Sportswriting legend Brill loses battle with cancer
Bill Brill, Trinity ’52 and a member of the Duke Sports Hall of Fame, passed away Sunday at the age of 79 after a bout with esophageal and liver cancer.
Brill was known for mentoring countless sportswriters, his encyclopedic knowledge of ACC basketball and his sizable philanthropic contributions to Duke—the media room in Cameron Indoor Stadium was named in his honor in 2007.
“Bill has been a media fixture in the Atlantic Coast Conference since its inception in 1953,” John Swofford, Commissioner of the ACC, said in a statement. “His affinity for the Conference and Duke University was evident by the sheer history and knowledge he acquired and shared with others.”
Born in Philadelphia and raised in Middlesex County, Va., Brill noted in the obituary he wrote for himself before his death that he ended up at Duke “by accident.” He turned down a scholarship to Cornell University and applied to Duke because he preferred the weather in Durham.
After graduating from Duke, he took a job as sports editor of The Covington Virginian. Then, three and a half years later, he moved to The Roanoke Times. He would stay there for more than 30 years as sports editor and develop both a love for ACC basketball and a contentious relationship with Virginia Tech fans. Hokie supporters even rented a plane to fly over Lane Stadium that carried a banner saying “Fire Brill” in 1989.
“Brill always took the Virginia Tech fans with a grain of salt,” said John Feinstein, a columnist for The Washington Post and former sports editor of The Chronicle. “He called everyone excited [in 1989], and said ‘They hired a plane!’... Brill didn’t speak in normal sentences—he spoke in exclamation points.”
He was, by all accounts, a character—an avid cigar smoker, a journalist who never learned to properly type and one of the few to ever conduct an interview while sleeping. A longtime sufferer of narcolepsy, Brill once nodded off during a talk with a local semi-pro football coach.
While in Roanoke, Brill began going to Duke-North Carolina basketball games and went on to cover 111 straight until 2004. Brill made the trek to Durham countless times during his time in Roanoke, but he kept his allegiances to Duke close to his chest.
“I can honestly say it was three years before I knew Brill had gone to Duke,” said Doug Doughty, who replaced Brill as sports editor of The Roanoke Times. “There had been no sign he had gone to Duke. I thought he had gone to North Carolina.”
Brill was a mentor to many while at The Roanoke Times and was known for his openness and willingness to talk with anyone about Duke basketball and, more broadly, the ACC.
“He took an interest in me,” said Feinstein, Trinity ’77, who would go on to become close friends with Brill. “He guided me who the good guys were, and who the bad guys were. He told me whose examples to follow. I also learned by observing... the way he dealt with people. You could tell, even though he was outspoken, that people respected him.”
“There’s no doubt why I’m doing what I’m doing today is because of Bill Brill, because of his encouragement,” said Jack Bogaczyk, a former writer for The Roanoke Times. “It didn’t matter if you were a student journalist—you were always someone he could help learn the craft of newspaper writing.”
When Brill retired from his post at The Roanoke Times, he did not stop writing. He moved to Durham, co-wrote a book on Duke’s 1992 season with Krzyzewski—one of three of the books he wrote about Duke basketball—and began writing for Blue Devil Weekly. He continued going to basketball games at Cameron Indoor Stadium and would express his opinions about everything, said Barry Jacobs, the man who sat beside him on press row.
“Bill had comments about everything,” Jacobs said, “from how the players were doing, the national anthem, the opposing coaches, to telling me about a really neat athlete he met at an event.”
Brill was inducted into four halls of fame, including the U.S. Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame in 1990 and the Duke Sports Hall of Fame in 1996. He set a record by attending more Final Fours than any other writer, and he saw every Duke Final Four appearance.
Brill also privately gave a large amount of money to Duke in his retirement and was named to the James B. Duke Society for philanthropy to the University.
In many ways, Brill was a trendsetter in sports journalism. He co-wrote the first access rules in the ACC, allowing sportswriters the ability to interview players in their locker rooms and giving writers more access than those in any other conference in the country.
He was also one of the first reporters in the country to write about recruiting, taking a keen interest in the early recruiting successes of Krzyzewski.
And Brill was one of the nation’s first “bracketologists.” He would unveil, with much fanfare, his own bracket on the Saturday night of the ACC Tournament. Arriving before the 100 or so assembled journalists riding on a hotel luggage rack, Brill would be serenaded by “Oh no, not Bill!” before he revealed his picks.
“I always said, ‘You give Brill an hour and two beers, and he would do a better job than people in the selection committee,’” Feinstein said.
At the 2011 ACC Tournament, according to Feinstein, a card was passed around for Brill. Krzyzewski, who would visit Brill Sunday at Duke University Hospital, signed it, “Oh no, not Brill!”
Unfortunately, Brill was forced to stay at home during Duke’s win over North Carolina in the ACC championship game. When he entered the hospital in late March, his prognosis did not look good. He passed away 16 days after being admitted to Duke University Medical Center.
“Knowing something is coming and having it happen is two entirely different things,” said Jim Sumner, who wrote with Brill in Duke publications. “It’s going to be very strange not seeing him there in the ACC Tournament.”
A memorial service will be held Sunday at 2 p.m. in Scharf Hall.