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.”
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“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.
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.”
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