Dick Vitale to visit Mercer

For several Octobers, Mercer University’s basketball preseason tipoff luncheon has been attended by some boosters, assorted staffers in administration and athletics, the coaches, a few select players and the media.

It was a good meal preceding basketball talk in a fairly intimate setting of about 75 people to get everyone thinking about the upcoming season.

Mercer is more than raising the bar. It’s obliterating it.

Dick Vitale, the voice of college basketball for three decades, will bring his passion and voice to Mercer in October and help signify the beginning of the basketball season.

“It’ll be an exciting day,” Mercer head basketball coach Bob Hoffman said. “It’ll be an exciting day for our campus.”

Vitale’s visit is set for Oct. 12, a few days before college basketball practice starts throughout the nation. An official release from the school is expected this week.

“Our president (Bill Underwood) has a very, very aggressive vision for athletics, and taking a look at everything from A to Z and making it more high profile and letting people know that we’re serious,” said senior associate athletics director for external affairs Jim Cole, who played baseball at Mercer and is a state representative from Forsyth and part of the Mercer Athletic Foundation. “This was a chance to take (the luncheon) to the next level and make a big splash to kick the season off.”

And it will make a louder splash than simply having head coaches Hoffman and Janell Jones speaking to several dozen people in a relaxed setting.

Vitale will also speak in Atlanta at Mercer’s Executive Forum program. Previous sports-related speakers include Rick Pitino, Lou Holtz and Bart Starr.

“We have three or four top-notch speakers every year,” said Rick Cameron, Mercer’s senior assistant vice president for marketing communications, of the Executive Forum. “(The thought was) ‘Why don’t we work together in a joint project with the Mercer Athletic Foundation and the Executive Forum?’ The two entities going together just works great for both of them.”

Vitale’s visit is the Executive Forum’s first event of the year and begins the Forum’s 30th year.

Mercer hosts Georgia College & State University in an exhibition doubleheader Nov. 5. Mercer’s women are on the road for their first four games — starting at Oklahoma — before the home opener Dec. 3 against Lipscomb. Mercer’s men open the season in a round-robin event at Providence and then host Fisk on Nov. 18 in the home opener. Florida State Univeristy, and former Mary Persons standout Terrance Shannon, visit the University Center three days later.

Mercer also is hosting the A-Sun men’s and women’s conference tournaments in March for the first time.

The school, Cole said, will release its season ticket package rates in August, and the Vitale appearance serves as part of Mercer’s basketball marketing.

“We’re going to have a huge season ticket push this year,”Cole said. “Our goal is to sell 1,000 season tickets, and this is an attempt to let people know that Dr. Underwood and Mercer University and the Athletic Foundation, we’re serious about taking this program to the next level.”¿

So Vitale’s visit begins what may be a big season for the Bears, who last season had winning men’s and women’s records together for the first time since 1995-96.

And it concludes a huge weekend, coinciding with the final round of the Brickyard Collegiate Championship golf tournament hosted by Mercer and The Brickyard at Riverside.

Ticket costs haven’t been determined for either engagement, and other events involving Vitale are being discussed.

The event has been in the works since April, sparked by the “go for it” encouragement of Underwood and growing into a multi-departmental task with organizers of the Executive Forum.

Hoffman and Cole said Mercer officials had been thinking of something new as a tipoff event.

Head baseball coach Craig Gibson was able to get former Atlanta Braves outfielder Jeff Francoeur as the keynote speaker at the Bears’ inaugural First Pitch banquet in February.

About 500 fans filled the University Center floor for dinner, and to listen to Francoeur and raise money and attention for the baseball program.

“The Francoeur deal that Craig had kinda gave everybody some ideas,” Hoffman said. “We had thought about it, what we might be able to do and who would be good and who we might be able to attract to bring some energy to the community and promote the same things that the mission of the university stands for.”

Hoffman, Cole and others at Mercer called around and had friends call around. They contacted the speakers bureau that handles Vitale and started negotiating.

“We had agreed on the Macon event in principle,” Cole said. “We truly want people to know that we’re a Division I program, and we want the state to know it, not just Middle Georgia. So that’s when we went back to the drawing board and threw into the mix the Atlanta event so we can touch our alumni and the media base up there.”

The deal was finalized Tuesday when both parties confirmed the receipt of payment. Mercer officials wouldn’t disclose or confirm the cost of Vitale’s visit, believed to be in the low five-figure range for both events.

“He was really our first choice,” Hoffman said. “We didn’t know if it would happen.”

Vitale’s first game as an ESPN announcer came in 1979, with DePaul beating Wisconsin 90-77. That came after a coaching career that had stops at Rutgers and Detroit as well as the NBA’s Detroit Pistons for one season.

Self-deprecation aside, Vitale’s record at Detroit — now Detroit Mercy — was 78-30.

Since then, the Seton Hall graduate has been at the microphone promoting college basketball around the globe.

The New Jersey native was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in September with, among others, Pat Riley, Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing.

Vitale has also been a major participant in the V Foundation for Cancer Research, in memory of former North Carolina State head coach Jim Valvano, who died of cancer in 1993.

Hoffman said he met Vitale during the Final Four in Detroit, and with his family, attended a Vitale engagement at Detroit Mercy that weekend.

“That was the first time I’ve heard him in person,” Hoffman said. “It was tremendous. You may hear him on TV communicate different things about life and about the importance of pursuing your passion.

“But when you hear him in person, that’s who he is. That’s the ultimate message. And he’s been such a great ambassador for college basketball. You put those elements together, and I don’t know that we could have gotten anybody better.”