Dick Vitale and his Detroit Titans rolled into this well-mannered colleg town in the heart of the bluegrass horsebreeding country today with their guns blazing.
No one knows who will win when 25-3 Detroit takes on No. 1 rated Michigan, the team it professes to hate above all others, at 8:15 p.m. Thursday in the NCAA Mideast Regional semifinals. The 23,400-seat Adolph Rupp Arena already is sold out.
But everyone here knows who won today's press conference and the loosening-up practice session beforehand. Vitale and his uninhibited wild bunch - which includes gentlemen with monikers like "Bubbles, Sweet Dew and Shake 'N Bake" won the talk fest in a romp."
Vitale, a man whose controversial reputation precedes him like word of an approaching enemy army, so monopolized this town's attention today with his mocking blasts at Michigan that few people here even noticed the return to Lexington of Lee Rose.
Rose, now coach at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, will lead his 26-3 Mean Green against sixth-ranked Syracuse (also 26-3) in the other semifinal game at 5:37 p.m.
Under normal circumstances Rose, who just two years ago coached down the street from Rupp Arena at tiny Transylvania College, would be the underdog talk-of-the-town with his little-known team that eats its pregame meals at McDonald's and has a star center named Cornbread Maxwell.
But Vitale's marvelous motor mouth put everyone else here today in the shade.
"I never dreamed we'd have to come all the way to Lexington, Ky., to get to play a team that's just 40 miles down the road from us," taunted the 36-year-old Vitale. "I quess that's the only way we can get on their schedule."
Detroit and Michigan, both 25-3 and by far the two best teams in their state, have not met in the last three seasons and Michigan icily points out that its schedule is full through 1980. Don't call us . . .
"We're just a little Jesuit school playing the big public schools," Vitale said with a grin. "We're the runny-nosed inner-city kids playing the mighty majestic Gold Wolverines of Ann Arbor.
"We've got nothing to lose. We're here to have a good time. I'm coaching to win. Johnny Orr is coaching to keep from losing. He knows all his alumni with the big bucks and those deep pockets are watchin' and they'd be mighty upset to lose to us.
"If we win," said Vitale, "I'm going to do the Vitale shuffle at midcourt and it won't be any ordinary handshake I'll offer Orr, that's for damn sure."
The air was full of Michigan-Detroit snipping. Orr, who tries to maintain a grandfatherly image, could not resist denigrating Detroit's pattycake schedule (full of Wayne States) and charging Vitale with planting "a lot of lies and very disturbing things" in the Detroit press.
Certainly no man could look less like what one might expect of Dick Vitale than Dick Vitale (pronounced like Hi, Pal.)
"High-powered, frenetic, funny, fanatically ambitious, master recruiter, clown prince" are the phrases that spread out around Vitale like ripples on a pond.
Yet Vitale stands a shade under 6-foot, is bald, has a touch of a paunch and wears enormously thick glasses that do nothing to conceal the fact that he has one glass eye.
"I lost the eye (through an infection) when I was 16," he said. "I thought, 'Now I can't be Bob Cousy. What am I going to do with myself." But it's made me appreciate life more."
In a world of handsome, cleanut indistinguishable coaches, all peddling similar pitches in similar bland jargon and in almost identical mod outfits, Vitale looks about as out of place as a professor of Greek.
He started his press conference today by squinting at the spotlight and saying, "I can't see a thing" He then ignored the microphone, stepped out of the lights and proceeded to fire off iconoclastic one-liners for 40 minutes at a near shout.
Every barb Orr had ever sent his way, Vitale handed back today, not with rancor so much as an overwhelming, almost childish exuberance as though this were the greatest fun imaginable.
"Orr called me an opportunist looking for a big-time job," Vitale said with a laugh. "Well, I got one already. An opportunist who wins is soon called a coaching genius."
Vitale explained that this week he has free rein to curse more than usual in public. "By beating Middle Tennessee to get here we got the university $100,000," said Vitale. "My president, Father (Malcolm) Carron, says he doesn't mind a little curse here and there. He says we can iron it out at confession.
As befits a coach who includes Mark (The Bird Fidrych, the Detroit Tiger pitcher, in his practices, Vitale revealed every matchup, every piece of strategy in he has in store. "What's the big secret?" he said. "All of a sudden we're going to do something new?"
Detroit, Vitale says, must fast break consistently with Dennis Boyd leading the pack. Guard Terry (Dew Dew) Duerod cannot afford to hit one of those cold shooting spells when "I have to get him out of there and make him an assistant coach."
The smallish Detroit front line of 6-foot-7 Terry Tyler (17 points, 11 rebounds), 6-9 Ron Bostick and 6-5 John Long (20 points per game) cannot afford to get in foul trouble because there is precious little behind them.
?If we get behind early by a dozen," said Vitale, "they'll blow us out by the Lord knows how many. We'll never catch up." But if the game is close and Detroit can play all 12 of its defenses, then the pressure of being ranked No. 1 may rest heavy on Mitchigan, Vitale hopes.
"We just want to get into a down-to-the-wire job with 'em," said Vitale, whose team has broken 30 rims in its gym practicing its dunks. "Then it'll be apple-and-ice cream time for us and nail-biting time for them."
With that Vitale spotted John Wooden (here as a TV commentator) and Adolph Rupp (legendary Kentucky coach) sitting together in the stands watching his team practice.
"Stop, stop," yelled Vitale, circling up his players, and scooping his 3-year-old daughter, Terri Lynn, up in his arms. "Come here and meet the two greatest college coaches that ever lived."
After everyone had shaken hands all around, Vitale gave his one stern order of the day. "Aw right. You guys can go in now. We're finished," he said. "But I don't want to find out that anybody has washed their right hand."