Sept. 4, 2010

By Craig Chval

In hindsight, it was the kind of thing that could have given Jay Louderback a complex.

The longtime Notre Dame women’s tennis coach was working hard to assemble his first full recruiting class at Notre Dame in the fall of 1989. Hoping to lead the still-fledgling Irish program to new heights, Louderback had persuaded nationally-ranked junior star Terri Vitale to take a recruiting visit to Notre Dame. The eldest daughter of former NBA and NCAA head coach and long-time ESPN basketball expert Dick Vitale, Terri Vitale arranged to take her campus visit during the weekend of the Notre Dame-Michigan State football game.

The only trouble was, Louderback and his Irish squad were out of town competing in a tournament. So current Notre Dame Senior Deputy Athletics Director Missy Conboy picked up Terri Vitale at the South Bend airport and along with her now-husband Bill Mountford, showed Vitale around the Notre Dame campus. By the time the Friday evening football pep rally was over, Vitale, who had been planning to attend Duke on a tennis scholarship, was ready to commit to Notre Dame – with Louderback and his tennis squad still hundreds of miles away.

“After less than 10 hours, I was somehow convinced,” Vitale recalls, who called her parents to share her reaction.

“They thought I was crazy,” she laughs. “The coach wasn’t there, the team wasn’t there, but I could tell Notre Dame was a special place.”

More than 20 years later, Dick Vitale hasn’t forgotten that phone call.

“I remember my wife saying on the phone, `Calm down Terri,’ then she said to me, `You’re not going to believe this.’

“Then I got on the phone, and Terri was telling me how much she loved the place and I told her, `You’re caught up in the emotion of a football weekend and in the beauty of the campus,'” he relates. “‘Here’s what we’re going to do,'” he continues. “‘Before you tell Duke that you’re not going there, we’ll visit Notre Dame and if you tell me that you still want to go there when there’s no football, no sunny weather, then I’ll support you 100 percent.’

“We went to visit Notre Dame and it was 74 degrees and sunny when we left home and when we got off that plane, there was sleet, there was snow, there was ice,” he says. “I said to my wife, `There is no way.'”

But Terri was undaunted.

“She said, `I fit in so well with the kids here,'” Dick Vitale remembers. “After one day, she said, `Dad, I’m telling you this is where I want to go.’

“I said, `Terri, it’s your decision, not mine,'” he says. “And we’re so thrilled that she did decide to attend Notre Dame.”

Even now, Terri is at a loss to point to what exactly sold her on Notre Dame.

“It’s undeniable when you come to Notre Dame and you just feel it,” she says. “To this day, I can’t pinpoint what it was or identify one particular moment. It was Missy Conboy, the kids I met on campus … Notre Dame just epitomizes what the whole college experience is supposed to be.”

If Notre Dame was a perfect fit for Terri, she was likewise a perfect fit for the Irish. During her Notre Dame career, the Irish earned their first-ever NCAA tournament bid as well as the first invitation to the USTA/ITA National Team Indoor Championship in team history.

A three-time monogram winner, Vitale won over 80 matches (singles and doubles) in her Irish career, and was the recipient of the Notre Dame Club of St. Joseph Valley Rockne Student Athlete Award for 1993-94.

“I just recall how proud I was to represent the University of Notre Dame,” she says. “I come from a family that really understands what it means to represent a school like Notre Dame, and how prestigious it was, what an honor it was, and how privileged I was to play for Notre Dame.”

After receiving her undergraduate degree in marketing, Vitale graduated summa cum laude with an MBA from Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business in 1995. Not only did Vitale leave Notre Dame with two degrees and a great tennis legacy, she left with a husband-to-be and a future brother-in-law.

Vitale met Chris Sforzo, who was being recruited as a student-athlete by Notre Dame’s lacrosse program during one of her recruiting visits. The two-sport couple started dating during their freshman year and married after Sforzo graduated from medical school. Vitale’s younger sister, Sherri, joined the Irish tennis squad in ’93, and eventually married former Irish quarterback Tom Krug.

“Notre Dame is definitely in the blood of this family,” she laughs.

While Chris was in medical school, Terri worked for Leo Burnett in Chicago before the couple moved to Gainesville, Fla. for Chris’ medical residency. There, Terri helped raise millions of dollars for the non-profit children’s hospital. Now living in the Sarasota, Florida area, where Chris is a board-certified orthopaedic surgeon and the founder of The Orthopaedic Center of Southwest Florida, Terri is heavily involved with numerous charities, including the V Foundation for Cancer Research. Her commitment to helping others is something Vitale learned from her parents.

“Our family has been so blessed, we’ve had such wonderful opportunities, and with that comes responsibility to help others,” she says. “My father spends more time focused on fighting cancer than he does on college basketball.

“What you see is what you get,” explains Terri. “All the flair and personality and enthusiasm that you see in TV, he channels that now into philanthropy, especially fighting cancer.

“His influence is immeasurable in my personal life.”

Vitale also credits her mother, Lorraine, for the values she now tries to instill in her own daughter, Sydney (9) and son Ryan (7).

“She is a remarkable woman,” says Vitale of her mother. “My parents have been married for nearly 40 years and they’re the perfect balance. All the excitement that my dad has, my mom is the steady rock, not only to my dad but to the kids. You can always count her, as good as gold. She’s a source of advice, support and guidance.” In addition to a bevy of charitable causes, Vitale also gives back to Notre Dame. The Dick Vitale Family Scholarship is presented annually to a Notre Dame student who participates on a non-scholarship basis in Notre Dame sports or activities. Terri is currently serving a three-year term on the board of directors of the Notre Dame Monogram Club.

Along with the opportunity to contribute to the Monogram Club mission of supporting the University, Vitale is grateful for the ability to maintain and strengthen her connection to Notre Dame. “Notre Dame is such a part of our dialogue as a family,” she says. “Sydney was in kindergarten talking with one of her friends and asked her where she was going to go to college, and told the little girl, `Well, maybe if you go to Notre Dame, we can be roommates.’

“They’ve been on campus since they were infants, and now that they’re getting older I think they’re starting to get why Notre Dame means so much to our family.” Vitale, who also serves as vice-president of Tandem Enterprises, a creator of dynamic website marketing and merchandising, sees Notre Dame as a place that reinforces the values her parents instilled in her.

“My parents have taught us, and now we’re teaching our kids and they’re teaching their grandkids,” she observes. “My dad believes in the best of college athletics and in excellence and in striving for your best.

“Notre Dame is the best of the best and I think he was very proud to have two kids graduate from there.” There is no question about it.

“All four of them have really utilized the values and things they’ve learned at Notre Dame,” says Dick Vitale, a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, of his daughters and sons-in-law.

“It’s more than the academics, it’s more than the athletics, but it’s how to treat people and how to give back,” he says. “We really love the University. “We’ve been blessed, and there is no greater thrill than bringing a smile to someone in need.”