familiar name in the NCAA South Region record books: second on the list for most free throws converted in a game is Gators coach Billy Donovan, who hit 16 for Providence against Georgetown in 1987. That Friars team also holds the region record with 19 steals against Austin Peay in a second-round game that year.

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