What we know is that Jimmy Sharpe, as football coach at Virginia Tech, was said to have been intoxicated while addressing football fans at a public meeting in Roanoke before the season started. We also know that Sharpe denied the accusation time and again. And now we know that Sharpe has been fired after his team won only three of 11 games.
Marking the announcement Monday, William Lavery, the university president, said only that Sharpe did not fit the Tech image. He would say no more. It was left to vivid imaginations to dream up a definition of the Tech image. Perhaps Tech is best served by a coach in monk's robes. in which case Lavery will spend much of the next century in search of a suitable successor to a man called "a very fine coach, a very fine gentleman."
Bear Bryant said those words yesterday. Bear Bryant invented college football when William Lavery was in Sunday school. Jimmy Sharpe, 37, was a fierce, 180-pound guard of Bryant at Alabama in the late 1950s and then worked as an assistant coach for the master for 11 years.
Tech has fired coaches before. Jerry Claiborne. a certified genius. was canned at Tech in 1970, two years after being promised a lifetime job. Pronounced dead by Tech., Claiborne now has taken Maryland to five straight bowl games. In 1973, Tech fired Claiborne's successor, Chuck Coffey, and someone called Bear Bryant for help.
"I was highly flattered when Virginia Tech asked me to recomment someone," Bryant said yesterday.
Bryant recommended Jimmy Sharpe.
"He was the second one I'd recommended to Tech. Jerry Claiborne was the first one."
A wry chuckle moved along the telephone line. "I don't imagine they'll want any more of my recommendations."
Unless Knute Rockne comes down from the Golden Dome in the Sky to tap a guy on the shoulder, a recommendation from Bear Bryant is the best you can get. And Sharpe seemed worthy of it. Taking Coffey's leftovers, Sharpe went 4-7 his first season and then 8-3. Three straight losses at the end of '76 left Tech at 6-5 when a bowl invitation seemed likely.
It was then, some people say, that Sharpe first was in trouble. They say Tech's football hangerson, the money men, are incredibly impatient. They say Claiborne was fired midway in his last season because Tech had lost its first five games and it made no difference that his team won five of its last six. The money men had decided and Claiborne was gone.
So with those three straight losses ruining a wonderful reason in 1976. Jimmy Sharpe was in trouble and the Roanoke incident gave the money men the wedge of moral superiority they needed to move him out - to move him out, that is, if he didn't win a whole bunch of games. Winning a whole bunch of games is the best way to keep on coaching if people think you drink too much.
Adolph Rupp could tell you that. He's the old Kentucky coach who invented basketball and then won four national championships and 6 zillion games. "Gawddamn, sure. I have a touch now and then," Rupp once said. "The fellows on the end of the bench, they even bring me bottles at Thanksgiving and Christmas. They have this idea they call elevate their status that way.
Beer Bryant also could tell you that winning leaves money men enamored of the coach's hangovers. Bryant's Alabama teams have won four national championships and have earned 19 straight Bowl invitations. In a remarkable interview with Edwin Pope of the Miami Herald last month, Bryant confessed he often drank.
Pope said Bryant, 63, called his team together and told the players, in effect. "I can't stop you from drinking and I can't say it's bad for everybody, but I'm changing my habits." Pope wrote that friends of Bryant said the coach has had only three drinks since January.
"I found out from experts what drinking did to me," Bryant told Pope. "But I'm not preaching. When I was younger. I was so highstrung I might have gone crazy if I couldn't have had a few drinks. Now they just make me silly and I don't want to be silly."
"We didn't care if coach Sharpe did drink." said Mickey Fitzgerald, a sophomore fullback from Lynchburg who became Tech's running star in late season. "It didn't affect his relationship with the players or the way he did the job."
What Fitzgerald can't understand is the behavior of Lavery. the Tech president.
"He talked to whole team right before the Kentucky game (Tech's seventh game of the season. When the team was 1-4-1 and Sharpe was under fire)." Fitzgerald said. "And Lavery told us we had nothing to worry about. Our impression was that he was saying coach Sharpe wouldn't be fired."
So when Monday's announcement came. Fitzgerald and his teammates demanded an audience with Lavery. They wanted to know what the Kentucky speech meant, and they wanted to know what the "image" thing meant.
"He said he was sorry we got that impression that coach Sharpe wouldn't be fired. That's not what he meant. he said. As for 'image.' he evaded the question. He's a politician and he's a fundraiser. Our feeling is the the alumni who put money into the football program demanded Lavery get rid of the coach."
Was Fitzgerald surprised by the university president's remarks?
"We weren't born yesterday," said Fitzgerald, 19. "We know about the political situation here. where the money comes from. We've seen politics in action before, from the highest office in the land, from the President of the United States down to the president of Virginia Tech. Nixon and Watergate; it happens all the time."
The Virginia Tech athletic director. Frank Moseley, who announced his retirement the day after Sharpe was fired. said yesterday that no taxpayer money or school funds will be used to pay off the four years remaining on Sharpe's contract.
"It will hurt some to pay off the contract. It's burdensome, but that's business." Moseley said. Sharpe's contract is believed worth $120,000 for the four years.
Themoney men have spoken. Again.