Week 11: Written by Ryan Nanni
Think of the most awkward, poorly executed college coach firing you remember. Maybe it’s Miami openly courting Mario Cristobal before they’d gotten around to actually firing Manny Diaz, or Lane Kiffin getting left on an airport tarmac, or the news of Bobby Petrino getting fired from Louisville appearing as a scrolling update during his coaching show.
They are strong candidates, but all relatively clean and quick compared to how Bill Dooley and Virginia Tech wound up parting ways in 1986.
Let’s go back briefly to when Virginia Tech hired Dooley away from his head coaching position at UNC. Dooley wasn’t just brought on as the new Hokie football coach. He was also hired as Virginia Tech’s athletic director. Dooley noted that “without that job, I would’ve had to put a lot more consideration into this move.” Dr. William Lavery, the school president who made the dual job offer, admitted Virginia Tech “had not set out to combine the position of athletic director and football coach” but felt good about landing Dooley for both.
Things started slowly, but eventually, Dooley got things moving in a positive direction. In 1980, Dooley’s team won eight games and snagged a Peach Bowl invitation. The 1983 Hokies finished 9-2, the most wins for a Virginia Tech team since 1905. That year, the Hokies boasted the best scoring defense in the nation, allowing just 8.3 points per game.
They also played an incredibly weak schedule; the only Division I-A teams they beat who finished the year above .500 were Memphis (6-4-1) and Virginia (6-5). The 1980 team didn’t play anyone who exceeded .500, and two of their eight wins came against I-AA teams. But because Virginia Tech was an independent at the time, they could make their own schedule, and by “they,” I mean “Bill Dooley.”
Still, these were significant accomplishments for the program, resulting in contract extensions for Coach Dooley and Athletic Director Dooley. By the start of the 1984 season, Dooley had a deal that made him head coach through 1988 and AD through 1993.
But then something unfortunate for Virginia Tech happened shortly after the ‘84 season: Bruce Smith, maybe the greatest Hokie of all time to this day, was drafted first overall by the Buffalo Bills. The 1985 Hokies slipped to 6-5, their worst record since Dooley’s second season in Blacksburg.
Dooley also made a decision that year which caused a great deal of internal dissent. Oklahoma called Virginia Tech, offering at least $250,000 to the school if they’d come to Norman to open the 1987 season for the Sooners. The Hokie athletic department, amid some financial challenges, really could have used the money. Still, Dooley decided it wasn’t in the best interest of his players and turned Oklahoma down.
I know that’s a lot of background, but it will all be important. In February of 1986, Coach/AD Dooley and President Lavery had a chat. What exactly happened there is unclear – Dooley said he was told he’d be fired from both jobs at the end of the 1986 season. Lavery said they reached a “gentleman’s agreement” that resulted in the same outcome. That turned into a dispute in June around how much Virginia Tech would pay Dooley to leave, and about two weeks before the season was supposed to begin, Lavery supposedly told Dooley that the university believed they had a legal basis to fire him without paying him any buyout and, while there was never any public explanation of that basis, it’s pretty clear based on other media coverage during the year that Lavery likely believed NCAA violations could open the door to fire Dooley with cause.
Four days before the first Hokie football game of 1986, Bill Dooley went to Delaware to meet with the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors, the university’s governing authority. They presented an unexpected offer: AD Dooley was still out at the end of the year, but Coach Dooley could stick around with a new seven-year contract.
Think about how weird this must have struck Dooley. For months, he’d been operating with the understanding that Virginia Tech no longer wanted him to serve in either of his roles. They’d probably recently informed him that his rule-breaking gave them cause to fire him without paying him anything. Now they wanted him to stay as head coach? Did they remember that the opportunity to be the coach and AD was a significant factor in Dooley taking this job in the first place? And they wanted to figure this out basically right as the season was beginning?
Dooley declined and promptly dropped the season opener at home to Cincinnati.
With everything still entirely in the balance, Virginia Tech turned around and beat Clemson in Death Valley for one of the biggest wins of Dooley’s tenure. Two days later, Bill Dooley sued the school for breach of contract, seeking $3.5 million in damages.
That move took all the strange back-and-forth between Dooley and Virginia Tech over the offseason and dragged it into the public spotlight. The players were stunned; they walked into a team meeting thinking they would prep for the upcoming Syracuse game and got this news instead. One anonymous assistant coach said, “We’re going to go 10-1 and to a bowl game and thumb our noses at this school.”
And it started to look like that prediction might come true. The Hokies won their next three games, including a victory over a West Virginia team they hadn’t defeated in six years, to move to 4-1 in early October. (No, the Mountaineers weren’t very good that year.) That was also when the administration’s response to Dooley’s lawsuit was due, which, um, wasn’t incredibly convenient from a public relations perspective.
So the school sat down with Dooley to try and reach a settlement, and on October 10th, they reached a tentative deal. Dooley would leave both positions at the end of the year and get somewhere between $600,000 and $700,000 as a buyout, far less than he’d sued for but a lot more than the nothing he’d supposedly been offered in August. The next day, Virginia Tech’s win streak ended with a 27-27 tie to South Carolina, and a week later, they lost their second game of the year to former Hokie quarterback Bruce Arians and the Temple squad he coached.
But there was still a little drama left to endure. The Board of Visitors needed to formally approve the deal, which took longer than most people expected. They finally signed off on November 1st, the same day the football team beat Kentucky to move to 6-2-1. Virginia Tech had spent nine games with a head coach who was suing them, and they’d done surprisingly well in that stretch.
It’s tempting to look at that stretch through a sports movie lens, where an inspired team played beyond its capabilities in a desperate attempt to save a beloved coach. But that’s not really what happened. For one thing, the Clemson win happened before the lawsuit was filed, and, as one player said a few days before the tentative settlement was announced, “As a player, I’m really ready for this to die down. The questions are getting old and boring.” And he had a point! For all the confusion and miscommunication during this saga, two things were crystal clear. Bill Dooley didn’t want to be the head coach if he couldn’t also be the athletic director, and Virginia Tech didn’t want Bill Dooley to continue as the athletic director.
The Hokies won their last two games and were invited to the Peach Bowl for Dooley’s grand finale on New Year’s Eve, the very last day Coach Dooley and AD Dooley would work for Virginia Tech. Leading up to the game, media still wanted to talk about the lawsuit, and Dooley, perhaps feeling defensive about his accomplishments in Blacksburg going unacknowledged, said this in an article printed on December 21st: “All I know is, I’d like to be the guy that follows Bill Dooley at Virginia Tech.”
Two days later, the Hokies introduced that guy: Frank Beamer.