Jimmy Sharpe is a football coach in trouble. This is his fourth season at Virginia Tech and it is his worst. His team lost its last three games in 1976 . . . lost them when everyone expected victories and a trip to a sunny bowl game . . . and it won only one of its first six this season. At breakfast today, 10 hours before he would play mighty Kentucky, Sharpe said, "It wouldn't surprise me at all if we won tonight." A brave man talking. Or a foolish one?
This summer some newspapers printed stories suggesting a pattern of misbehavior. No substantiation was ever made and Sharpe said today, "Some of the things there was no truth to them at all.You ask the people I [WORD ILLEGIBLE] with day in and a day out. Don't ask someone who sees me once in six months."
A football coach in trouble is an idiot's favorite target. At Tennessee, the idiots sent a moving van to Bill Battle's house midway through the 1976 season. In the coach's front yard, they planted a "For Sale" sign. At Green Bay, Dan Devine's dog was poisoned. Here in Lexington, they taunted Charlie Bradshaw's family until his wife, Martha, wouldn't go to the grocery store. Idiots are everywhere, including Blacksburg, Va., home of Virginia Tech.
Rick Razzano, 21, a senior linebacker for Sharpe, offers vivid testimony. he said, sure, Tech has made a lot of mistakes this season. "It's just all the pressure that people have applied. Like at halftime two weeks ago, we're going off the field and some guy in the stands hollers some idiotic thing about coach Sharpe - about him drinking - and that distracts you. You hear something like that about your coach, your leader. You lose your concentration. And you, know the only reason the guy is saying it is because he's full of alcohol."
Razzano doesn't understand why his coach is in trouble. "We started out with our backs against the wall. People put us there. As soon as you lose a few games, the fans and press put a noose around the coach's neck. You can't imagine what coach Sharpe and his family have been through. And there's no reason for it. He's a great man. Great. He has more character than any man I've ever seen."
Has it affected his work with the team?
"No, he's always been a great coach. You can tell its hurts deep down, but he won't let it show."
Sharpe was a 185-pound offensive guard and defensive tackle for Bear Bryant's Alabama teams of the early 1960s. He coached Bryant's offensive lines for a dozen years until he took the Virginia Tech job. Like all of Bryant's players and coaches, Sharpe loves a struggle. Good thing.
"It's been a disappointing season," he said. "The circus atmosphere, the mess, the distractions, all that crap." He smiled. But there's nothing like a big fight to make you join together. The way I look at it, we're at halftime of this season - and we're got the second half to play. Our next three games are with teams in the Top 20 and 1'm tickled pink."ST"And you might say, 'He's gotta be crazy man.' We're fighters and Kentucky is gonna know tonight that Virginia Tech is in town. This season is yet before us."
What's past has been terrible. Tech funmbled 30 times in its first six games. It had 400 yards in penalties. It lost four starters with injuries before the season even began. And Sharpe said the Tech loyalists may have been expecting too much too soon, anyway.
"We're still in a rebuilding process," he said. "I inherited the worst football team in America. Out of 146 major colleges, it ranked 146th in defense against scoring the year before I took over. I was in the press box calling plays for Alabama and we beat Tech, 77-6. Tech was eat up with all types of internal problems."
Tech was 4-7 in Sharpe's first season, then 8-3 for its best record in 10 years. When Tech began the 1976 season winning six of eight games, the bowl talk started. It ended, though, with a home-field loss to Tulsa in what Sharpe calls "the most emotional game of my life - including all those national championships and bowl games at Alabama."
Tulsa scored twice after Tech botched its kicking game, needing to "drive" a total of six yards for two touchdowns that wiped out Tech leads and put Tulsa ahead 35-31 with 40 seconds to play.
Incredibly, Tech had one more chance to win, moving to the Tulsa six-yard line. But it fumbled the ball away.
"And people said, 'There goes our chance for a bowl game.' All of a sudden, people were spoiled. But we're a young team. We still are. We've only got six seniors this year. The future is ahead of us."
Like all football coaches in trouble, Sharpe says the future is ahead. The freshmen are wonderful, he said, and recruiting is great, especially in the important Nothern Virginia-Washington metropolitan area. And he says, "We're beginning to make this program great."
And, like all football coaches in trouble, Sharpe has seen others in trouble. His line coach at Alabama was Bradshaw, later a losing coach at Kentucky.
"Charlie's wife, Martha, is one of the world's great ladies," Sharpe said today. "But when I saw her, after the Kentucky job, I saw an old lady.
"Me, I've got Anne and she's beautiful girl, young and blonde. We've been dragged through hell this summer. My family, my players. But we've rallied together, to draw strength from each other. I tell you, I'm not going to let 'em kill my lady."