In sports parlance, Bill Millsaps — Saps to most — was a players’ coach. And everyone wanted to play for him.
That certainly had something to do with his physical presence — tall and barrel-chested with an impressive head of thick, silver hair (at least when I met him) and a warm, easy smile.
But it had more to do with how he treated people, whether it was the head coach of the state’s most powerful team or a college student working as a copy boy. He treated everyone with respect, always quick with a hearty laugh and genuine words of encouragement.
As William Sherman said of Abraham Lincoln, “Of all the men I ever met, he seemed to possess more of the elements of greatness, combined with goodness, than any other.”
Saps would no doubt object to being compared to one of the greatest figures in the country’s history. But make no mistake, he did possess the elements of greatness, as evidenced by his Red Smith Award and his induction into a handful of halls of fame.
And anyone who ever spent any meaningful time with him can attest to the great goodness in him.
The first time I met him, we were both covering the final round of the State Open golf tournament at Farmington Country Club in Charlottesville. I was probably 24 at the time and more than a little awestruck to be walking the fairways with the state’s best sports columnist.
I was watching him as closely as I was the golfers but didn’t have the nerve to approach him. Somewhere around the ninth hole, he came over and introduced himself to me. I was shocked and couldn’t believe how nice he was. There was no noticeable ego.
I feel honored to say that day was the start of a special relationship. I worked for Saps for 17 years and was proud to count him as my mentor. I learned so much from him about journalism and leadership and building relationships that I could never hope to repay him.
Many longtime RTD readers remember him as the sports columnist who took them behind the scenes at Super Bowls, World Series, Masters championships and Olympic Games. No event was too big for Saps — he always rose to the occasion. He always got a chuckle when people would compliment him on his column long after he stopped writing it.
Those who knew him well understood he was more than just a sports columnist. Journalism was in his blood, and after leaving sports when The Times-Dispatch and News Leader merged in 1992, he excelled first as managing editor and then executive editor. He was born to lead.
I remember him showing up, against doctor’s orders, as we produced an extra edition on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001. He was recovering from surgery and should have been home in bed, but there was no way he was going to miss being in the newsroom on such a historic day.
He loved politics as much as any other sport — that’s what he considered it — and loved Election Day. He was right in the middle of the conversation in the wee hours of election night in 2000 on the latest election we ever had as we tried to write the lead headline without knowing whether George Bush or Al Gore had won.
Saps was a tough but exceedingly fair boss. He rarely lost his temper, but when he did, you really didn’t want to be around. He would occasionally use a line from “Absence of Malice,” one of his favorite journalism movies, when something had gone really wrong. “Come sundown,” he would say, “I’m going to have somebody’s ass in my briefcase.”
But mostly he was there to offer praise, support and wisdom.
He was also great to spend time with away from work. Some of my best days were spent on the golf course with Saps, who was an excellent player in his prime. Anyone who looked at him would know that he could pound the ball off the tee, but he surprised many a playing partner with soft hands that made him a wonderful chipper and putter.
He was an even better companion. I can still hear him yelling, “Nice shot, Danny” from across the fairway or regaling a roomful of writers with an endless supply of classic stories while sipping on a little “brown” — Saps-ese for bourbon — and smoking a filterless Pall Mall.
He treated golf like life, and vice versa. A gentleman’s game, where honesty and integrity matter. He believed golf revealed a person’s true character, and I’ve never met a more honest golfer.
It’s not surprising that I was playing with Saps when I shot the round of my life — a 4-over-par 76 on his home course at Willow Oaks Country Club.
That’s because Saps always brought out the best in me. And everyone else, too.