About this series
Each day we’ll turn this page over to one of our sports writers to share behind-the-scenes stories from their years with The Times-Dispatch and News Leader. Mike Bevans wrote for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 1970 to 1979.
Where it all started: I went on to work at bigger newspapers in cities like Philadelphia and Dallas, and spent the second half of my 40 years in sports journalism as an editor at Sports Illustrated. But the truth is, I never loved the business more, never enjoyed sports more, never had more fun and never made better friends than in the beginning — when I worked at the Times-Dispatch from 1970 through ’79. Forthwith, some of the memories from my time in Richmond.
You had to see it to believe it: Struggling football programs at Virginia Tech and Virginia made them attractive homecoming opponents in the late ‘70s. The Hokies were on Alabama’s menu in Tuscaloosa in 1978 and ’79, losing 35-0 and 31-7. Likewise, Virginia, in the thrall of 10 straight losing seasons, was expected to be easy pickings between The Hedges at Georgia on Nov. 3, 1979. The guest Cavaliers, however, left their good manners behind in Charlottesville.
In an upset that athletic director Gene Corrigan would call the biggest for the UVA football program since a 1949 win over Penn, the run-oriented Cavaliers came out throwing and stunned Georgia 31-0. It was one of the worst losses in Vince Dooley’s 25 years as coach of the Bulldogs. The crowd of 59,100 set a Sanford Stadium record for leaving a homecoming game early.
Were it not for four Virginia turnovers, the rout would have been worse. Pinch me! Sure, the Cavaliers went into the game 4-3 and with two backs averaging 100 yards rushing. But the wins had come over lightweights Richmond, VMI, Duke and James Madison, and sophomore quarterback Todd Kirtley’s role was mostly to manage the offense and limit mistakes.
So UVA caught Georgia flat-footed when, on the Cavs’ first two plays, Kirtley connected with end Ted Marchibroda for 11 yards, then found back Greg Taylor racing down the sideline for a 53-yard touchdown.
“We actually ran the same play two times in a row,” Kirtley said after that game. “The first time, Greg wasn’t able to get into the clear soon enough, and Teddy came open real quick. Greg did come open later in the play, the coaches saw that, and they called the play again.”
Ultimately, the upset of Georgia made the difference between a coveted winning record and yet another losing season for UVA. The Cavaliers lost two of their last three but finished 6-5.
Two horses running as one: The excitement surrounding the 1978 Triple Crown showdown between Affirmed and Alydar, who had met six times as 2-year-olds, was only heightened by Affirmed’s wins over his arch-rival in the Kentucky Derby (by 11/2 lengths) and Preakness (by a neck). Could Alydar finally catch and pass Affirmed in the Belmont Stakes and prevent Affirmed from joining Seattle Slew as back-to-back Triple Crown winners?
Well, after Affirmed broke out in front and led the field of five through the first quarter-mile in 25 seconds, the remaining two minutes of the Belmont became the greatest sports event I ever witnessed.
Coming out of the first turn at vast Belmont Park, Affirmed was moving comfortably under the 18-year-old wunderkind, Steve Cauthen. Horse and rider waited patiently for the challenge of Alydar and jockey Jorge Velasquez, and it came at the start of the backstretch.
For the remainder of the race — nearly a full mile in the 1 1/2-mile test — the two colts raced side by side, heads bobbing furiously, necks straining, muscular hind-quarters driving hoofs into the loam. With three-sixteenths of a mile left, it appeared Alydar had inched ahead and might finally get past his nemesis and beat him to the wire.
But Cauthen, having saved ground along the rail, whipped his mount with the left hand and kept Affirmed in front by a whisker. Alydar, full of heart himself, never quit and stayed within a nose of the lead all the way to the finish.
I did not cash my $2 ticket to win on Affirmed. The return would have been only $3.20. Now that ticket is at the center of a shadow box — surrounded by other mementos from that Belmont — that hangs in my office.
There are no words: After the merger of the VHSL and the Virginia Interscholastic Association in 1969, the Group AAA Central Region, consisting of all the largest high schools in the Metro Richmond area, dominated state high school basketball. I was fortunate to cover three of those powerhouse state champions — Petersburg (1973 and ’74), Thomas Jefferson (1975) and Maggie Walker (1976) — with fellow T-D scribe and still best friend John Packett.
Walker’s stars were crowd-pleasers, the magical guard Clyde (The Glide) Austin and shot-blocking center Rudy (The Reject) Cunningham. TJ featured fluid guard Keith Valentine and the self-made center Otis Fulton. Petersburg, winner of 50 straight games over its two championship seasons, had flashy guard Stanley Taylor and the one-and-only Moses Malone.
A 6-foot-10 center with extraordinary agility for a big man, Malone could grab a rebound, dribble the length of the court, swing the dribble behind his back to get around one last defender, and softly place the ball against the backboard for a layup as if he were putting a baby’s head on a pillow.
Like Cauthen, the 18-year-old Malone had no answers when reporters asked him time after time, “How do you do that?” How athletes with superior skill and instinct move and adjust to the ever-changing, split-second dynamic of their chosen sport is inexplicable. You saw it, you explain it.
After Malone’s final game with Petersburg, a 50-48 win over West Springfield in the state AAA final, I found him seated alone in the rear of the locker room, straddling a bench, head down, rubbing his hands together. Malone had a speech impediment and was shy around the media. I had one question: Was he going to college or perhaps jump straight to the pros, as rumored?
Malone couldn’t hold back a slight smile. Then he finally looked up, and just winked.
Malone did sign a letter-of-intent, with Maryland, but spent only a few days on campus. He left to accept a $1 million offer from the Utah Stars of the American Basketball Association.
Nineteen years later, in 1983, I was a layout editor designing the sports pages for the Philadelphia Inquirer. The 76ers had just won the NBA championship, and I was sizing a photo for the front page of the sports section. In the picture, Julius Erving was holding the championship trophy with teammate Moses Malone, the NBA Finals MVP.
That was something else young Moses could not put into words: He just knew he would make it as a pro.
Doo-dah doo-dah: Before pari-mutuel racing finally came to the Old Dominion in 1997, there was the Virginia Triple Crown of Country Racing: Camptown Races (in Ashland), Varina Races and Goochland Races, one-day programs held on successive Saturdays in May. It was more “I’ll bet my money on the bobtail nag…” than “My Old Kentucky Home.” More PBR than mint julep.
Local owners entered everything from actual racehorses that ran at Charles Town (W.Va.) to workhorses that were hooked to a plow the day before being trailered to Varina.
Likewise, the jockeys ranged from Charles Town veterans to farm boys dreaming of Churchill Downs.
There was no starting gate. The tracks might be sloped and not necessarily rounded in the turns. There were quarter horses that had never run in a circle before. Sometimes a jockey whipped the horse running next to him, instead of his own. There was no wagering (wink wink).
The hill overlooking the Camptown Races was filled mostly with college students guzzling beer. In sum, it was great fun but also an accident waiting to happen. And it happened.
A novice jockey on one of those horses that wasn’t used to making sharp turns was thrown into a post and severely injured. A spectator dove head-first off the back of his truck into a shallow pond. The property owners hosting the races were getting sued, and the fun went out of the three Saturdays of racing. Country racing — dating to the 1950s — ended in the late ‘70s.
Uh … come again? The assembled reporters were seated in the bleachers of the Harrisonburg High gym in May 1979 for the press conference where 7-foot-1 senior Ralph Sampson (who eventually grew to 7-4) was to announce his college choice. A classroom table and chairs had been set up in front of the stands, and Sampson arrived a few minutes late with family members, obviously nervous.
Years of speculation and months of increasing personal angst were coming to an end.
And when it was finally time for young Ralph to reveal his decision, the turmoil within him that day became apparent. He mumbled something that sounded like “ … if I don’t go to Kentucky, I’m going to Virginia…”
The stunned silence and confusion in the bleachers was punctured by one newspaperman’s question: “Well, Ralph, when you make up your mind, will you invite us back?”
Sampson quickly gathered himself and said, “I am going to Virginia.”
The following November, I covered Sampson’s first game with the Cavaliers, a season-opening 93-58 drubbing of Division III Johns Hopkins. “He had to duck his head to get in here,” Hopkins coach Jim Amen said of watching the towering freshman come through the University Hall entryway to the court. “I was hoping he would hit his head, knock himself out and miss the game.”
Having safely negotiated the doorways to and from the locker room, Sampson scored the opening points of the game on a thunderous dunk off an alley-oop pass from guard (and future UVA coach) Jeff Jones.
That season Virginia would go on to win the 1980 NIT. Sampson was named tournament MVP. You know the rest.
Whistleblower: Armstrong High football coach Angier Lawrence was more widely known as a high school and college basketball ref who could be as entertaining as the game he was working. With exaggerated waving of his arms, tip-toe steps to avoid errant passes, finger-wagging to hush a complainer, and all-out sprints up the court, the incredibly fit Lawrence expended as much energy as any player.
The 1975 Armstrong-Walker Christmas Tournament was dominated by national powerhouse Dunbar of Washington, D.C. Led by forward Craig (Big Sky) Shelton and guard John (Baby Bull) Durham, both of whom would sign with Georgetown, Dunbar was destroying an early-round opponent. Lawrence was one of the officials.
With the game a lost cause, the coach of the hapless team started haranguing the refs, pleading for more calls against Dunbar. He stayed in Lawrence’s ear throughout one break in the action. After Lawrence whistled for the inbounds play to begin, he backpedaled downcourt, taking the whistle from his mouth and telling the coach, “If you could coach as good as I blow, you would win the championship.”
Quick thinking … Most memorable high school football season: The 1974 run to the state Group A title game by Powhatan, an undersized but disciplined unit. Coach Bobby Baltimore’s antiquated single-wing offense confused opponents until the Indians were dominated by oversized and unbeaten Clintwood. … Before the lacrosse world expanded beyond the mid-Atlantic area, Washington & Lee was a Division I power and an exciting team to watch. The Generals reached the NCAA tournament seven times between 1972 and 1980, including three trips to the semifinals. Goalies Skeet Chadwick and Charlie Brown and attackers Don Carroll, Rob Morgan and Dave Warfield starred under coach Jack Emmer. Carroll still owns school records for assists in a season (45) and a career (131) … You can still watch Virginia Tech forward Les Henson’s 90-foot, full-court shot that beat Florida State at the buzzer on Jan. 21, 1980 in Tallahassee. Search “Les Henson shot” on YouTube. The Benedictine product was one of the classiest athletes I covered.
And a final good-bye: The recently departed Bill Millsaps, longtime T-D sports columnist and Sports Editor before he ran the whole show, was the most beloved and respected newspaperman I ever knew. Everyone in the press room wanted to be a part of his circle, wanted to be like Saps. I am indebted to him for the role he played in advancing my career. When I was covering Virginia and Virginia Tech, we often doubled up on an assignment, including three ACC tournaments. I will always remember a morning in early March, Saps driving the company’s Ford Torino, a cup of coffee balanced between the seats, a cigarette between his fingers. As we made the turn-off from I-95 to I-85 on the way to Greensboro, N.C., Saps took a sip of coffee and said, “No matter how many of these I’ve been to, the ACC tournament is still the best sports event of the year.”