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June 23, 2014

Group of longtime athletics department employees decides to retire

By: Jimmy Robertson

Billy Hite, who worked 33 years as Tech’s running backs coach and played a large role in developing the Hokies’ tradition of excellence in the backfield, is retiring after 36 years at the school.

The laugh is unmistakable; that deep, baritone rumble that surfaces whenever he tells one of his endless supply of tales. Its pure genuineness makes him a favorite among people of all ages, races and various backgrounds. It served him well when trying to coerce high school football players to come to Virginia Tech, and it made him a favorite among the fans at Orange & Maroon Tour stops and Blacksburg Sports Club engagements.

So it brought forth a tinge of sadness when ever-popular Billy Hite, one of the all-time great ambassadors of the Virginia Tech football program, announced he would be retiring from the school as of July 1. His retirement will mark the end of a remarkable 36-year tenure at Tech.

Hite is one of several prominent athletics department officials who have retired or will be retiring in the coming weeks. The group includes former Monogram Club director Russ Whitenack, who retired in April, assistant softball coach Al Brauns, equipment manager Lester Karlin and men’s basketball administrative assistant Sharon Spradlin, all of whom also will be retiring July 1. In addition, Clara Kinzie, a member of the housekeeping crew at Lane Stadium, is retiring after more than eight years of working in athletics.

Given his stature within the football program, Hite, though, is probably the most well known of the group.

“It’s been a great run for me and my family the last 36 years,” Hite said. “I want to thank all the coaches that I had the opportunity to work with, and I want to thank all the players that played at Virginia Tech. I personally want to thank all the players that I had the opportunity to coach. I also want to thank the Hokie Nation for all the help and support and all the great things they do for Virginia Tech.”

Hite, who turned 63 in April, started working at Tech in 1978 as an assistant football coach and wound up becoming the longest-tenured assistant in college football. He got into coaching in 1974 at his alma mater, North Carolina, under then-coach Bill Dooley, and he followed Dooley to Tech, serving as the running backs coach.

In 1986, Dooley left following Tech’s Peach Bowl win over NC State, and then-Tech AD Dutch Baughman hired current coach Frank Beamer.

“We got back from the Peach Bowl at 7 o’clock on a Friday night, and my phone rang at 7:15 and he [Beamer] asked me to meet him at 9 o’clock the next morning,” Hite said. “I met with him for 15 or 20 minutes, and he hired me right there on the spot.”

Hite never left, turning down a couple of opportunities to become a head coach at the Division I-AA level (now the Football Championship Subdivision level) to stay at Tech.

“Anne [his wife] and I had been married for seven months [when he followed Dooley to Tech], and we bought our first house,” Hite said. “I told her not to get to know anybody in this town because we were going to be here a year or two and we were going to be out of here. Thirty-six years later, I’m still sitting here. I never dreamed I’d be in one place this long. I think I was the longest-tenured assistant coach in the country until I moved into another position, and that’s something I’m very proud of.”

Hite did serve as the head coach for one game during his career on the Tech coaching staff. In 1989, he filled in as the acting head coach when Beamer was sidelined following coronary angioplasty surgery and had to miss a home game versus Tulane. He didn’t let the program down, as he led the Hokies to an emotional 30-13 victory.

“I’m the only undefeated head coach in the country right now,” Hite laughed.

Hite received two promotions over the years, becoming the assistant head coach one year after Beamer’s arrival and then the associate head coach in 2000. As a coach, he mentored some of the best running backs in Tech history. In fact, he helped produce nine of Tech’s top 11 career rushing leaders, including Cyrus Lawrence, Kevin Jones, Maurice Williams, Branden Ore, and Lee Suggs, and he was on the sidelines for more Tech football games than any other coach. He also coached in 21 bowl games.

He said his most memorable moment as a coach came in 1995 when the Hokies beat Miami 13-7 at Lane Stadium. It marked the Hokies’ first victory over the ’Canes, and Tech later went on to beat Texas in the Sugar Bowl.

“I think that’s the most important game we ever won here,” Hite said.

In 2011, Hite moved into an administrative role, becoming the assistant to the head coach. Last year, he moved into a role as the director of alumni relations for athletics, serving as a liaison between the athletics department and former players and organizing the lettermen’s reunion each spring game weekend.

Billy and Anne Hite plan to stay in Blacksburg, and he is looking for the next challenge in life, whatever it may be.

“I’m looking for some new opportunities outside of coaching,” he said. “I’m looking for a new challenge in my life. I don’t know what it will be, but I’m looking forward to it.”

Like Hite, Karlin, a Norfolk, Virginia, native, came to Tech in 1978 after being hired by Dooley to handle the equipment needs for the football team. He graduated from Tech in 1974 with a degree in health and physical education, and after working as an equipment manager in the old World Football League and then a stint in sales, Karlin returned to Blacksburg in 1978 to work for Dooley.

He has worked in Tech’s equipment room ever since, a span of 36 years, and has attended 438 straight football games.

Lester Karlin, who has handled equipment issues for the football
program since 1978, is retiring after 36 years at Tech.

“I’ve done it for 36 seasons, and it’s time [to retire],” Karlin said. “It’s become too much. I’m here seven days a week during the season. I’m still hoping to remain a part of it in some way, but I think it’s time for a change.”

Karlin’s career in athletics equipment actually began while he served as a manager for the football team at Norview High School. Once graduating from high school, he spent two years at Danville Community College before gaining admittance into Tech.

When he got to Tech, he received a suggestion from the Norview athletics director at the time, who told him to give the Tech athletics department a call and see if they needed any help.

“So I called them, and they told me to come on up,” Karlin said. “I ended up being a position manager for Coach [Tommy] Brasher [Tech’s defensive line coach at the time]. Then when I got my degree, I wanted to keep working with equipment. I went to the World Football League, and I really enjoyed it. I learned a lot about equipment.”

When Karlin got the job at Tech under Dooley, he called it his dream job. He specifically works with the football program and has been responsible for the annual budget dedicated to equipment and for the football equipment itself.

But the best part of his job has been the relationships he formed with the players over the years. Even today, he remains close friends with guys like Bruce Smith, Dickie Holway, John Gambone and Paul Adams. When former players come back, their first stop is usually the equipment room to visit with Karlin.

“They usually want a free t-shirt,” he joked.

In 2012, the Tech athletics department started sponsoring an auction for game-day experiences with members of the equipment room staff, and all the proceeds went to a Virginia Tech Athletic Fund endowment, which funds student-athlete scholarships. The ultimate goal was, and still is, to establish an endowment in the name of Karlin.

Karlin and his wife, Suzie, will remain in Blacksburg. He has no specific plans for his free time other than working in his yard and continuing his association with the Blacksburg Fire Department, which he loves.

The 70-year-old Brauns just wrapped up his 19th year of working in the department, with the past 16 of those coming as a member of the softball coaching staff. His decision to retire caught some by surprise, as those who know Brauns best know that he loves coaching softball.

I made it quickly,” Brauns said of the decision. “It wasn’t planned or anything. It just hit me. I thought maybe it’s time, and I decided to do it.

Al Brauns coached Tech’s outfielders for the past 16 years, but is
deciding to call it a career after 19 years with the athletics department.

“Everyone I know has been retired for 10 years, and I’m still out here working at 70. I want to spend a little time on my own and not have to do something before I croak. I figured I better do it before it’s all over. Seventy is a good time to retire.”

Brauns, a Uniontown, Pennsylvania, native, said that this will be the third time he has retired. A former Marine and a Vietnam War veteran, Brauns went to college a little later in life than most, and when he graduated from Penn State University in 1973 with a degree in criminology, he went to work as a state probation officer in Virginia. He retired from that and got into business for himself. He once owned a local restaurant and bar in downtown Blacksburg before deciding to get out of that business.

Brauns came to Tech to work in the equipment room under Karlin in the early 1990s, but when Tech started its softball program in the mid-1990s, Brauns went to work as an assistant under the program’s first coach, Scot Thomas. Brauns was a natural, having played fast pitch softball in the 1960s and early 1970s.

I was just doing that for fun,” Brauns said of working in the equipment room. “I wanted to do something and found out there was an opening downstairs [in the equipment room]. I had an opportunity to do something different and be involved in sports. I didn’t do it for the money.

“When I got the opportunity with Scot, I was at the baseball tournament, and he called me. I didn’t have any hesitation. I thought it would be fun.”

Since then, Brauns has been a part of a staff that has earned four NFCA Regional Coaching Staff of the Year honors and made it to seven NCAA tournaments and a Women’s College World Series appearance (2008). He has worked primarily with the outfielders and helped with the slap hitters over the years. He is also in charge of field maintenance, team travel, the program’s budget, the program’s equipment, and he has a heavy hand in recruiting. The longtime assistant coach also runs Tech’s summer softball camps, which have seen a huge spike in attendance over the past few years.

He leaves with innumerable memories, though ones from that World Series appearance and from Tech’s 1-0 upset of the U.S. Olympic softball team in an exhibition in Oklahoma City earlier in 2008 tend to surface. The Hokies snapped the U.S. team’s 185-game winning streak.

“Between the World Series and the night we beat the Olympic team … I don’t know if anything could top that,” Brauns said. “Going to the World Series was unbelievable, and the way we got there, just winning the regional in Tennessee and winning the super-regionals in Michigan. I don’t know if anything could top going to the World Series, and the night we beat the Olympic team … that was just so surreal.”

Brauns and his wife of 28 years, Michelle, plan on staying in Blacksburg. They have a son, Adam, who is a senior at Tech, and Brauns has two other sons, Eric and Jason, along with two grandchildren.

He hasn’t quite decided what he’ll do with the extra time on his hands, but looks forward to contemplating it.

“I’m going to get in my recliner and prop my feet up, and I’m going to decide,” he laughed. “It may take me a long time to decide, so I may be in that recliner for a while. I don’t know. I have all kinds of interests and hobbies. There’s a chance of getting back into business. I don’t know. We’ll see.”

Russ Whitenack

Whitenack, who was the longest-tenured Tech employee, came to Blacksburg in 1972 from Miami, where the Massapequa, New York, native had been working as a track and field coach at a junior high school. He landed an assistant coaching job at Tech under then-coach Marty Pushkin.

Two years later, Pushkin left to take a job at West Virginia, and Whitenack, a 1969 graduate of the University of Tennessee, got the head gig at Tech – and never left.

“The reason I came to Virginia Tech, to be honest about it, was to get my master’s degree and then I planned to go back to Florida and hopefully get a job at one of the junior colleges,” Whitenack said. “I never ever thought it would work out that I would get to stay. It was just a matter of being at the right place at the right time. I couldn’t have been luckier.”

Whitenack, 69, guided the Tech men’s program for the next 28 years, while also serving a stint as the women’s coach in the 1980s and early 1990s. Early on in his tenure, he worked as the associate director of Tech’s summer All-Sports Camp for three years and the director for one year.

Under his leadership, the men’s track and field program produced 20 All-Americans, and he led the Hokies to two Metro Conference indoor championships (1993 and 1994). He was named the Metro’s Coach of the Year during the 1992 outdoor season.

He accomplished all this despite the program not having much in the way of resources. In fact, Tech did not have an actual track for years. He took his teams to Blacksburg High School to work out, or had them work out at Rector Field House.

Despite a lack of resources, the Hokies often performed well against bigger schools in the big meets – a source of pride for Whitenack.

“A couple of years, we went down to Florida State, and we had five scholarships and they were fully funded, plus a handful of football guys,” Whitenack said. “We would compete right up to the last event and scared the heck out of them a couple of times. We would go into the relays with a lead, and they would end up beating us – but not by much.

“There were a couple of years … I know their coach, and he would come up to me and say, ‘I can’t believe you challenged us that much.’ We just had phenomenal kids, usually from Virginia, and they didn’t let the lack of a facility really hurt them.”

The athletics department built a nice, new track adjacent to Rector in 1997 and also added an indoor track. After Tech joined the Atlantic 10 for all sports except football in the late 1990s, it became the premier track and field force in the conference. The Hokies won the indoor and outdoor titles for four straight years, and Whitenack received coach of the year honors after each of those victories.

In 2001, Whitenack moved out of coaching and into an administrative role as the director of the Monogram Club, a club of former letter winners at Tech. The club serves as a way to keep a line of communication open between former letter winners and the athletics department. He organized football pregame tailgates and orchestrated reunions and other get-togethers for the former athletes of various sports at Tech.

He also helped take care of the luxury suite holders at Lane Stadium. With his office being in Lane Stadium, he had easy access to the suites, and he prepared them for game days.

“At first, I was hesitant to take the job [with the Monogram Club] because I didn’t think it would be enough work, and I like to be active,” Whitenack said. “Then Jim Weaver [former Tech AD] came back and said he had some other things for me to do. I really enjoyed meeting all those people in the suites, and I enjoyed working with and meeting the people who were in the Monogram Club, too. Many of them are good friends of mine, and they say they’re going to come down and see us.”

Whitenack and his wife sold their home in Blacksburg and bought a home on Norris Lake, just north of Knoxville, Tennessee. They plan on fixing their home the way they want it, while mixing in some kayaking, jet skiing and boating on the side.

Sharon Spradlin

To most Tech fans, the members of the Virginia Tech men’s basketball team were just players. To Sharon Spradlin, they were her “boys.”

Spradlin is retiring after working 27 years in the athletics department, including the final 21 as the administrative assistant in the men’s basketball office. Those 27 years come on the heels of a 13-year stint working at First National Bank of Christiansburg.

Spradlin started working in the athletics department in 1987, serving as an administrative assistant in the sports information office. In 1993, an opportunity presented itself for her to move to the men’s basketball office, where she ultimately helped then-head coach Bill Foster and his staff manage the day-to-day operations.

“I liked basketball, and it was a great opportunity for me,” she said. “I just thought the world of Coach Foster.”

Foster’s low-key, humorous, Southern charm meshed perfectly with Spradlin’s easy-going demeanor, and she played her role in the program’s successes in the early and mid 1990s. She cited the 1995 NIT championship season as her most memorable moment – and not just because Tech won the title. She enjoyed her relationship with the staff and with the players, whom she treated as her own.

“Just that whole season was so memorable,” she said. “The players were great, and Coach Foster treated you like family, no matter what your position.

“All of the coaches that I worked for treated me great. They really did. I worked for five different coaches [Foster, Bobby Hussey, Ricky Stokes, Seth Greenberg and James Johnson], and they were all great to work with.”

Spradlin plans on taking some time off before deciding to pursue her next venture in life. She and her husband, Steve, own a family business centered around real estate, and she has plenty of grandchildren to keep her occupied.

But nothing will take the place of her “boys.”

“I’ve been fortunate to be around so many wonderful student-athletes,” she said. “I’ve had such a good rapport with them. It’s been great to watch them grow year by year. They’re like family to me.”

Claire Kinzie

In addition to those five, Kinzie, a member of the housekeeping crew, decided to retire after more than eight years of working in athletics. She had been working at a local church prior to coming to athletics in April of 2006, and she has been a member of the Lane Stadium housekeeping crew ever since.

Kinzie plans on spending time with her daughters, traveling around and attending music concerts.

Overall, the group of five combined to amass nearly 170 years of service to Tech athletics. Whitenack led the way, having worked 42 years, and Karlin and Hite both worked 36 years.

Of course, their contributions will not be forgotten. But the good people whom they are will be missed more.