Editor’s Note: Doug Waters, Class of 1980, was sports editor of The Collegiate Times in 1978-79, then editor-in-chief his senior year. Upon graduation he became a news reporter for the Roanoke Times & World-News, and in 1984 launched The Hokie Huddler, which Chris Colston took over in 1985. Doug works in the insurance industry and lives with his wife, Amanda, in Cincinnati, which means they took special delight in Tech’s win over Ohio State a couple of years ago.
As sports editor of The Collegiate Times, I got to travel with the football and basketball teams along with the other Tech beat writers. Sometimes, Bill Brill was among those in tow. Having grown up in Roanoke and read Brill for some years, I had become saturated with his mean-spirited, destructive coverage of the Hokies. I kept my distance from him, because I had learned to loathe his loathing of Virginia Tech, and wanted nothing to do with him. But one day, I guess you could say something snapped within me. I decided to engage, and the result was a multi-year feud in which we each took our lumps and created quite a circus for those around us.
The Illness Begins
I decided to devote an entire column to Brill. As journalism goes, it was awful, filled with hearsay and charges that I couldn’t possibly prove. But as theater, I must say, it was grand. I titled the column, “Bill Brill, You Make Me Ill.” I showed it to the CT’s editor, who stood in the middle of the newsroom letting out little whoops as she read it.
“Wow,” she said. “What a hatchet job. Let’s run it!”
After it appeared, I was both glad and sorry I had written it. Glad because it felt good, and because you can’t imagine how many Tech people lauded me as if I had just beaten the Hoos at something. Sorry because I feared what this might do to my journalistic career path. My journalism professor pulled me aside and gave me a tongue-lashing, predicting that there could be repercussions for years.
He was right. Only it didn’t take years.
After a week of public adoration, I came home to find a letter from the Roanoke Times. Typed in all lower-case letters above the logo in the return address area was, “brill.” A rush of adrenalin shot through me. The letter, written on an old-fashioned manual typewriter, contained one of the great opening lines I’ve read.
“Dear Doug,” he wrote. “I hope you have recovered from your illness.”
I felt a strange mix of emotions. Outright fear that maybe I had in fact blackballed myself and my career. Wonderment that Brill, one of the leading sports editors in Virginia, had actually bothered to respond to me, a junior Journalism school student and columnist for the school paper, and to my home address, no less. And even a twinge of envy for that great opening line. Brill went on in the letter to deny everything I had written in stark, dismissive terms, and he thoroughly impugned my judgment. It was pretty ugly.
In the interests of my future career opportunities, I decided to shoot him a note back and extend a meager olive branch, and although I can’t remember what I said, I’m sure it was pretty lame. Oh well, I thought, he had probably gotten it out of his system now and could move on. Boy was I wrong. Brill was just getting started.
A few days later, I opened the Roanoke Times and saw that the front page of the sports section was devoted to me. Me! I was stunned. It was filled with letters from readers – readers of the Roanoke Times, that is – writing to defend Brill, but mainly to excoriate me. Keep in mind, not a word of my column or his response had previously appeared in the Roanoke Times. I could only conclude that Brill had orchestrated this campaign. How many people outside the Tech campus would have read The Collegiate Times, or cared what was in it, without someone prompting them? Surely Brill had hatched this scheme. The letters were filled with colorful invectives, accusing me of all manner of misdeeds both large and small. The phrase “sophomoric shriek” sticks in my mind. I’ve always wondered whether the editorial leaders at the paper knew about this in advance, or what in the world they thought when they saw their lead sports page stooping to conduct a feud with a college newspaper.
A Dish Best Served Cold
As I neared graduation, I caught a career break. This was 1980, and the economy wasn’t good. But the Roanoke Times decided to expand its New River Valley bureau, and I applied for a news reporting job. As I drove to the interview in downtown Roanoke, I was wondering if my Brill exchanges would impact my job chances. Nah, I thought, surely that’s long forgotten. When I met the managing editor, Frosty Landon, the first thing he said was, “So, you’re the guy who hates Bill Brill!” He laughed gleefully, and it seemed to me his glee was directed at the fact that someone had gotten under Brill’s skin. I got the job and started in June.
In September, I caught a break of a different kind. I was asked, along with one of my fellow reporters, to meet with the senior editors and critique the paper. I told my buddy, “I’ll take the sports section.” I told him I was going to light up Brill. As we drove down, he kept trying to talk me out it. “You know you could be driving home without a job, right?”
In the conference room, there were about eight editors, including Brill, who slowly twirled a cigar in his mouth and refused to look at me. My buddy went first, and played it straight. Then it was my turn.
“I’m here today to give some feedback on the sports section,” I said, looking at Brill. I pinned the sports pages on the corkboard and began with, “Now this is what I call a disappointing sports page.”
It was the game-day coverage of Tech’s season-opening win over Wake Forest. There were no action photos, only a shot of the Gobbler mascot playing with a kid in the stands. I pulled out the next week’s front page, with game-day coverage of Tech’s home-opener win over East Tennessee State. Not one action photo, just a shot of the ETSU quarterback lying on his back after slipping and falling on his own.
“I can only conclude,” I said, “that there were no action shots to choose from. And, listen, I know the budget is tight now, and I’m pretty handy with a camera. I suggest you lay off one or two of the photographers and let me take pictures at the games. I can get all the mascot shots and pics of people lying on the ground that you want.”
By now, Brill’s neck and ears were turning a crimson red, and the photo editor practically leaped out of his chair. “We had plenty of good action shots from those games!” he shot back. “They just didn’t get printed.”
“Well, you see,” I responded. “That tells me that someone here is biased against Virginia Tech. And I have to tell you. In my work as a reporter, this is a great distraction. It doesn’t matter what I’m covering or who I’m interviewing, I get the same question everywhere I go, and that is: ‘Why does Bill Brill hate Virginia Tech?’ And I gotta tell you, when you see things like this, it pretty well validates that belief.”
Frosty Landon smoked his pipe and, I could tell, was suppressing a grin. Brill had pretty much bitten through his cigar and smoke was rolling out his ears. But I kept going, giving three or four other examples of utter bias against the Hokies.
Frosty Landon spoke up. “Well, Brill, what do you have to say?” Brill was in such a rage, he could barely form words. “Well … you know … I mean, you know …” And that’s about as far as he got. I learned later from one of the sports writers that, after the meeting, Brill stomped into the sports area and kicked a chair across the room. And I can report that, the following week, there were several action shots from the Tech football game, and terrific photos of the Hokies for the rest of that season. I was a happy man.