DURHAM, N.C. – Bill Brill (William), longtime sports writer, editor and columnist, died April 10, 2011 after a battle with esophageal and liver cancer. He was 79.
A longtime Duke sports historian, Bill is survived by his wife, Jane Shaw Brill, of 49 years, his sister, Cassie Brill, of Deltaville, Va., Jane’s cousin, Larry, and wife, Suzan Cheek of Chapel Hill, plus a special friend, Sarah Fish of Durham.
In a household lacking children, special attention is given to the two Maine Coon cats, Gus and Belle. Jane describes Gus as “Bill’s best buddy.” And that he was.
Brill was born in Philadelphia and moved to Middlesex County, Va. in 1938, where the family remained. Bill is predeceased by his mother, Catherine, and stepfather, W. Richard Brill, and also by younger siblings Richard (Dickie) and Elizabeth (Sweetsie).
He graduated from Christ Church School, two miles from the family home, in 1948, where he played football, basketball and baseball (mediocrely). He used to tell everybody that he was in the top ten in all his classes. There were only 10 members of the ‘48 senior class.
Bill ended up at Duke by accident. His mother wanted him to “be a professional man” and he had accepted a scholarship to Cornell in the winter of 1948. February in Ithaca was -4 degrees Fahrenheit and when he arrived back in Virginia, he told his mother, “I don’t know where I’m going to college, but I know where I’m not going to go.”
He applied to Duke and was promptly accepted, academic standards not being what they are now. Bill was an indifferent student, more interested in the athletic teams than his classes. He majored in civil engineering for three semesters, but quit because they had labs (on Saturday) interfering with football afternoons.
He then spent an enjoyable three semesters in English, but had to change majors again when a dean pointed out he couldn’t graduate with his class. He got his degree in Economics without ever understanding what it was. He also did something that surely had never been done before at Duke – he took two classes in the same period.
One professor who had a class in the basement of the Chemistry building hated to take the required attendance, and Bill would wait outside the window to see if role was taken. If not, he ran across the quad to another Economics course where the teacher was always late. He passed the first class because while the famous professor gave marvelous lectures, the class grade was determined by the exam on the book.
Bill worked, often unofficially, with football, basketball and baseball his entire college career. In football, he worked for legendary sports information director Ted Mann. Besides working the press box, he twice was hired to be the spotter for Hall of Fame announcer Bill Stern and the game of the week. It was a Tennessee-Duke game in 1949 that Bill realized he couldn’t read the small white numbers on the backs of the orange Tennessee jerseys. Two days later he was fitted for glasses which he wore the remainder of his life.
In basketball, he kept the statistics for the team and in 1952 was embroiled in a controversy with a prominent Dayton columnist who argued no one player – Dick Groat – could lead the nation in scoring and assists. Brill won the argument when the Blue Devils played road games at the nation’s most famous facilities, Madison Square Garden (NYU) and the Palestra (Temple).
In both games, Groat was awarded one more assist than Bill had given him. It should have been no mystery. Groat had the ball all of the time.
In baseball he kept statistics, occasionally threw batting practice, and was the announcer for the team that was rated No. 1 in the nation and played in the College World Series.
Upon graduation, with a GPA near the Mendoza line, he was hired sight-unseen in January, 1953, by the Covington Virginian as sports editor. The entire paper had four writers. It was hardly a bonanza. Bill rode a bike and lived with the chief of police. His take-home pay was $25.80. Room-and-board was $26.00.
But he loved the job, learned to type on the go, and in six weeks almost had his salary doubled to $55.00 – on which he could afford an apartment with a roommate and a Chevy without a radio.
Bill worked at Covington for three and a half years, as one of the few college graduates in the town. In late 1959, he was offered and accepted a job with the Roanoke Times, where he never left until he retired on his 60th birthday in 1991.
Although he covered the Washington Redskins, Brill’s passion always was with college sports. His first game for Roanoke was Duke at Virginia. The Cavaliers won 14-7. The next week he was the official UVa beat reporter. The Cavs lost 28 straight games.
Brill, an ACC man to the heart, was his papers’ primary conference writer, which did not sit well with the Virginia Tech fans, whose teams in those years were in three leagues, but never the ACC. In his last football game in Blacksburg before retirement, he was serenaded by a plane carrying a trailer that read, “Fire Brill, call XXX-XXXX”.) Brill called the number with no response.
During all those years, his love for Duke basketball only grew. His first ACC Tournament was in Raleigh in 1960, when first-year coach Vic Bubas upset North Carolina and Wake Forest on the way to its first title. Brill covered every ACC Tournament after that until 2005, when he and his wife took a cruise of South America as a protest against expansion, which Brill believed hurt basketball.
In 1961, his executive editor suggested the newspaper covered the highly-rated game in Durham between Duke and UNC. Brill covered a Virginia game that fateful night, in which Art Heyman got into a fight with Larry Brown and Doug Moe and the rivalry achieved a heated status that has never diminished.
Bill proceeded to cover the next 111 Duke-UNC games, ending the streak voluntarily if bitterly in 2004. At the end of the 2011 regular season he had covered 125 of the last 126 games.
Bill also attended the most Final Fours of any writer in the nation. He began in Louisville in 1962 and missed just four through 2010. He missed only one Duke Elite Eight after suffering a fall in a Jacksonville hotel after the first round game in 2010, but he saw every one of the Final Four games (11 Krzyzewski, 3 Bubas, 1 Bill Foster).
He wrote extensively about Duke basketball with three books, the first being “Duke Basketball, an Illustrated History” in 1986, which was the first history book of its kind in the nation.
His second book, “A Season is a Lifetime”, co-authored with Mike Krzyzewski, was produced by Simon and Schuster after Duke’s 1992 back-to-back championship. The third book, in 2005 on 100 years of Blue Devil basketball, was “Duke Basketball – A Legacy of Achievement.”
Bill also wrote chapters for the other books celebrating national championships and was the lead columnist for the 18 ½ years of production for Blue Devil Weekly, where he missed just one issue. He ended his writing career with GoDuke the Magazine.
He was affiliated with numerous athletic associations as president, including the Atlantic Coast Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association (twice), and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) in 1980-81, where he sat on the dais with Bob Knight of champion Indiana, who explained why he had dumped an LSU fan into a trashcan. In that same year, it was Brill’s job to relay word to the media if the NCAA championship game between Indiana and North Carolina would be played because President Ronald Reagan had been shot by John Hinckley. What became the final third-place game between Virginia and Utah was being played at the time.
Brill was named to four Halls of Fame – the USBWA in 1990, in its third year of awards, he was part of the first three-man induction of living writers. He was named to the Duke Sports Hall of Fame in 1996. He was also a member of the commonwealth of Virginia Sports Hall of Fame (1997), and the Christchurch (Va.) School Hall of Fame in 2007.
He was voted the Service to Sports award by the Virginia Sports Writers and Sportscasters Association in 1967, the National Association of Sportscasters and Sportswriters writer of the year in 1990, the Jake Wade award from the College Sports Information Directors (COSIDA) in 1995 and the Skeeter Francis Award from the Atlantic Coast Sportswriters and Sportscasters in 1998.
Brill, for whom the Media Room in Cameron Indoor Stadium is named, was a member of Duke University’s Heritage Society for his support of Duke basketball, and the James B. Duke Society for philanthropy to the university.
Brill was deeply grateful for the many friendships he had throughout the sports community, as well as his Treyburn Country Club neighbors, of whom he was especially fond. Brill will be missed for his lively conversation, his passion for and great knowledge of college basketball, his engaging stories, his devotion to accuracy, and his truly one-of-a kind personality. His never-ending love and devotion for Duke Athletics will always be remembered.
Memorial gifts may be made to the Duke University Iron Dukes Office, Box 90542, Durham, NC 27708, or to the charity of one’s choice.
Plans for a celebration of Brill’s life will be announced soon.
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