Go Tech Go, Part 39: The Legend of Bill Brill

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Bill Brill
Bill Brill

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In the history of Hokie Nation, no journalist ever inspired more ill will than Roanoke Times & World-News columnist Bill Brill.

“Brill is like water dripping on a stone,” former Hokie coach Bill Dooley once said. “Constantly eating away at you—drip, drip, drip.”

Today, Virginia Tech fans can get their Hokie information fix from a variety of sources that all do fantastic work with words and videos. Social media has allowed fans to communicate with each other and share news. In addition to local television stations, ESPN regularly provides updates, and the internet makes a variety of podcasts available. It’s almost impossible to read, hear, or watch it all.

But during much of Brill’s run, it wasn’t that way. Internet and cable TV were nothing more than science fiction ideas, and newspapers carried far more clout than they do in today’s cluttered market. As Roanoke’s executive sports editor and lead sports columnist, Brill was one of just a handful of people commenting regularly about Virginia Tech, and fans hungrily gobbled up anything he had to say.

To what degree one may debate, but there is no question Brill’s words influenced public opinion—at least regionally. He was smart and well-connected, particularly throughout the ACC. In 1980-81, he served as president of the United States Basketball Writers Association; in 1991, he was named the Virginia Sportswriter of the Year; in 1993 he won the Marvin “Skeeter” Francis Award for special contributions to the ACC; and from 1993 to 1995, he was President of the National Association of Sportscasters and Sportswriters. In 1995 he received the Jake Wade Award for lifetime contributions to college athletics from College Sports Information Directors. He was named to the USBWA Hall of Fame in 1990, the Duke University Sports Hall of Fame in 1996, and Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 1999. In his career, he covered 35 NCAA Final Fours.

So he had a pulpit. And he used it, relentlessly, to poke the Hokies.

For 37 years, until Brill quit writing columns for the Roanoke Times & World-News in June of 1993, Virginia Tech made his job easy, providing him plenty of fodder with a variety of miscues, mismanagement, and on-field defeats. For that, no Tech fan could complain.

Of greater concern was Brill’s influence on how Virginia Tech was perceived as a university. It mattered because—more than anything else—during Brill’s heyday, the Hokies craved ACC membership. And yet, time and time again, the ACC rebuked Virginia Tech.

Brill was a Duke University graduate who loved his school with unabashed passion. In 2008, he pledged a major financial gift in the form of trust funds to the athletics department; in return, the Blue Devils dedicated their media room to him.

One would be naïve to think Brill’s opinion did not influence, to some degree, the way Blue Devil administrators perceived Virginia Tech. It’s interesting to note that, through the years, Duke University officials were always steadfast in their opposition to the Hokies’ ACC inclusion.

It was all so exasperating, because Virginia Tech has proven to be such a great fit for the ACC. Geographically, it’s in the center of the league’s footprint; academically, it is the equal of Clemson, and U.S. News & World Report regularly ranked Virginia Tech higher than North Carolina State and Florida State.

And yet, for years, Brill promulgated the perception that the Hokies were unworthy.

“(Former Sports information directors) Wendy Weisend and Jack Williams did the best they could, but they just couldn’t win Bill over,” said Raycom CEO Ken Haines, a former Virginia Tech spokesman who served as color analyst on the radio broadcasts from 1974-82. “He just could not reconcile that Virginia Tech should be in the same conference as Duke.”

When Former Tech President T. Marshall Hahn tried to gain ACC admittance for Virginia Tech in 1965, Hahn said Brill laughed at his efforts.

“I never expected him to be a supporter of the University,” Hahn told me in 2012. “But in his professional role, he should’ve strived for a little more neutrality.”

Haines echoed Hahn’s sentiments.

“The relationship with the Roanoke Times & World-News, which was a dominant paper in the region, was fine on the news side. I can definitively say that we were treated fairly,” Haines said. “But on the sports side, Bill Brill was very much against Virginia Tech being in the ACC, and that really hurt. I would tell (Tech President) Bill Lavery, ‘There are very few places in the country where your local newspaper is against your local athletic program. That just doesn’t happen very often. But that’s what we have here.’ ”

After Brill died in April 2011 at the age of 79 from esophageal cancer, his good friend, author John Feinstein—for my money, the greatest college basketball writer of his generation—wrote a beautiful piece on Brill. But he also shared what Hokie fans had suspected for years.

“Brill worked in Roanoke from 1959 to 1992 and hated Virginia Tech,” Feinstein wrote. “He got along fine with most people who worked there but he just didn’t like the IDEA of the school. It wasn’t in the ACC and it wanted to be in the ACC. Brill was always against ACC expansion (he boycotted the 2005 ACC Tournament in protest of the football expansion) and said so and the Virginia Tech people couldn’t stand him. Someone once hired a plane to fly over Lane Stadium with a sign trailing behind it that said, ‘Fire Bill Brill NOW.’ ”

Feinstein related a story from a Saturday in 1984 when he sat with Brill on press row during a Duke-North Carolina ACC Tournament basketball game. Word came that Florida State just beat the Hokies in the Metro Tournament. “That’s great news!” Brill said. “That makes my whole day!”

“How can you say it makes your whole day?” Feinstein said. “What if Duke loses this game? You love Duke.”

“I know!” he said. “But hate’s a stronger emotion than love!”

Four years before he died, I phoned Brill and asked him about his relationship with Virginia Tech.

“The thing that soured a lot of people on me happened in 1979, when the ACC expanded and took Georgia Tech instead of Virginia Tech,” he said. “Obviously that decision was made to get the Atlanta television market. I wrote that the ACC made the right decision, because it was a business decision. I got more mail for that than anything I ever wrote, and some people never forgave me for it.”

For more Hokie perspective, follow me on Twitter: @HokieFootballCC

“He’s not so bad”—until you read him

Ironically, while Brill’s columns against the Hokies were elitist, he didn’t act that way in person. In 1990 I had a press pass to the first two rounds of the NCAA Southeast Regional Tournament in Richmond. The games were Friday and Sunday; on Saturday I spent the day with Brill and some other writers in the downtown Richmond Marriott hospitality room, drinking free beer, eating Doritos, and watching the other regional games. Brill enjoyed himself immensely, cracking jokes, rooting shamelessly for all the ACC teams, and flinging his empty cans across the room into an overflowing trash bin, beer backwash spraying the air.

Bill Brill
Bill Brill

As we watched the games, Brill engaged with anyone; it didn’t matter if he was the Hokie Huddler editor, a student sports information intern, or a Washington Post columnist. He treated them all with equal respect. And of course he had something to say about everything. He was fun to be around.

Virginia Tech football assistant Billy Hite experienced pretty much the same thing. During one Hokie Club golf outing, tournament organizers paired Hite with Brill, because they figured Hite could get along with anybody.

After the round, Hite found Bill Dooley and shared how he’d enjoyed the four hours he’d just spent with Brill. “The guy’s knowledgeable and personable,” Hite said. “He’s not so bad.”

The next morning, Hite picked up the Roanoke Times, read Brill’s column—another excoriation—and steam shot out of his ears. What Hite called Brill can’t be repeated here, but it rhymes with “other sucker.”

And that’s the way most Virginia Tech fans felt about him. At the 1986 Peach Bowl, Brill wore a peach-colored sports jacket to the game. The Hokies won on a last-second field goal by Chris Kinzer, and while Brill worked the Hokies crowded, manic postgame locker room, someone—I’m pretty sure it was the father of one of the team’s defensive starters—took an ink pen and managed to scribble a profanity on the back of Brill’s blazer.

In 1991, Virginia Tech hosted a Metro Conference baseball game against Florida State at Salem Municipal Field. The stadium featured a tiny press box where writers could choose to watch from its roof. Brill stood at this vantage point when a group of Hokie fans below spotted him and yelled, “Jump!”

One year, as Brill neared retirement, the Roanoke Times & World-News held a roast in his honor, and Hite was one of the speakers. “(Former Tech coach) Bill Dooley wanted to be here but he couldn’t,” Hite said at the roast. “He mentioned something about having a hemorrhoid operation.”

Despite Brill's prediction, Virginia Tech has won ACC Championships.
Despite Brill’s prediction, Virginia Tech has won ACC Championships.

The mystery of Brill’s ire

Brill took special delight in blasting Dooley.

“I didn’t get along with Bill Dooley,” Brill told me in 2007. “I didn’t object to him at all as Dooley the football coach. But I did as Dooley the athletic director—and I proved to be accurate. It was a job he clearly wasn’t qualified for.

“I remember talking to (basketball coach) Charlie Moir about him. He said he talked to Dooley twice the whole time he was there: the day Dooley arrived, and the day (Charlie) retired. Dooley just wanted to promote his own agenda. He wanted a level playing field, and if you had to do something on the shaky side, well, that was OK with him. I used to tell him, ‘Bill, you can talk all you want about leveling the playing field. But Notre Dame is still going to be Catholic, and Southern California is still going to be in Los Angeles’.”

So what was the genesis of Brill’s animosity? Surely, it had to be more than just institutional snobbery, right?

According to a 2011 story by Roanoke Times sportswriter Doug Doughty, Brill recalled his early days of accompanying Virginia Tech basketball coach Chuck Noe and his team on chartered plane flights with fondness. “But somewhere along the line,” Doughty wrote, “a wedge was created, and it grew wider and wider.”

When Brill arrived in Roanoke, the city had two newspapers: The Roanoke Times in the morning, and the World-News in the afternoon. The two staffs shared offices, but little else. “We couldn’t have been more competitive,” wrote Doughty, who joined the paper in 1974.

According to Doughty, Bobby Edwards—a diehard Hokie who also considered Brill his friend—suggested Brill’s animosity grew from that professional competition between the two papers. World-News sports editor Bob McLelland was well-respected in the community and coached sandlot football; writing “negative” columns was not in his nature, and so readers perceived him as being “pro-Virginia Tech.” McLelland also had a good relationship with football coach Jerry Claiborne, who coached the Hokies from 1961-70. According to Doughty, “If Claiborne was going to give a story to one of the Roanoke papers, it was going to be the World-News. The same went for athletic director Frank Moseley. I can imagine that frosted Brill.”

According to Doughty, Edwards suggested Brill “found his niche” by taking the opposite stance from McLelland.

Fellow Roanoke Times sportswriter Jack Bogaczyk worked with Brill for years, but was never exactly sure what sparked Brill’s ill will.

“Brill’s feelings about Virginia Tech go way back,” Bogaczyk said. “When he first started out as a reporter, he used to travel with the Tech basketball team. What happened there, I was never able to figure out, but for some reason, he turned on Virginia Tech. I always got the impression it was something between him and Moose (associate athletic director Bill Matthews).

“But mostly, I think it goes back to the Hokies not being in the ACC. In his mind, they weren’t as good to him as Duke or North Carolina.”

So maybe it was as simple as the bumper sticker favored by the rival University of Virginia that stated, “All Dirt Roads Lead to Virginia Tech.” In the end, it seemed Brill did not believe that the Hokies—with their agricultural, mechanical, and rural background—deserved to mingle among the Blue Devil, Cavalier, and Tar Heel bluebloods.

Even after he retired to Durham, North Carolina, Brill continued to jab Virginia Tech. After the Hokies finally—joyously!—joined the ACC in 2004, the chagrined Brill predicted they would not win an ACC championship in his lifetime.

“That was barroom talk, not for the paper,” Brill told me in 2007. “But it stemmed from the fact that, other than football, Tech wasn’t very good in anything else. And I didn’t realize Miami and Florida State would falter in football like they did.”

But he was wrong. Ultimately, Brill lived to see the Hokies win 12 ACC Championships: four in football (2004, 2007, 2008, 2010); one in men’s golf (2007); two in softball (2007 and 2008): two in women’s indoor track and field (2007 and 2008), two in women’s outdoor track and field (2007 and 2008); and one in men’s indoor track and field (2011).  Since then, Virginia Tech has added ACC titles in men’s outdoor and indoor track and field, men’s cross country, wrestling, and men’s swimming and diving. Athletic Director Whit Babcock is on a mission to keep that number climbing.

In 2004 my father Jim “Carroll” Colston—a fellow Virginia Sports Hall of Famer and regular member of Brill’s annual invitational golf tournament—received a hand-written note from Brill after the Hokies won their first ACC football title.

It was a short message. All it said was, “I can’t believe it.”

© Copyright 2016 Chris Colston

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53 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. For an award winning sports journalist, Brill could be surprisingly dense. How could he write “I don’t believe it’ about our winning the 2004 ACC football championship, when just 5 years earlier we had played for (and almost won) the national championship?

  2. I am enjoying the fact that he lived long enough to see VT win so many ACC Championships and how many years that we have dominated UVa in football. I just wish he could be here to see how far the “Blue bloods” at UNC have come with their cheating scandal.

    As a Duke fan, I’m sure he would be enjoying it but just a bit more karma for his bias against VT and trying to keep us out of his “high and mighty” ACC. In the end, VT is still here winning and he is know as a journalistic jerk.

  3. I never really read too much of him, but understood the meme of him being ant-VT. Good article, I was quite surprised at all the official sources, school presidents, Hite etc. that echoed this sentiment, thought it was just the usual student section stuff. One coincidence here is I’ve read the same animosity from John Feinstein about the ACC in genera;l his most recent about the ACC tournament being in DC and next year’s in Brooklyn and making fun of Swofford’s talk of tradition, but it’s really bitter, not just sarcastic. Well, I can see the point of Brooklyn not being tradition, but you know it’s coming from him, same stuff, there’s something deeper that he’s not happy about, the loss of the “old days” of the ACC? eight teams, when MD and Duke played etc? perhaps? I keep wondering if it’s a schtick or something, but suspect it’s just elitism.

  4. It’s been a long time (1972) since I matriculated @ Tech and read Brill’s columns on something of a regular basis. He was an unprofessional jerk. By contrast, Doug Doughty is a UVA alum and I can’t recall ever reading anything negative about Tech coming from his pen. Brill obviously believed the ACC was the cat’s meow though it’s hard to understand why. It was hardly the powerhouse in college sports that it was during Brill’s long tenure (1956-1991) w/the RTWN. While 5 – NCAA basketball titles (1957, 1974, 1982, 1983 and 1991) is impressive, it’s still 5 less than UCLA won alone between 1964 and 1975, two of which were over ACC foes, Duke in 1964 and UNC in 1968. And for most of its history, ACC football was very weak, often little more than a notch or 2 better than HS football. In more recent years, the ACC had produced multiple championships across the full range of college sports but this was never the case in Brill’s time. So what was there to be so proud of? Brill had a very parochial outlook as was fitting for the paper he wrote for, no disrespect intended for the RTWN. He may have been influential in the region he covered but he was hardly a national figure who anybody outside of the footprint of the ACC cared about. As some have said, he was a small-minded man who thought he was more important than he was and yet enjoyed the limited power he had to promote his own private agenda. Only he knows what motivated him. He certainly did us no favors and given his audience, likely offended many w/his opinions. Indeed it’s a mystery why the RTWN tolerated him as long as it did. He was much better suited to a NC audience. In the end, it’s sweet that he had to eat his own words. Our success across the board since we joined the ACC is proof-positive that not only did we long belong but also how disconnected he was from the dominant athletic program in the region he covered. All we ever needed was a platform and when given one, made the best of it. As for any comparisons between Duke and VT academically, there is little curriculum overlap between the 2 schools. Duke doesn’t offer and undergrad degree in business. Our program is ranked #39, nationally and 18% of our undergrads are enrolled in the Pamplin School. Engineering-wise, we are ranked #15, nationally, Duke #18 and 21% of our undergrads are majoring in Engineering. Duke doesn’t offer Architecture (my major). Our program is ranked #3 nationally and overall, CAUS represents about 4% of our SB. What am I missing here? So, what exactly do they have over us, except that it costs over $50K/year for the privilege of going to Duke? Further, what utility does an undergraduate degree in Liberal Arts offer, except as a pre-req for grad school, meaning more investment in education. Tech has more than delivered on our end of the bargain w/the ACC.

  5. RT owes VT and SW Va an apology for allowing this type of journalism. Very unprofessional. Look at how much VT being in the ACC and having a successful athletics program has helped not only the university, but the entire SW Va economy. His bias journalism and personal agenda delayed this development by decades.

    Bitter does it the way a true professional should do journalism. Informative and unbiased. Shame on the Roanoke Times and Bill Brill.

  6. If you lived west of VT you had to deal with this guy and Stubby Currence. You couldn’t get a positive sports article about VT or a Southwestern VA High School Team. Nice to see these guys are no longer in the papers. People in the media should put a sticky note on there computers before they start writing. It should remind them their approval ratings are in line with cockroaches, traffic jams, and the flu.

  7. We can hate Bill Brill all we want (and we do!) but this article left me with a few questions.

    How does someone with that big of a professional bias win as many local and national awards? He was obviously good at MOST of what he did. And why did the Roanoke Times keep him and allow him to write articles with such an overt bias AGAINST THE (practically) HOMETOWN SCHOOL? It would be one thing if he hated Texas or Michigan State or even WVU. But my biggest question is whether our ire is misplaced. Shouldn’t we be mad at the Roanoke Times? I’m sure there are plenty of people in America who dislike/hate Virginia Tech, but don’t have the platform that Brill had. Is there an example of anything remotely like this in college reporting? And if so, how did that paper handle the situation? That is an angle that John Feinstein might have been able to weigh in on.

  8. Great Article from a Roanoke native and Hokie 65 grad who absolutely hated BRill during that period. Think Duke elitist and asshole capture him very well.

  9. First article I have read in this series, I had no idea the hatred for this guy, but it seems deserved.

  10. As a kid in the 80s, i “beat Brill” in his weekly football pick em. I hated that guy so much beating him was pure joy. What an asshat.

  11. Anti-VT content notwithstanding; Brill’s articles were not well written and were uninteresting.

    CC, thanks for your well written and interesting article and the entire Go Tech Go series!

  12. Thanks for the article, I grew up in Roanoke in the 60’s and 70’s and played 120 lb sandlot ball for “Guts” McLelland and never really understood the animosity for Virginia Tech expressed by Mr. Brill. Guts would write a positive article in the morning and by the afternoon Mr. Brill had an article discussing shortcomings of some sort or another. Oh well, as you say a great writer and well due the honors and respect he earned.

    1. I also grew up in Roanoke in the sixties and played for “Guts”( rip)a nice man and a good writer. I guess he was the counterbalance to Brill.

  13. Sometimes it’s great to have a Brill type, think of Cosell, the contrarian approach makes for entertainment, although I remember the no ACC of 79 driving by Cassell,similar to the JFK assassination, Ill always know where and when it occurred forever. Molinaro is a good read, similarly, but most def UVA. Takes all types.

  14. He was a petty little man who never really understood his job. But hey, apparently a VT coach or player stole his girlfriend early on and he just never go over it…. pity…

  15. I was at VT from 65-69 and Brill was at his vilest during those years. He never printed anything complimentary about VT & relished any VT loss. He was absolutely the poorest excuse for a sports journalist & to even use his name with the word journalist is an insult to the entire profession. Your article, Chris,, portrays him perfectly as the narcissistic, elitist snob that he was. It has been such a joy watching VT prove him wrong almost every time one of their athletes steps on a playing field.

  16. Have to wonder if his fellow journalists like him either. Most of those awards listed were all around the time of his retirement so you have to wonder if they were going away presents.

    I remember reading his columns in the 80’s while in high school and trying to figure out why he was rooting for the Cavaliers when the local school was VT.

  17. Excellent article! Captures the sorry spirit of Brill brilliantly.

    Let’s say this about Brill: The extensive damage he did to Virginia Tech cannot be easily measured. Bill Brill is a much lessor human being because of that damage.

    The Roanoke Times should not have tolerated it, but did. The RT can never recompense Virginia Tech for the damage it allowed Brill to do through its paper.

    1. Let’s be glad we now have Andy Bitter. He doesn’t sugar coat it and he is a journalist. Oh, and he doesn’t seem to actually hate VT like Brill did. From reading the comments I can see that those of us who remember his writings know that his number one priority was to make sure VT never got anywhere athletically. That is actually kind of sad for him.

  18. I read this article with great interest, trying to find some redeeming qualities that perhaps Brill had, perhaps find out a reason for his legendary bias that would help me understand him.

    I found nothing of the sort. Colston held back and was very fair, and yet still all I really got out of this is that Brill was a colossal jerk. There’s no other way to put it. He was an obnoxious, petty, elitist, close-minded, snobbish bully.

    1. Colston held back? Would love to hear some of the things that were left out, but I’m sure, at this point, it’s water waaaaay under the bridge.

  19. I disliked Brill as much as everyone but the team of Mosely and Matthews probably contributed to Brill’s hate of Tech.

  20. I lived in Roanoke from Mar ’66 to May ’70. I read the Roanoke Times thoroughly and couldn’t believe Brill who controlled the sports was so anti-Tech and nobody did anything about it. Today I still read the Roanoke Times at my local library. Its a great paper compared to a lot of those now in publication & we Tech fans can enjoy all the coverage our sports teams receive.
    Keep up the great work Chris.

    1. Hey, Brill was a prick but wishing him a painful cancer death is over the top. Not sure you would say that if you have ever seen someone die from cancer.

  21. Fantastic Chris. I know many newer Hokies didn’t know squat about Brill. Sports writer yes, journalist no.

  22. Brill was also an unabashed supporter of UVa, not through any affinity with that school, but simply because they were Tech’s rival. What an asshole.

  23. I listened to about every VT football game from 1974 on. Bill Brill hated VT, as demonstrated by his weekly articles. He reviled in this, and hurt many people. We were just looking for a local team to support, and would have liked maybe hopefully a few words of encouragement. None ever came. For years. He said that UVA was a local team just like VT and deserved equal coverage. Wow. He loved his ACC as much as he hated VT, and it showed. In his retirement and his death if people were looking for any words of support, I honestly couldn’t offer any. Wished I could. He was that rotten. A shame.

    1. I totally agree. His snobbery is much like a lot of folks around the Roanoke Valley (at least as I remember it). They either tend to be VT fans, or UVa snobs. The VT fans like to pick at the UVa folks, but it’s not personal, but the UVA snobs often seem to have a genuine hatred for all things Virginia Tech.

      Brill obviously was not a UVa guy, but he was of the same cloth.

  24. I only read part of the article. Brill did much harm to the university with his negativity and biased opinions. Coach Beamer would have never survived over the years if Brill stayed here. So glad he moved on out of Hokie Country, and I wish he were fired a long time before he retired. He had no ideal how to be even impartial, he was biased to the nth degree. Its one thing to like another team, it another to be a jerk about it.

  25. Chris, another fabulous Go Tech Go article. Residing in Texas at the time and not knowing whether Bill Brill was still living, the first thing I thought of when VT won it’s first ACC football title was that I hoped that Brill was still alive to eat his words. What a d-bag sports journalist. Wonder what he is thinking, wherever he is now, about the UNCheat situation? I know he was a big Duke fan, but if he were alive today he would still be telling everyone how great the original ACC Carolina schools are compared to that little old cow college in Blacksburg. Typical Duke “elitism” at its worst.

  26. Still hate bill brill. I carried the Roanoke Times around Raleigh Court in Roanoke and played sandlot football for “Guts” McLelland… Those were great days to be a kid. Still hate bill brill…

  27. Chris you must be good, I can’t believe I read a whole article about this pimple on the posterior of journalism! I don’t care about his reasons, it was incumbent on him to be professional and as evidenced in your article, that was completely beyond him.

    1. I agree. In other circumstances, I would never want to read an article about the hateful old SOB, but the idea that he totally had to eat his words makes it more delicious.

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