The Year of Our Discontent, Part 1

Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, on July 18, 2005
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2004-05 was one of the best years in Virginia Tech athletics. The Hokies joined the ACC, won the conference championship in football, surprised everyone with a fourth-place finish in men’s basketball, and won their first-ever national championship — two of them, courtesy of Spyridon Jullien. But just 19 years ago, September of 1986 to October of 1987 was one of the worst years in Virginia Tech athletics, as VT lost their football coach, basketball coach, and two athletic directors, and landed on probation in both football and basketball.

They say to appreciate prosperous times, such as the ones the Hokies are living in now, you must have an understanding of the lean times, and certainly the turbulent times Virginia Tech experienced in 1986-87 are the polar opposite of present days. On October 27, 1987, on the same day, the VT football and men’s basketball programs were placed on NCAA probation. The story of what led to that dark day is a long tale of many twists and turns, a story that embarrassed Virginia Tech, crippled the university’s flagship athletic programs, and shaped athletic department policy for years to come.

The size of Virginia Tech’s fan base has increased rapidly in the last ten years, driven by the success of the football program, so many current-day Hokie fans have little to no knowledge of what transpired back in the mid-1980s. I was a student at Virginia Tech from 1983-87, and like many students, I was ignorant of what was going on around me. I remember sitting in Lane Stadium for my graduation on June 13, 1987, whooping it up with my friends while Virginia governor Gerald Baliles spoke, and afterwards, seeing the stunned faces of family members as they asked me, “Wow, what about Baliles? Can you believe what he said?”

To be honest, I didn’t even know what Baliles had said. I had been too busy partying with my fellow graduates. But Baliles’ speech that day, in which he chastised Virginia Tech for putting the athletic cart before the academic horse, and the things that preceded it and followed it, are all part of the tapestry and the legend surrounding those times.

This article is the first in a series about the events that landed both VT football and VT basketball on probation back in 1987. In some ways, no one wants to revisit the unpleasant past, but in other ways, doing so can place the present in perspective and make us appreciate it more.

Plus, it’s a hell of a story.

First, a discussion about our sources. For media sources, we used the Hokie Huddlers of that era, though there was precious little concrete information in the Huddlers of the day. Secondly, we searched the Richmond Times-Dispatch online archives from that time frame, which fortunately go back to 1985. No such luck with the Roanoke Times, which only goes back to 1990.

Beyond the Hokie Huddler and the RT-D, we spoke with insiders to the Virginia Tech programs back then — both football and basketball — as well as members of the media who covered the events. Our “deep throat” sources provided confirmation, insight, and amplification beyond what made the papers back then.

The resulting story we have to tell is one that is both documented and undocumented. We have done our best to present things fairly and accurately but in a few places have taken some literary license as well, filling in some of the blanks with what most likely happened, based on what sources told us.

Fortunately, we have nearly 20 years of perspective, and a prosperous present day, that allow us to treat the events of long ago as an interesting, entertaining story. But the truth is that the events of 1986-87 destroyed careers, derailed Virginia Tech athletics, caused turmoil and agitation, and damaged the reputations of some individuals beyond repair. We intend no disrespect towards the people who lived those events and are part of this story. As a matter of fact, we found a common thread running through our research: though the men involved in this narrative committed many blunders, did a lot of damage, and caused a lot of anguish, they were for the most part good men of good intentions. Still, they did make a mess of things.

To understand what happened in 1986-87, you have to start farther back.

The Beginning

T. Marshall Hahn took over the presidency of Virginia Tech in 1962, when the university was a small school, largely military, and overwhelmingly white and male. It was primarily a technical institution, focused on agriculture and engineering, and it emphasized undergraduate teaching over research or graduate programs. By the time Hahn left the presidency in 1974, Virginia Tech had been transformed into a coeducational, multiracial research university with a thriving college of arts and sciences (created by Hahn) and burgeoning graduate programs.

The Virginia Tech Athletic Department was attempting the same sort of growth and transformation. The athletic physical plant was undergoing remarkable change, as War Memorial Gym was replaced by “The Coliseum” (later named Cassell Coliseum) in 1961, and Miles Stadium was replaced by Lane Stadium in 1965.

The Hokies hired Bear Bryant disciple Jerry Claiborne in 1961 to coach Tech football, and Claiborne put together some good teams, posting a record of 8-2 in 1963 and winning 7 games or more from 1965-1968. Claiborne led the Hokies to the second and third bowl berths in the history of the program, in 1966 (the Liberty Bowl) and 1968 (the Liberty Bowl again).

Good times: Tech president William E. (Bill) Lavery looks on at a press conference while Bill Dooley accepts a bowl bid. (click to enlarge)

In 1969 and 1970, the Hokies went a combined 9-11-1, and Claiborne was out, succeeded by Charlie Coffey. Coffey (1971-73) and his successor, Jimmy Sharpe (1974-77), guided the Hokies to a seven-year record of 33-42-2 and no bowl bids, and the Virginia Tech fan base was frustrated and restless.

William E. (Bill) Lavery took over the presidency of Virginia Tech in October of 1975, and in late 1977, he made a bold move, hiring North Carolina football coach Bill Dooley away from the Tar Heels to serve as Virginia Tech’s football coach … and athletic director. Dooley coached North Carolina from 1967 to 1977 and was credited with putting not just North Carolina football, but ACC football, on the map.

Lavery’s move to hire Dooley was ambitious and made a big splash. And without Lavery offering Dooley the position of AD in addition to football coach, Lavery never would have lured Dooley away from UNC. The opportunity to be his own boss was a powerful draw for Dooley, and he made the switch from baby blue to orange and maroon.

As coach and athletic director, Dooley had his own ambitions. Part of his vision involved athletic facilities, which Dooley immediately sought to upgrade. In 1980, Lane Stadium’s East stands, which since their construction had been the same size as the West stands, were expanded by 11,000 seats into their present-day configuration, at a cost of $3.2 million. In 1982, Dooley launched the building of the Jamerson Athletic Center, the box-like structure of offices attached to the South end of Cassell Coliseum. The Jamerson Center was finished in 1983, costing over $2 million. Dooley also added lights to Lane Stadium in 1982, costing about half a million dollars, and he started work on planning a new baseball stadium, though that project would never be started under his administration.

On the field, Dooley’s football teams went 4-7 and 5-6 in 1978 and 1979, but in 1980, the Hokies caught fire and went 8-3, earning a Peach Bowl bid against the Miami Hurricanes, who had yet to win their first national championship and were attending their first bowl game since 1967. Miami won that game 20-10, but Dooley had made his mark, taking the Hokies to their first bowl game in 12 years and only their fourth in the 88-year history of the program.

From that point on, Dooley won, though the bowl bids didn’t always follow. The Hokies went 7-4 in 1981 (losing a bowl bid when they dropped a 6-0 game to VMI on November 21st), 7-4 in 1982, and 9-2 in 1983 (when UNC refused to play the Hokies in the Peach Bowl, and Tech, boasting the #1 defense in the country behind All-American Bruce Smith and future NFL Pro Bowl linebacker Mike Johnson, sat home for the holidays).

In January of 1984, something important happened: Dooley’s contracts as football coach and AD were extended. Dooley was to coach the Hokies through January 1, 1989 and serve as their AD until January 1, 1994, terms of five years and ten years, respectively. Bill Lavery had made another bold move in locking up Dooley for another decade.

Grim faces: Bill Dooley and Bruce Smith confront the media at a 1984 Independence Bowl press conference. (click to enlarge)

In the 1984 football season, the Hokies went 8-3 and earned an Independence Bowl bid, and that’s when trouble started in Dooley’s reign. Previously, in May of 1983, Virginia Tech had been put on NCAA probation for recruiting violations committed earlier in Dooley’s tenure, involving eight football players. The violations were minor, and the news of probation was never made public. The NCAA ruled that if VT should make a bowl game, none of the eight players could participate in the game. By 1984, seven of the eight cases had been appealed successfully by VT, except for one: that of Bruce Smith.

The news broke just days before the 1984 Independence Bowl that Smith was not eligible for the game, but Smith and his lawyers sued the NCAA and Virginia Tech … and won, getting an injunction that allowed Smith to play in the game, which Tech lost 23-7 to Air Force.

The recruiting violations were minor, and the Independence Bowl was a minor bowl, but the fact that Smith played in the game was not minor, and the NCAA would never forget it. The Bruce Smith story was more important than the game and served as the first black eye in Dooley’s administration.

Dooley’s Downfall

While the Bruce Smith probation incident was a black eye for Virginia Tech and hinted that other things might be amiss, Dooley’s undoing began when, as athletic director, he started to run the athletic department in the red.

Figures taken from Richmond Times-Dispatch archives of the mid-1980s tell the tale of the athletic department’s finances in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

To expand Lane Stadium’s east stands in 1980, the university took on $2.5 million in capital debt in 1978, to be serviced by the athletic department. To fund construction of the Jamerson Athletic Center the university took out $2 million more in debt, funded through a loan in February of 1982.

Capital debt of $4.5 million seems tiny compared to the $89.5 million required to expand Lane’s South end zone and West side in the last three years, but $4.5 million was big money back then, as the VT athletic department budget was in the $5 million range, compared to roughly $30-$35 million today. Dooley was taking a risk with expansion, particularly with Jamerson expansion, which cost money but did nothing to increase revenue.

In June of 1982, at the end of fiscal year 1981-82, the athletic department was in decent shape financially. Its operating debt was about $182,000, a slight reduction of the $188,000 Dooley had inherited in 1978. Capital debt (which was actually held by the university, but serviced by the athletic department) stood at $3.69 million, not bad considering the $4.5 million taken out in loans in 1978 and 1982.

The athletic department broke even in 1982-83. But then things started to fall apart. Operating debt rose dramatically in fiscal 1983-84, when the program borrowed $500,000 for operating expenses. In 1984-85, things weren’t any better, as another $450,000 loan was taken out. In just two years, VT’s operating debt had ballooned to $1,118,607, and with capital debt now at $3,055,000, total athletic department debt had reached $4,173,607.

The athletic department’s finances were a house of cards, waiting for a good strong wind to blow it down.

In 1985, perhaps emboldened by the ten-year contract he had signed as AD in early 1984, Dooley restructured the athletic department, and he made one move that was to have far-reaching effects. Dooley placed long-term associate athletic director Bill “Moose” Mathews on administrative leave. A letterman for VT’s basketball team from 1952-54, Matthews was a big man on campus, literally and figuratively. He had been associated with Virginia Tech athletics for 30 years and is described by everyone who knew of him at that time as a behind-the-scenes mover and shaker, a man who knew people of wealth and influence.

Moose Matthews made things happen. “When we needed the budget balanced,” one athletic department source from the mid-80s told TSL, “Moose balanced it. He made the phone calls, and the money appeared. If we needed $25,000 for recruiting, Moose got it for us. He knew people who were worth a lot of money, and when he asked for things, they gave.”

Matthews is described by those same people as Virginia Tech’s de facto athletic director. Dooley had the title and the salary, but Matthews was the one who carried out many of the day-to-day duties of the athletic director. It wasn’t unheard of for coaches to also serve as athletic directors in that era — NC State’s Jim Valvano is another example of a combination coach/AD from that time — but most of the men who held both roles also had one or more lieutenants who executed the majority of the administrative duties. So it was with Matthews and Dooley.

But the two apparently didn’t see eye-to-eye, and in 1985, Dooley shunted Matthews into an indefinite leave of absence. In a Christmas Day 1986 article, RT-D sportswriter Vic Dorr, Jr. wrote: “In terms of tactical wisdom, this move can be compared to Custer’s advance on the Little Big Horn.”

Dooley never spoke on the record about Matthews’ departure, but sources of the day, and sources that TSL spoke to in researching this article, say that it isn’t mere coincidence that Matthews departed at about the same time the athletic department started bleeding red. Money pledged by influential boosters for Jamerson Center construction suddenly stopped coming in, forcing Dooley to dig into the athletic department’s operational budget in order to pay capital debt. Financially, things went from bad to worse for Virginia Tech athletics, resulting in the $4.173 million debt figure in June of 1985.

But what really began to spell the beginning of the end for Dooley was when VT President Bill Lavery, the man who hired Dooley and was his close personal friend, decided to take control of Virginia Tech athletics. Lavery had spent three years on the reform-minded NCAA Presidents Commission, where he learned, in his words, “Those places that are in trouble have presidents that aren’t aggressive in taking charge and providing enough leadership, and [instead] athletic directors are taking charge.”

Alumni — perhaps the same alumni who allegedly cut off their donations — brought the athletic department’s poor finances to Lavery’s attention, and he started receiving pressure to remedy the situation.

That’s when things started to get really messy, and the house of cards started to come down.

Up Next: 1986 — Dooley quits, and things get very public.

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