Monday, April 11, 2011

On the passing of my longtime mentor and closest of friends, Bill Brill

Sad day...

I understand that today is a day for me to write about The Masters—which certainly was extraordinary. Charl Schwartzel’s finish was historic and so, sadly, was Rory McIlroy’s collapse. Tiger Woods made it clear the question isn’t IF he is going to win another major but WHEN.

As difficult as it is to cover The Masters (it’s certainly fun to be there but there’s less access to the players than at any tournament in the world) and as tired as I get of all the ‘first nine…second nine…patrons,’ blather there is no doubt Sunday at Augusta is almost always about as dramatic a day as there is in sports. That was certainly the case yesterday.

Having said all that I am going to write today about Bill Brill. Unless you live in Roanoke, Virginia or are a fan of Duke or of sportswriters, you probably don’t know the name. So, you are going to have to trust me when I tell you he was a legendary figure. He was also one of my closest friends and a longtime mentor (although he believed he often failed in that area) to me. He died yesterday at the age of 79.

Sports has a lot of first name athletes: Tiger, Michael, Kobe, Venus and Serena et al. Brill was a last name sportswriter. Maybe that’s just our nature—we tend to call one another by last names, often as a term of endearment. Bill was always just ‘Brill.’ His wife Jane often called him Brill and my son Danny called him Uncle Brill.

Brill was truly a Runyonesque character. His personality was probably best summed up by a T-shirt he liked to wear that said: “I’m not opinionated, I’m just right all the time.” He believed that with all his heart yet managed to do it in an endearing way. No one loved Duke more than Brill—and yet he was friends with Dean Smith and Roy Williams and almost everyone at North Carolina. One of the people most concerned when word got out that Brill had cancer was Gary Williams—who isn’t exactly the world’s biggest Duke fan.

Brill never liked anything or disliked anything. He LOVED things or HATED them. No in-between. One of his many classic lines came during a Duke-North Carolina ACC Tournament game in 1984—the game when Mike Krzyzewski began to come of age by upsetting a Dean-Smith Carolina team led by Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins.

With about five minutes left in the game someone came out to press row to report that Florida State had just beaten Virginia Tech in The Metro Tournament. Brill worked in Roanoke from 1959 to 1992 and hated Virginia Tech. He got along fine with most people who worked there but 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.” A lot of people have disliked me through the years but I never rated an airplane.

And so, when Brill learned that the Hokies had gone down on that Saturday in 1984 he said to me, “That’s great news! That makes my whole day!” (Brill always spoke in exclamation points regardless of the subject).

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

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

To say that line has been quoted about a billion times in press rooms is a vast understatement.

Brill one-liners (intentional or not) are constantly repeated around the ACC. In 1978, during the ACC championship game between Duke and Wake Forest, Doug Doughty, his long-time colleague and close friend in Roanoke, looked over with a couple of minutes left and noticed that Brill was intently reading a newspaper.

“Brill, what the hell are you doing?” he asked.

“I’m so nervous I can’t look!” Brill answered.

He also insisted one night at dinner that he was, “in the middle of the room,” when Duke hired Lefty Driesell to succeed Vic Bubas as basketball coach in 1969. Of course we all know Lefty never coached at Duke. Brill insisted he was there when the Duke assistants were told by Bubas that Lefty was getting the job.

“So what happened?” all of us listening to the story asked.

“I don’t know, they made me leave the room,” he said.

“Whose room was it?”

“Mine.”

“And they made you leave?”

“Yes.”

“But Lefty was the coach when you left?”

“Yes. And Bucky Waters was the coach when I came back.”

The problem here is there is no way to convey how funny it was when Brill told the story. In fact, for many years the annual get-together of Brill’s friends at the ACC Tournament became known as, “the middle of the room dinner.”

Brill was far more than just a memorable character. For one thing, he and the great Skeeter Francis were responsible for writing the rules on media access in the ACC that for years gave writers covering the conference better and quicker postgame access than anywhere in the country. Even today, with all the cutbacks in access, the ACC is still better than almost anyplace. Brill was largely responsible for that.

He was also the first bracketologist. In fact, he invented the genre years before all these other guys turned it into an obnoxious cottage industry. Brill understood college basketball better than anyone and he also studied and learned the NCAA tournament committee’s ever-shifting criteria more closely than anyone. At some point in the 1970s, he began putting together his own bracket that was always unveiled late—very late—on Saturday night at the ACC Tournament.

Except for the fact that there were no ‘corporate champions,’ Brill’s bracket was unveiled with at least as much fanfare as the official bracket. We always rolled him in to the hospitality room (which has actually been called the ‘hostility,’ room for years by everyone in the ACC because of an exchange involving Brill late one night when Skeeter Francis ran out of beer) on a luggage cart. It was the best we could do. As he was rolled in the entire crowd would chant, “Oh no, not Brill!” a takeoff on the Duke students chanting that when certain players—usually from Carolina—would get into a game in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

One year Gene Corrigan, who was then the ACC’s commissioner, introduced Brill (as ‘the Mahatma Brill’) and led the ‘oh no, not Brill!’ chant. Somehow I can’t picture John Swofford doing that. Brill would announce each bracket and—I swear I’m not making this up—people listened so carefully that a couple of times young writers started to call their offices to make travel plans before they were informed that even though Brill’s bracket SHOULD be the real one, it wasn’t.

I always said—and I still believe—that Brill in a room with a couple of beers could do a better job than the committee with all its staff and computers and bloated self-importance. Most years Brill would have about 63 teams the committee would pick. When that year’s UAB would go up on the TV screen he’d shrug and say, “well, they always get at least one wrong.”

I first met Brill my sophomore year in college. I couldn’t quite understand why the Roanoke paper covered so many Duke games—especially since Duke was BAD in those days. I figured it out when I got to know Brill: he had two great loves in his life: Jane—who he was married to for 49 years—and Duke. Right from the start, he became a mentor although I know I disappointed him at times by being critical of Duke—especially on the issue of football. Brill died thinking Duke was right on the verge of football greatness—because he believed it for the last 50 years. In fact, when he was first diagnosed with esophageal cancer two months ago I told him he was going to be fine because I just KNEW he was destined to see Duke play in a bowl game again—and that meant he had to live another 50 years.

Sadly, I was wrong.

Brill was unabashedly loyal to all things Duke. Often he would call me after I had said something—anything—bad about Duke and say, “well, you’ve done it again.” Then he would tell me about all the other people who were angry with me. He never said HE was angry, just others. Once, when someone implied that Bobby Hurley wasn’t likely to be mistaken for Brad Pitt, Brill got very upset.

“I think he’s very good looking!” he said. “If I was a girl, I’d certainly date him!”

From that day forward, anyone who was the least bit good-looking was compared to Hurley—and, of course, lost.

I saw him last on the Saturday of this year’s ACC Tournament. We all knew he was really sick when he couldn’t make the tournament so I went to his house to spend some time with him and report back to everyone on how he was doing. Just about everyone—writers, TV-types, coaches, officials—signed a giant card we made for him. Mike Krzyzewski wrote, “Oh no, not Brill!” and Gary Williams asked if he owned any sweaters that weren’t Duke blue.

The good news is he was still Brill that day. He had—of course—figured out the pairings and was obsessing about whether Kyrie Irving would play in the NCAA Tournament. As I was leaving he said to me, “If the captain (Krzyzewski’s nickname in joking homage to his Army rank and Bob Knight’s insistence on being called, ‘the general,’) doesn’t beat the Hokies today he’s going to be in big trouble with me.’

The captain dodged that Brill bullet and put a smile on his face by beating Carolina the next day in the championship game. I’m truly glad—and my Carolina friends will understand this—that Brill’s last memory of Duke-Carolina was a Duke win.

He went downhill fast the last few weeks and we all knew the end was coming this weekend. As he requested, his memorial service will be held in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Brill always insisted that all the truly great Duke players won their last home game in Cameron. He had a list to prove it.

He’s on that list now too.

17 comments:

Walter Manley II said...

John, a wonderful piece about a great person. Thanks, John, and thank you, Mr. Brill!

Walter Manley II
Duke Law '72

Rory said...

"A lot of people have disliked me through the years but I never rated an airplane."

There's time, John, you're still young.

In all seriousness, please accept my condolences on the loss of your friend.

Chris said...

I met Brill through Duke Club (Alumni Association). He was the first fan I met who seemed to care as much as I did about Duke winning, while still respecting so much about what the ACC means - especially the lighter blue color down the road. I was shaken the last few weeks, and emotional last night - but your post brought a smile to my face and tears to my eyes John.

Thanks.

Bob said...

John,
As usual, you have centered on the essence of your subject. Brill was a great friend to so many. I'm just proud to be numbered among them. I was his bridge partner (the dummy most of the time!) for 23 years on the ACC Football Tour. We only lost 2 of those years. Both times it was a 3-No-Trump bid that he didn't make. As I said yesterday when I left his room about 9am, 3 No Trump, my friend.
Bob Harris
Voice of Bill Brill's Blue Devils

Brian H. (Northern VA) said...

Very well said, John. It truly is a sad day.

I remember as a college student in the early-80's getting interested in the subkuect of BB recruiting. This was before the days of recruiting magaizines, websites, blogs, daily/hourly twitter updates, multiple All-Star games, etc. I couldn't find much published material, so a friend of mine at the college paper suggested that I write to a sports writer at the Roanoke paper who I had barely heard of before. I was just hoping for maybe a 1-line response with a reference to a good source I could go look up. Imagine my surprise when Bill responded with an almost full-page hand-written note explaining the recruiting scene, the best sources for recruiting info, a copy of an article he'd recently written on the subject, and hand-written notes on some of the prominent players my school was recruiting. I was flabbergasted, and very, very grateful. It spurred a "hobby" in me than has lasted almost 30 years.

Bill will certainly be missed by many.

-Brian H.

Teri said...

My husband, Geoff, and I lived in Treyburn from 1996-2003. I don't recall anyone who lived there who wasn't a Duke fan.

Geoff got to be very good friends with Bill through golf, the Men's Club and the Blue Devil's Club.

I was organizing a couples golf tournament to Litchfield at Myrtle Beach and asked Bill if he would like to go. Bill replied "Teri, I would love to go and if you can get Jane to agree, we'll be there and I will never forget it". I contacted Jane and asked if she would consider going and shared with her what Bill had said, without hesitation, she said "Sure!". Needless to say, with the Brills in company, fun was had by all.

Bill will be sorely missed. I know Jane will be well looked after by the Treyburn community and all of their other friends.

Teri Hamilton

Ron Hall said...

I moved from Northern Pennsylvania to Roanoke, Virginia in 1982 and was a student in Jane Brill's Advanced Placement English class my senior year at William Fleming High School. One night Miss Brill held a small party at her home for all of her AP English students. During the party I got distracted by what sounded like play-by-play from a college basketball game coming from the Brill basement. Being a hoops junkie I snuck away from the party and down the stairs to find Bill Brill sitting in front of a television set watching an ACC basketball game. Hoping to strike up a conversation I coyly asked Brill if he knew the score of the Syracuse game. What followed was a 30 minute lecture on the merits of ACC Basketball and why the Big East would always play second fiddle!! Intimidated, I slunk back upstairs to the party with my tail between my legs! Come to think of it, I never did get that score! May he rest in peace...

Anonymous said...

As a Hokie, all I can say is .... Well better let it go unsaid.

steveg said...

Well said John. Thanks for sharing all those great anecdotes. I only covered ACC sports for a couple of years in the late '80s, but Brill was hands-down one of the most colorful characters I've ever met in this business.

As a young kid fresh out of college, it was a treat to sit in the back of the bus on the ACC Football Tour and listen to Brill hold court. Those bus rides could be long ones, but it always seemed to me like they were too short ... because that meant Brill didn't have time to tell another story.

He was irreverent, biting and opinionated, but he was also brilliant and genuinely funny. I remember those "hostility room" discussions and Brill's bracket unveilings. It was quite an experience just to be in the room.

The most vivid image I have of him combines the self-deprecation and political incorrectness that made Brill one of a kind: On the bus one day he was wearing a t-shirt that may have fit him a little snugly. As he opened a beer, I could read the front of his shirt that was inching up slightly over his belly. It was a stick figure with a red slash through it that said, "I whipped anorexia." That was classic Brill.

Steve Gardner
USA TODAY

Anonymous said...

I don't know John. I respect that he was your friend, and you knew him better than others, but isn't it kind of bizarre that the sportswriter in Roanoke would HATE the hometown school? Why alienate (and really create no goodwill) to all of your local readers? I can understand a passive professional non-rooting interest, but to actually hate the hometown college seems weird and just angry to me. Can you imagine the sportswriters in Omaha hating the Cornhuskers???? And then to retire the day he is eligible and quickly leave town just indicates to me that maybe he wasn't the happiest guy during his time in Roanoke. Any thoughts on all of this.

Rest in Peace.

tim.peeler said...

John,

Thanks for putting together such a nice memorial piece about Brill. My first job interview for a professional sports reporting job was with Brill at the Roanoke Times. I thought I had a good chance at the job, until he noticed that I went to school at NC State, which we all know he had Virginia Tech-like feelings about. But I always enjoyed talking with him, even during the times we disagreed vehemently. It might have had something to do with the fact I was covering Carolina for the Durham Herald-Sun and he was mostly writing about Duke. Will never forget his dislike of the Mahktar Ndiaye era of Tar Heel basketball. Anyway, Brill could be an ascerbic old bastard to all of us at times. But that was part of the charm. How I will remember him is this: watching him beat around in the woods for his golf ball, pulling a spare out of his pocket and dropping it on the ground and yelling, "You won't believe this. I found my ball. And I've got a shot." Wherever Brill lands from here -- and there are a lot of people who have strong opinions about where that should be -- I hope he always has a shot.

rives coleman said...

It was always fun to get your I beat Brill bumper sticker as a kid from the Roanoke Times when you beat Brill in Football picks...Great Tribute to a funny writer and as a Carolina Fan..I understood your thought...RIP BRILL...

Rankin said...

Just as "Brill" was a term of endearment for you, so has "Feinstein" long been one to me...and it remains so.

Len Spungin said...

John- Thank you for the touching column on the "meaning of Brill". I sat next to him in the Wade Stadium pressbox for the past 15 years. He loved football! He hated football! Duke had the dumbest coaches in play-calling history, but he loved Coach Cut and believed that The Dukies are FINALLY heading in the right direction on the gridiron. Yes, he could be a little snarky with the commentary, but we who knew him,knew that. Games at Wade just won't be the same next year.

Mr. X said...

John,

Sorry for your loss. Did you leave Augusta early on Sunday when Bill died? I was surprised not to see you on Golf Channel that night, or did I just miss that part of the coverage.

Anonymous said...

It must have been a long 7 years for Mr. Brill... to watch the Hokies dominate the ACC in football.

~joel~ said...

Wonderful essay John... thank you! I grew up in Roanoke reading Bill Brill... Jane taught me in high school English... and I am a Virginia Tech fan who loved to hate Brill... and I will miss him.