DICK VITALE WILL be off the air until at least February as he recuperates from

vocal cord surgery.

It sounds like a punch line to an obvious joke.

Of course, Vitale needs vocal cord surgery; he

never shuts up.

After a brief coaching career, Vitale arrived at ESPN in 1979, as the cable network was expanding its college basketball coverage to nearly 24/7. Vitale was everywhere providing color analysis with great passion and a goofy

vocabulary of pet phrases.

He was a huge success. Even

if you didn't like the "Diaper Dandies" and "PTPer" he

spouted about, you were swept up by his unyielding enthusiasm.

"The past 6 weeks have been very emotional [for] me and for my family as we've visited some of the most outstanding throat specialists," Vitale said in a letter posted on ESPN.com. "Visiting college campuses and interacting with the fans has kept me so young and energized. I can't wait to get back out there, having a blast with all of you, who are so vital to our game."

We never thought Vitale, 68, was built for a long run, but we were wrong. We suspect that he is more tolerated now than he is beloved, but he endures. Let's face it, about 95 percent of sports broadcasters are annoying. We think of Dan Dierdorf, who tries to make the obvious sound soooooooo profound on NFL games, and want to scream.

Critics have been on Vitale's case for his love of Duke but careful listeners know he loves most programs, and certainly the coaches. It's the nature

of college sports and the media. College coaches, rulers of their kingdoms, are there year after year and with success, their legend grows. His role isn't meant to be Woodward and Bernstein.

We always liked Vitale, albeit in smaller doses over the years. He always is prepared. You feel his energy before and during a game. His presence makes a routine game seem more like an event, even if it is just Illinois-Indiana.

We are surprising ourselves by writing this:

We'll miss Dickie V. We wish him a speedy recovery. Love him or not, he can be awesome, baby. *

- Chuck Bausman