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January 8, 2010

Independence Bowl, what a week!

By: Jimmy Robertson

December 18, 1984

In the spring of 1984, Doug Waters started the Hokie Huddler, a publication devoted to the coverage of Virginia Tech athletics. The publication has changed names and formats over the course of 25 years, and this year, we want to celebrate the silver anniversary of the publication by taking a look back at what transpired at Virginia Tech in 1984.

This month, we’re looking back at what turned out to be a wild week leading up to the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La. Here is a column about what transpired, written by Waters in the Dec. 18, 1984, issue of the Hokie Huddler:

Independence Bowl, what a week!

By Doug Waters

What a difference a week can make.

On Thursday, Dec. 7, Bruce Smith basked in the glow of his Outland Trophy as he addressed a large press conference in Blacksburg.

The next Thursday, the best lineman in Tech history was immersed in controversy, lawsuits, countersuits, and the uncomfortable side of publicity’s double-edged sword.

The story should be familiar to most of you by now: Bruce Smith has not been eligible to play in a bowl game for the past year and a half because of recruiting violations by Virginia Tech.

By any standard, the violations were minor: his family received a load of firewood from a Tech supporter and Bruce was given a couple of rides too many to see Tech football games while he was being recruited.

Even though it was the school and not Bruce that had committed a wrong, the NCAA decided to punish the school by also punishing Bruce, and he was ruled ineligible for bowl play.

This matter would have come to light last year, but Tech was not invited to a bowl. Coach Bill Dooley had never released the name of Smith or seven other players who were ruled ineligible for bowl competition following an NCAA investigation in 1983.

The other seven were cleared of probation after ensuing appeals. Appeals on behalf of Smith were all rejected, including several 11th-hour arguments by Dooley and Tech president William Lavery. Tech, being an NCAA member, had no choice but to follow the NCAA’s edict to prohibit Bruce from playing in the Independence Bowl.

So Smith filed suit against the NCAA and Virginia Tech, setting off what amounted to a legal ping-pong match that continued almost until the bowl’s opening kickoff.

Ping! Tuesday (Dec. 11): While Bruce is in Hollywood for the Bob Hope Christmas Show, his attorney files suit in Montgomery County Circuit Court, asking the court to order Tech to allow Bruce to play in the Independence Bowl. The next day, Judge Kenneth Devore, after hearing arguments from both sides, rules that Smith never received due process, and he adds that the NCAA’s rules are a legal nightmare. He says Smith clearly has to be allowed to play in the bowl game.

Pong! Thursday: The NCAA counters, threatening to pull its sanction from the Independence Bowl if Smith plays, which would mean the elimination of that bowl. The next day, the bowl’s chairman, Dr. Cecil Lloyd, assures the NCAA by letter that he will comply with its regulations, meaning Smith won’t play.

Ping! Friday afternoon: Smith files another suit, this time in Caddo Parish Circuit Court in Shreveport, and the judge there again orders that Smith must not be ruled ineligible. Lloyd is quoted in a Shreveport paper as saying, “This, I believe, is a little higher authority than the NCAA. I am certainly not going to jail over this (for contempt of court), so it looks like he can play.”

Pong! Saturday morning: The Independence Bowl, at the NCAA’s urging, takes the matter to a Louisiana court of appeals, but a three-judge panel refuses to hear any arguments, thereby leaving intact the earlier rulings that Smith could not be ruled ineligible.

The panel’s ruling said in part, “The original violations were relatively minor, the probationary sanctions directed at the school have long since expired, the sanctions against the other Virginia Tech athletes were removed, and Smith is the only athlete in the entire country singled out as ineligible for postseason play.”

So, in the end, Bruce Smith gets to play in his final game of his amazing career at Virginia Tech.

In a legal sense, he won. But there was no victory to be had in this kind of messy struggle that has been detailed not only in Virginia and Louisiana media, but also across the country. Such a thing involving the Outland Trophy winner is national news.

And just about everybody came out the worse for wear.

The NCAA looks bad because it punished an innocent man. Bruce Smith, as a high school senior, could not possibly have known that he had surpassed the number of free visits to Tech games. He received no monetary inducement, no bribe of any kind, nothing by which he profited. Yet rather than confining its punishment to the university, the NCAA punished the individual. Then, apparently intent on showing all its members that it wouldn’t back down, the NCAA made the issue into a power struggle, which also surely looks bad to the public.

Meanwhile, Virginia Tech and its athletic association have taken round after round of criticism from Virginia media, both before and after the bowl game, and it is unclear how long the repercussions will last.

Criticism of the school has centered on the fact that Dooley kept the information about Smith’s ineligibility a secret until it became public through Smith’s lawsuit. Dooley told reporters he didn’t release the information because he was “99.9 percent” sure Bruce’s eligibility would be restored before the bowl game.

The worst part of the whole thing is that it became a black cloud hanging at the end of Smith’s shining career, and it came on the heels of the Outland Trophy announcement. From high to low. Instead of being able to go to Shreveport and give interviews about what it was like to win the Outland Trophy, Smith was besieged with questions about what his next move in court would be and whether he thought he would be making any moves on the field.

The NCAA’s persistence in trying to keep Smith off the field seems particularly ridiculous when you think about the effect it had on Bruce, not to mention the drain it may have had on the whole Tech team.

It’s just a shame that the big man’s final game had to come under such trying circumstances, and one hopes that, for Bruce, whose equal Tech may never see, the good memories of his long career will more than make up for the final frustrating week.