The Year of Our Discontent, Part 2

Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, on July 25, 2005
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By early 1986, eight years into Bill Dooley’s reign as VT football coach and athletic director, Dooley had built a house of cards, mostly from a financial standpoint, that was ready to collapse. All it would take was a slight breeze, and in late February of 1986, Virginia Tech President Bill Lavery, having second thoughts about his decision to hand the two most powerful positions in VT athletics to one man, initiated a sequence of events that would lead to Dooley’s departure, even in the midst of Dooley’s most successful season as VT’s coach.

Through expansion of Lane Stadium and construction of the Jamerson Athletic Center, Dooley had taken on $4.5 million worth of capital debt, and he had also run the athletic department deeply in the red for a couple of years, 1983-84 and 1984-85. In 1985, Dooley put long-time athletic department official Bill “Moose” Matthews on administrative leave, and donations from influential, wealthy alumni that Matthews was close to stopped coming in, most notably donations for Jamerson Center construction.

Between donations slowing down and a landmark 1984 ruling in how college football was broadcast on TV — which reduced VT’s television income by nearly $500,000 — Dooley was forced to dip into Tech’s operating budget to pay for the capital loans the university had taken out. As a result, operational debt was added to capital debt, and by early 1986, Virginia Tech athletics was holding over $4 million in athletic department debt, a large figure in those days.

Big-money donors to Virginia Tech — presumably the same friends of Bill Matthews who had stopped donating money to the athletic department — had started to pressure Lavery about Dooley’s mismanagement of athletic department finances and to request a change. Lavery wasn’t just getting pressure from donors. He was also having second thoughts on his own about his decision to sign Dooley to contracts that would take him through 1988 as football coach and 1993 as athletic director.

Lavery had served on the NCAA President’s Commission for three years and had 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.” Lavery had also formed a Blueprint Committee on Athletics in January of 1986, the purpose of which was to study Virginia Tech athletics and make recommendations for improving the whole operation, from top to bottom. One of the early recommendations out of the Blueprint Committee: split up the jobs of athletic director and football coach, and have a different individual doing each job.

Also at issue was an NCAA inquiry into excessive football scholarships at Virginia Tech. Back then, Division 1-A football teams were allowed to carry 95 players on scholarship (versus 85 today), and the NCAA felt that Virginia Tech had more than the allowable amount of scholarships. This inquiry wasn’t public knowledge at the time.

Those four factors — pressure from donors, inner second-thoughts from time spent on the Presidents Commission, early recommendations from the Blueprint Committee on Athletics, and the NCAA sniffing around VT’s football program for the second time in just a few years — led Lavery to decide in early 1986 to approach Dooley about stepping down as athletic director.

Two Friends at Odds

What happened next was debated between Dooley and Lavery in the press of that era. Most information says that Lavery approached Dooley in late February of 1986 and told Dooley that he would have to step down as AD. Dooley wasn’t happy with that, and the situation escalated into one in which Lavery felt he had to let Dooley go, period.

According to one account, Dooley and Lavery came to a “gentleman’s agreement” that Dooley would coach through the 1986 season, then step down as both coach and athletic director. Lavery promised to help Dooley find another job, and one report stated that Lavery even promised that VT would make up the difference in compensation, should Dooley’s new job pay less than his old dual role at Virginia Tech.

That’s the Lavery-friendly account. Another account, the one from Dooley himself, says that Lavery out-and-out fired Dooley.

Whatever occurred in late winter of 1986, it must have been very traumatic for both men, who were described as friends who spent time together outside of their official duties and who often exercised together. One story makes the rounds of a reporter seeking out Dooley one day in the athletic department, only to eventually find him in the locker room with Lavery, where the two men were strolling around “buck naked,” having just played racquetball and showered. The two of them were that comfortable with each other.

But they weren’t comfortable in 1986. After the February conversation, Dooley visited Roanoke attorney S.D. Roberts “Rabbit” Moore — remember that name, because you’ll read it often in this series — and talked to Moore about what was going on.

Moore convinced Dooley that Dooley’s dual contracts as AD and football coach had been violated and that Dooley was due a heck of a lot more than a handshake and help finding a new job. Dooley had a sweet deal from VT, earning about $175,000 a year from his two jobs, plus getting two cars, a country-club membership, and free housing in a university-owned house.

Probably at Moore’s urging, Dooley threatened in the summer of 1986 to sue the university, and on September 2nd, 1986, four days before Virginia Tech’s season opener against Cincinnati, the VT Board of Visitors in effect counter-offered. Alexander Giacco, the rector of Tech’s BOV, met with Dooley and offered to let Dooley keep his job as football coach for seven more years, through the 1993 season, if he would step down as athletic director. VT even offered to continue to pay Dooley the same $175,000 and other benefits he was receiving while doing both jobs.

No dice. Sources at UNC told reporters that the only reason Dooley left Chapel Hill for Blacksburg in January of 1978 was because he could be his own boss at Virginia Tech, by serving as both coach and AD. So the idea of stepping down as AD and being “just” the football coach didn’t sit well with Dooley.

The Hokies lost a heartbreaker at home to Cincinnati, 24-20 to open the season. Then they did the unthinkable, going down to Clemson’s Death Valley and defeating the Tigers 20-14, the biggest win of Dooley’s nine-year VT coaching career. Dooley had gone 0-5 against Clemson to that point, but behind new Tech quarterback Erik Chapman, things looked promising.

Six days later, just one day before the Hokies traveled to Syracuse, the news broke: Dooley was suing Virginia Tech for $3.5 million. The lawsuit asked for payment of $1.2 million (an estimate of the value of Dooley’s remaining contracts as coach and AD), $300,000 in emotional distress, and $2 million in damages to Dooley’s reputation.

The lawsuit was a nasty turn of events, and in the coming months, media investigations into the story that led to the suit revealed the events described here: VT’s athletic department sinking into red ink, Lavery attempting to break the jobs of coach and AD up, and Dooley flat refusing, to the point of filing a lawsuit.

The revelations were juicy off-the-field fodder for the state media, but on the field, Dooley’s troops performed as never before. After their loss to Cincinnati, the Hokies ripped off an 8-1-1 finish to the regular season, knocking off Clemson (as mentioned), Syracuse, West Virginia, and Virginia, among others. The only blemishes came when the Hokies tied South Carolina 27-27 and dropped a 29-13 game to Temple (a loss that the record books show as a win, because Temple used an ineligible player, Paul Palmer, and had to forfeit their win. That was only fair, because it was Palmer, a gifted running back and special teams player, who shredded the Hokies that day. Without him, Temple may have lost the game outright to VT.).

A Settlement is Reached

While VT was tearing it up on the field, the Tech administration came to a settlement with Dooley in which the university agreed to pay Dooley a $1 million settlement, payable as an annuity over seven years. The athletic department had to borrow more than $700,000 to pay for the annuity. The Virginia Tech Foundation, an independent organization that handled all of the university’s private funds, was the source for the loan.

The outcome of the settlement was more bad financial news for an athletic department already stained with red ink.

The settlement was announced on November 1st, the same day that the Blueprint Committee delivered its report, after nearly a year of research. The Committee’s report painted a bad picture of the athletic department under Dooley that went beyond budget deficits and extended into the classroom — or rather didn’t, depending upon how you look at it.

The Committee had met a dozen times in less than a year in 1986 and had held public sessions in Blacksburg, Roanoke, Richmond, Virginia Beach, Northern Virginia, Bristol and Bluefield. They had distributed 8,000 questionnaires, 4,400 of which were returned. Other than seeking input from fans and administrators, they studied Tech athletics in detail.

The most damning findings of the Committee, other than the financial losses, were the academic statistics racked up by VT athletes. There was a significant gap in the SAT scores of athletes versus the student body at large, and 63% of Virginia Tech football and men’s basketball players had scored below 700 on the SATs in the two most recent years. In September of 1984, freshman football players’ average SAT was 661, down 157 points from 1980.

Dooley’s football schedules, which were short on name teams and long on 1-AA type opponents like William and Mary, VMI, and Appalachian State, were roundly criticized in the public sessions and on the questionnaires. And lastly, the Committee recommended that the jobs of athletic director and football coach be split up — no surprise there, and in fact, a fait accompli by the time the Tech BOV received the Committee’s report.

Despite Hokie football success on the field, it was clear that Dooley’s time as AD had long since passed, and that he had been doing a poor job as an administrator for years. While Virginia Tech was securing a 1986 Peach Bowl bid, the third bowl bid in Dooley’s Tech tenure, the university set out to hire a new AD, and on December 12th, 1986, VT tapped 37-year-old Dale T. “Dutch” Baughman, an associate commissioner of the Southwest Conference who wore cowboy boots and had a thick handlebar-type mustache. Baughman’s first directive was to hire a new football coach, and he set his sights on two finalists, Bobby Ross and an unknown at Murray State, VT alumnus and former Tech football player Frank Beamer. It came down to the wire, and Baughman eventually selected Beamer, telling him over dinner at the Farmhouse Restaurant in Christiansburg on December 22nd, 1986.

Dooley’s Tech team went down to Atlanta and won the Peach Bowl on December 31st in thrilling fashion over North Carolina State, 25-24 on Chris Kinzer’s last-second kick. It was the first bowl victory in the history of the Virginia Tech football program, and Hokie fans flooded the field and partied till the wee hours of the morning in the streets, bars and hotels of Atlanta.

All appeared well. The Virginia Tech Athletic Department was in a hole financially, but they had a new, charismatic athletic director and a new football coach, not to mention a detailed report on what was wrong with Virginia Tech athletics and how to improve it. It had been a messy divorce with VT and Bill Dooley, but it was over, and the path to something better was clearly marked. Things looked good, with smooth sailing ahead.

Little did anyone know what was coming. Just two days before Tech’s Peach Bowl victory, a key Hokie basketball player, a transfer from NC State named Russell Pierre, was named academically ineligible. Pierre had played three games for Tech, and the Hokies had to forfeit two wins, plus figure out how to go on without a gifted player who elevated the entire team.

But the loss of Pierre was only the tip of the iceberg for a Virginia Tech basketball program that was about to go through eleven months of hell.

And that NCAA inquiry into excessive scholarships in the Virginia Tech football program? That tree was about to ripen as well, and bear fruit — rotted fruit.

Up Next:1987 — A badly bungled investigation into the Tech basketball program humiliates the university and costs VT their athletic director, basketball coach … and school president.

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