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Negative Influence

Why Billy Packer is college basketball's most reviled commentator, and its best.

Where to begin when recounting all the great moments that have happened in this year's NCAA men's college basketball tournament? There were the huge upsets, such as Vermont topping Syracuse and Bucknell bringing down Kansas. There were the players whose personas and performances turned them into cult figures, like North Carolina State's Julius Hodge and West Virginia's Kevin Pittsnogle. And there were the three overtime games in the quarterfinals, including Illinois's furious comeback from 15 points down with 4 minutes to go in regulation against Arizona. Even before the Final Four has been played, it's safe to say that, by any measure, this has been one of the best tournaments in years.

Which is why one of my favorite moments from this year's tournament might strike some people as a bit odd. It came in the first round, during a game between number-one seed Duke and number-sixteen seed Delaware State. In the first half Delaware State was managing to hang around Duke by employing a transparently simple offensive strategy. Every time down the floor, it would determine who Duke's center, the shot-blocker extraordinaire but slow-footed Shelden Williams, was guarding. Then it would pull that player out to half-court and put the ball in his hands. Williams would follow, the Delaware State player would drive by him, and then one of two things would happen--the Delaware State player would get an uncontested lay-up or, if another Duke player rotated over to guard him, the Delaware State player would pass the ball to his teammate who was now open. It was an easy enough offensive strategy to counter: All Williams had to do was to sag off his man and not guard him out near half-court; but Duke, under Coach Mike Krzyzewski, prides itself on its stifling man-to-man defense, so Williams dutifully guarded his man more than 40 feet away from the basket, and Delaware State made Duke pay for it with easy basket after easy basket. With five minutes left in the first half, the game was tied at 23--at which point Billy Packer, CBS's lead college basketball analyst who was doing color commentary on the game, stated the obvious: Krzyzewski's stubborn insistence on sticking with his standard defensive scheme was hurting his team. Maybe Krzyzewski heard him, because it wasn't long before he instructed Williams to lay off his man and stay in the paint. Soon Duke put the game away, proving Packer's point.

So why does this stick with me as a great tournament moment? Part of it probably has to do with my dislike of Coach K. But the major reason was because it reminded me of one of my favorite things about March Madness: that CBS, with its hyper-critical top analyst Packer, has the broadcast rights to the NCAA Tournament and ESPN, with its see-no-evil top analyst Dick Vitale, does not--which means that Packer is suddenly everywhere and Vitale all but disappears. Which also means that for college basketball's biggest and most important games, it receives the sort of critical scrutiny, courtesy of Packer, that is increasingly rare in the world of sports broadcasting, not to mention in sports journalism as a whole.

Such critical scrutiny is certainly hard to find during college basketball's regular season. That's because, pre-March Madness, Vitale is most likely to be broadcasting the biggest match-ups, doing color commentary on as many as four nationally televised games a week for ESPN and its parent company ABC, while Packer usually only does about three nationally televised games per month for CBS. (Packer supplements his CBS work by doing color commentary on regional broadcasts of Atlantic Coast Conference games.) As such, Vitale is considered by many to be the preeminent college-basketball analyst. And that's a shame, because he's a very bad one.

Part of the problem with Vitale is that he offers shtick rather than analysis. He's so busy prattling on about "diaper dandies" (i.e. talented freshmen) and "PTPers" (i.e. prime-time performers) that he almost never offers any cogent insights into the game he's broadcasting, other than to shout that a coach "needs to get a T.O." (i.e. a time-out) when the opposing team is on a run. But the bigger problem with Vitale is the nature of his shtick: It's entirely positive. Vitale, far from being an analyst, is a cheerleader. He sings the praises of every coach and player he covers; everyone is, in his parlance, "awesome baby!" Oftentimes this can make Vitale unintentionally funny, such as during this past year when he continually talked up Virginia Coach Pete Gillen who was in the midst of a losing year and was clearly going to be canned once the season was over. Or when he declared Krzyzewski a "great humanitarian" right as a camera caught Coach K showering a ref with obscenities. But sometimes Vitale's cheerleading can actually be offensive, such as two years ago when he defended Baylor head coach Dave Bliss--who was being accused of all sorts of ethical violations, including allegedly encouraging his players to tell police investigators that a murdered teammate was a drug dealer in order to cover up improprieties in the program--as someone whose "heart has always been in the right place."

Still, Vitale's relentlessly positive outlook has made him a beloved figure in college basketball circles. Students cheer him when he shows up to broadcast a game and sometimes even pass him over their heads through the stands. Coaches and players love him, too, seeking him out for hand slaps and hugs prior to tip-off. The relationships even extend beyond the court: Vitale is co-owner of a race horse with Louisville Coach Rick Pitino. The horse's name? "It's Awesome Baby."

It's hard to imagine Billy Packer co-owning a race horse with a college coach. He's certainly not about to go into any sort of business partnership with St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli, who last year called Packer a "jackass" and said that he could "kiss my ass" after the analyst told CBS viewers that St. Joe's, despite its impressive record, didn't deserve a number-one seed in the NCAA Tournament because it had played a relatively easy schedule. And college players seem to have similar ill will toward Packer. Last weekend, after Kentucky guard Patrick Sparks hit a miracle last-second three-pointer to send his team's game against Michigan State into overtime, he tumbled onto the courtside table behind which Packer was calling the game and, according to reports, yelled at Packer, "Take that [expletive]!" Evidently Sparks was still angry that earlier this year Packer said he had traveled right before attempting another last-second shot.

The people who harbor the biggest hatred of Packer, though, are college basketball fans, all of whom, it seems, are convinced that Packer has a grudge against their particular team. Kentucky fans, for instance, refer to Packer as "P-acc-ker" and claim that the analyst has a bias against their team, which plays in the Southeastern Conference, and in favor of teams in the ACC, by dint of his contract with the ACC regional broadcasting network and the fact that Packer played for Wake Forest, an ACC school. ACC fans, meanwhile, think that Packer, because he went to Wake Forest, has a bias against all the other ACC teams. And even Wake fans think Packer is too hard on their team in an effort to overcompensate for any pro-Wake feelings he might secretly harbor. Indeed, Packer is so reviled by ACC fans that at the ACC Tournament last month, when Packer was presented with a media award during halftime of one of the games, the entire arena, filled with fans from eleven different teams, booed in unison.

Such universal scorn for Packer only serves to prove that he doesn't have biases against any particular teams; if he did, there'd presumably be some team he favors and therefore some fan base out there that likes him. What really gets fans so riled up about Packer, especially after being fed a steady diet of the always-positive Vitale, is that Packer is arrogant and fearless enough to call the games like he sees them--praising players and coaches when they are good and criticizing them when they're bad. So when a revered coach like Krzyzewski insists on sticking with a strategy that isn't working, or when a talented player like Sparks gets away with a travel before he makes a crucial play, Packer says so--backlash be damned.

It's this combination of arrogance and fearlessness that makes me grateful that Packer's the analyst who'll be providing the color commentary for tomorrow's Final Four and Monday's championship--the three most important college basketball games of the year. I'm not so naïve as to believe that sports broadcasters are more hard-hitting journalists than entertainers. And I'm sure that one of the reasons the CBS higher-ups stick with Packer as the network's lead college basketball analyst is because they recognize the entertainment value he has in his ability to drive fans crazy. (Much like ABC loved Howard Cosell for getting people to tune into "Monday Night Football" just so they could get mad at him--and much like Fox knows that the famously negative Simon Cowell is crucial to the success of "American Idol.") But along with Packer's entertainment value, he brings a critical eye to something that, while only a game, occupies a prominent enough place in our culture and makes certain people and corporations enough money that it deserves some scrutiny. Does that mean when you watch the games this weekend you'll hear Packer point out a team's low graduation rate or a player's friendship with a shady booster? No, probably not. But when Packer points out a questionable coaching decision or comments on a player's lack of hustle, he'll at least be bringing some much-needed perspective to an event that all too often is more about hype than substance. And in the boosterish world of sports commentary, even just a little critical thinking is a rare and refreshing thing.