Dick Vitale has been synonymous with college basketball ever since he started calling games for ESPN in 1979. He will be at U.S. Bank Stadium this weekend to call the Final Four for ESPN’s international broadcasts, and he said that what makes this event so special is the unique drama of the NCAA tournament.

“Everybody gets excited about it because it’s a one-game elimination,” Vitale said. “It’s a passion and sense of pride that everybody plays with. Kids play for the name on the front of their jerseys with so much excitement and enthusiasm. It just generates so much interest across the nation. I think it is the best sporting event of them all, I really do. For three weeks nothing captures America like this does.”

What does Vitale expect from the games Saturday?

“I think the one thing you have here is you have coaches really all about defense,” he said. “Tom Izzo is a Hall of Famer. You have newness. You have new coaches here for the first time in Tony Bennett, who really showed a lot of class last year when they lost as a No. 1 seed to a No. 16 seed, but he didn’t whine and cry about it and a year later what a difference a year makes, he’s in the Final Four.

“Texas Tech with [Chris] Beard, who worked under Bob Knight and he can tell you he got his doctorate of coaching under Bob Knight. He’s here with a team that does a great job defensively. They were predicted to be seventh in the conference in the Big 12, and then they’re here at the Final Four. Then you have Auburn. Who would have ever believed that Auburn in basketball in 10 days could beat three blue bloods? They beat Kansas, they beat North Carolina and they beat Kentucky. That’s what makes March Madness.”

Great coaches, teams

And while some of the coaches working the sidelines tonight may be new to fans, Vitale said each one of them has a great pedigree.

“Izzo, a lot of physical toughness, tough love and players love him because he’s honest and upfront,” he said. “Tony Bennett, who learned so much from his dad, Dick [Bennett, who coached for several schools, including Wisconsin] and the job he has done defensively with Virginia has been amazing. His record has been unbelievable.

Bruce Pearl got a second chance after going through a five-year period where he couldn’t coach in college. He got a second opportunity, took advantage of it, and he has a lot of emotion and passion. It rubs off on his team. Then you have Chris Beard, a guy who gets his kids to play great team basketball.”

Does he have a favorite this weekend?

“My gut feeling says Michigan State,” Vitale said. “Tom Izzo, familiarity, eighth time in the Final Four. I think all of that plays a part in terms of how to handle all the emotion involved with tickets, the media coverage, to deal with all of that rubs off on your team. I like Michigan State. I like them also because they have a star in this kid Cassius Winston, who just doesn’t let them lose. At the end of the year he has been brilliant for them.”

For Vitale this is an emotional town to work the Final Four in because of his time here in 1992 working the Final Four with the great Jim Valvano, who died from cancer a year later.

Vitale said he still raises money every year for the Jimmy V Foundation through an annual gala and a book he just published.

“When I found out he had cancer I could not believe it. I could not believe it. It broke my heart,” Vitale recalled. “He was gone so early. He has been gone since 1993. He died in April of 1993. That was the last time I ever worked with him. I miss him and I miss John Saunders, too. Two great guys. Fun to be with. It brings back a little memories, a little emotion. As you get older you have those emotional moments.”

Heathcote led MSU

There is no doubt that former Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote laid the foundation for Izzo’s great career with the Spartans when Heathcote was there from 1976 to 1995.

Izzo has been the Spartans head coach for 24 seasons and was an assistant under Heathcote for 12 years before taking over.

Heathcote won maybe the most famous NCAA championship of all time in 1979. That game was headlined by two of the greatest basketball players ever in Earvin “Magic” Johnson of Michigan State and by Larry Bird of Indiana State.

Yes, the stability of Spartans basketball is unequaled in the Big Ten. The fact that Michigan State has had had just two coaches since 1976 is unbelievable.

Looking at the other Big Ten schools, Wisconsin has had nine coaches in that time; the Gophers, Ohio State and Northwestern have had seven, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Michigan six and Purdue four.

Big Ten, big money

This NCAA tournament has been a big success for college basketball. CBS reported that ratings heading into the Final Four were up 8 percent from last year.

The Big Ten has played a big part in that success, placing the most teams in the tournament with eight and tying the ACC with 13 wins.

The Big Ten will be rewarded with 19 units by the NCAA, the most ever for the conference.

Units are a conference’s tally of wins, automatic qualifiers and at-large bids in the tournament, and those determine how much conferences are paid.

According to the Associated Press, that means the Big Ten should receive over $35.5 million annually for the next six years to be shared among the 14 member schools at about $422,000 annually.

Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle broke down how important that money is to the conference and the Gophers.

“We had eight teams that made the NCAA tournament this year, so that is eight units that the Big Ten received and we had seven of those teams win in the first round, now you get seven more units because you advanced to play another game,” Coyle said. “The Big Ten shares that money equally, and it’s the great thing about the Big Ten, how we’re all partners in this. When we’re not playing them, we want the Big Ten to do well.”