It was well known in Charlottesville that the coach of the University of Virginia football team and the sports editor of the town's only daily newspaper had had their differences. Sportswriters knew it, university officials knew it and so did Gary Cramer's bosses, although they say it had nothing to do with what happened last week.
That was when 29-year-old Gary Cramer, the second generation of his family to write, edit and comment on sports for the Charlottesville Daily Progress, was fired, five hours after he finished writing an article critical of Dick Bestwick, coach of the Cavaliers.
Given the Cavaliers' 1-8 won-lost record this year, the article was timely. But by the time it appeared, the piece had been so heavily edited that Cramer refused to let it run under his name.
Progress managing editor Kerry W. Sipe said the disagreement was not over the content of the article but over Cramer's use of unattributed quotes in violation of Progress policy. Beyond that, both Sipes and Progress publisher William A. Kirkland Jr., refused to discuss Cramer's dismissal.
Given Cramer's longstanding problems with Bestwick and his sudden dismissal, the matter did not end there. The next day, two local radio stations called Cramer for interviews and a local weekly newspaper was after him for permission to run the original, unexpurgated story. Late last week, Cramer's firing had made the Richmond and Roanoke newspapers as sportswriters began to wonder whether their colleague had fallen victim to the political pressures inherent in writing about college sports in a college town.
"It's a very difficult situation to work in. In a college town, there are a lot of pressures to perform in a certain way," said Richmond Times-Dispatch sports editor Bill Millsaps. "I think Gary Cramer was trying to do an honest job in a difficult situation and eventually, it got to him."
No one, including Cramer, is charging that Bestwick had a direct hand in the firing. But the nagging suspicion lingers among Cramer's former colleagues that the running feud with Bestwick was a factor. "It was more like Chinese water torture," said Cramer, "A little bit at a time."
Cramer said his problems began when he became sports editor in 1978. He said Bestwick lectured him during a preseason interview about how a hometown paper should be more "rah-rah" about the team than papers in Richmond or Roanoke.
Bestwick conceded that he had complained to Cramer about his coverage "four or five years ago." But Cramer said Bestwick's complaints have been unrelenting. During the 1978 season, Cramer said Bestwick pulled him into his office, slammed the door, told him he needed psychological help and vowed to "kick my ass -- I remember the words."
Cramer said the coach went over his head to his bosses, a charge that Bestwick denied. "I don't tell them how to run their business and I don't expect them to tell me how to run mine," Bestwick said.
It was, said Cramer, a relationship that seemed to fluctuate with the team's performance. After the team's 31-0 victory over Georgia in 1978, Bestwick wrote the young editor a note, congratulating him for writing "the best piece" about the team.
But in 1980, the Cavaliers ended the year with a losing record and the old dispute about "objective" reporting was reborn. This year, after the Cavaliers lost their second game to Rutgers University, Cramer said he was called into the office of publisher Kirkland and told to soft-pedal negative stories about the football team.
Cramer apparently did step back from football coverage, dropping his Monday column and assigning one of his three reporters to cover away-from-home games. But this year, the team's troubles were hard to ignore. Around Charlottesville, where football fans still flock to games in record numbers, "Dump Dick" bumper stickers are spotted with increasing frequency. Letters to the editor at the Progress have argued that "Bestwick must go."