OK, so it’s rare (ha!) to catch the memory man with his memory down but it happens. Today’s offering starts with one of those I’ll bet you didn’t know segments. Then, in another trip down the lane frequented by old people, this octogenarian recalls someone he covered for three seasons and obviously didn’t know at all. This is Volume 38: “It Was a Setup from the Git Go”
I’ll bet you didn’t know Buster O’Brien, former University of Richmond quarterback and offensive MVP of the 1968 Tangerine Bowl, once sued a major television network for libel and settled for some big, BIG bucks. You didn’t? Neither did Chuck Boone, UR alumnus, former baseball star/coach and athletic director (1977-2000). Nor did a couple of other Spider alums who usually know anything and everything red and blue. “Come on,” one said. “Buster?”
Yes, William R. “Don’t Call Me Bill” O’Brien, 73, of the Virginia Beach O’Briens, former trial lawyer (25 years) and circuit court judge (21 years) now retired. It’s true. We were alerted by Richard Cullen, who wrote: “I represented Buster in his successful defamation suit against NBC after he lost the attorney general race in 1985. Most fun I ever had practicing law.”
Yes, that R. Cullen, 72, former CEO of local, well-healed law firm McGuireWoods. He wouldn’t kid a kidder, would he? Certainly not. The former college football great (just kidding) at Furman came to O’Brien’s assistance after NBC investigative reporter Dan Bode pretended to be his friend and proved to be anything but.
First, some background. In 1985 O’Brien ran for state AG against Mary Sue Terry, who already had some impressive first woman victories as a member of the House of Delegates (1978-86). It would have been, at best, a rocky road for O’Brien who, nevertheless, continues to insist “we thought we had a good shot … but nothing went right.”
Things began taking a turn for the worse when O’Brien’s campaign literature said he played with the team formerly known as Redskins as well as Canada’s Ottawa Rough Riders and NFL’s San Francisco 49ers. Drafted in the 17th round of the ‘69 draft by Denver, he opted to accept a $10,000 signing bonus from Ottawa where he was cut then joined the Redskins “for a couple of weeks.” From there, O’Brien spent a year and a half on the 49ers practice squad, appearing in one preseason game for one series. At that point he was attending William & Mary law school and decided to get on with his life.
It was a question of semantics. He played with the Skins every day in practice but, at best, it was an exaggeration written by a staff member that, in hindsight, should have been edited. Naturally, Terry’s campaign jumped all over it. Did it affect the outcome? Probably not. Terry, 73, also a UR graduate, blitzed everyone until she ran for governor in 1993 and lost to George Allen Jr.
“I kept telling people … I’ve been in competitive things all my life, and if you just keep playing, you’ll make a good play sooner or later,” O’Brien said. “We just never had a good play.”
Election day was still six months away when Bode called, requesting an interview. One of O’Brien’s pet projects was privatization of prisons. “We’re interested in your views,” he tells Buster. “Can you meet us at Mecklenburg where we can get some film of you there?” Cullen said. Talk about an ambush!
“They came down, got some shots of me going into the prison, and when we got outside, the first thing they asked was ‘Now about this thing with the Redskins,’” O’Brien recalled last week. “I told my people: ‘This isn’t going to come out well.’”
A couple of months later, on NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, there was O’Brien, featured with four others in a Bode-orchestrated segment on politicians who enhance their resumes, some of whom have gone to jail. “I was the last one shown, and they had a picture of me walking into [Mecklenburg] and the bars clanking behind me,” O’Brien said. “My grandmother, a little old lady living in North Carolina, actually thought I was being put in jail.”
The piece ends, said Cullen, “with the reporter [Bode] standing outside the barbed-wire fence … and says Buster O’Brien ‘could find himself with an all-expenses paid trip to a place like this.’”
After that, his bid for attorney general was all but guaranteed lost. “We found out later Bode was real close to some people in Mary Sue’s campaign. The whole thing was a set up from the git go. It was a bad situation … and I could not get away from it during the campaign,” said O’Brien, who also knew at that point he really didn’t want to be a politician after all.
He also was angry, and didn’t want to take it anymore. He discussed taking Bode and NBC to court with Cullen, an old friend. Then-McGuireWoods CEO, the late Robert H. Patterson Jr., gave the OK to represent O’Brien on a contingency basis, “and we began by talking to NBC — ‘let’s see if we can work something out,’” Cullen said, “ … and they looked down their noses at us, like we were some sort of country guys from Richmond, Va. So the boss says, ‘Let’s sue them.’”
They did in federal court in Norfolk, “and we started taking depositions,” Cullen said. “It was an uphill battle because Buster was a public figure, and we had to prove malice or it would be thrown out. Typically, defamation cases are tossed in summary judgment. They [defendants] had to know what they were doing was wrong.”
All Cullen and associates had to do was prove it. Good luck with that. Do you believe in miracles, Al Michaels. Yes!
In discovery, they deposed Bode, “who said they really were interested in privatization [of prisons] but ran out of space, something like that, I forget, but he lied,” Cullen said. Next up was one of the producers on the show, Tom Rutherford, a Washington & Lee alumnus (Class of ‘66). He didn’t lie. (Old George would have been proud.)
“He was under oath and couldn’t lie,” Cullen recalled. “He said, ‘Oh yeah, we knew we were going to Mecklenburg to [film] him in prison, and it had nothing to do with privatization.’ That ticked off the judge who said, ‘We’re going to trial.’ And [NBC] settled.”
Settlement of the suit, asking for $4 million, was finalized in November of 1986, more than a year after it was brought. Because of confidentiality requirements, neither Cullen or O’Brien will say for how much. “You can say it was in six figures,” the lawyer said, “which was a lot of money then.” Still is Richard, still is.
Bode eventually left NBC and, among many other things not directly related to TV, joined the faculty of Northwestern University. “I was told that [suit] basically was the end of his [network] career,” Cullen said. “He was a big deal.”
The Virginian-Pilot found out about the settlement and called O’Brien for a comment. “He asked us, ‘What should I say?’ and we said, tongue in cheek, ‘Tell them you had great lawyers,’” Cullen said. “Lo and behold, that’s what he said. It was part of the headline. My partner [Bill Boland] has it framed.”
Post-scripts … Among the witnesses deposed on behalf of O’Brien were former UR and Redskins punter Mike Bragg, Varina High School/University of North Carolina and 49ers running back Ken Willard, and SF quarterback and 1970 NFL MVP John Brodie. After football, Brodie joined the senior golf tour, and Cullen and friends made first contact during a tournament at Hermitage Country Club and finally got their sworn statement from him during a tour stop in California.
“He said, ‘Buster WAS my teammate,’” Cullen said. Versatile Steve Spurrier was the No. 2 QB. “Brodie said if Spurrier couldn’t punt, Buster would have dressed for a number of games.”
… Lest we forget, Cullen did play football at Furman, “mostly on the bench.” He recalled the Paladins upset over Richmond in 1970, keeping the Spiders out of the Tangerine Bowl. “Of course, I didn’t get in the game.”
The cast of McGuireWoods characters, besides Cullen, were Boland, who played football at VMI and has the bad knees to prove it, and Thomas Spahn (no relation to Hall of Fame lefthander Warren Spahn). Talk to them a little bit, and you quickly understand how much fun these then-30-somethings really had defending O’Brien. NBC (and Bode) never had a chance.
Prior to the 1978-79 basketball season, when UR hired Lou Goetz off Bill Foster’s staff at Duke, the question was: “Lou, Who?” Three undistinguished years later, he left suddenly in mid-summer, best known for slogans “Running Like Never Before” followed by “Running Better than Ever.” We covered the Spiders then but never really got to know Goetz. Our bad based on the overpowering outpouring of sentiment from former college teammates, players, coaches and just plain friends on his death Jan. 19 from cancer at age 74. They obviously have/had genuine appreciation and love for Goetz.
After seasons of 10-16, 13-14 and 15-14, he walked away, inexplicably, without telling anyone including his players. No team meeting, nothing. “Like everyone, I was shocked,” said Michael Perry, the Spiders’ leading scorer. You would think he was angry then and might still be now. Well, you would be wrong.
“He was a good guy … like my high school [Thomas Jefferson] coach Dave Robbins … a visionary in a lot of ways,” Perry said from his home in Greenville, N.C..last week. “He looked at people far beyond what they saw in themselves … and challenged them to dream big and think bigger.”
And Perry told a story about a former teammate now broadcasting icon of 34 years in Philadelphia. Seems Goetz asked Ukee Washington to help with his coach’s show on Channel 6 here. That led to a job as sportscaster at WTVR, which led him to stations in Fort Myers, Fla., and Atlanta before joining KYW/CBS 3 in his birthplace, once known as the City of Brotherly Love.
Washington, 62, currently is co-anchor of the station’s Eye Witness nightly news and, in 2017, was named a “living legend” by city council during its Black History Month celebration.
“Ukee told me, ‘I’m not sitting at this desk as an anchor in Philadelphia if it wasn’t for Lou Goetz,’” Perry said. “He was totally committed to developing people off the floor as he was on the floor … culturally and academically as well as athletically.”
Boone had been athletic director for little more than a year when he fired UR alumnus Carl Slone following a disastrous 4-22 season. It was Boone’s first major hire (“The toughest part of the job,” he said), and the heat was on. He prefers not to talk about everything that went into the selection, but I knew the faculty as well as administrators were, shall we say, concerned by some violations of school policy by several athletes, football as well as basketball.
Without being told officially, Boone was mandated to find someone, as he put it, “who could recruit kids who would meet our academic standards … [and] how he feels athletics fit in with the overall mission of the university.”
Of course, that was in addition to knowing hoops, having a good personality, with a track record of success … blah-blah-blah. Boone said he talked to “four or five others” about the opening but, to this day, won’t identify them. (“I never do.”) OK, but we do know one — probably his first choice — was Charlie Moir. He was the Virginia Tech coach at the time and definitely was interested in coming here but, in the end, decided another move would not be good for his school-age children.
Goetz had played for Foster at Rutgers then coached with him at Utah before going to Duke. In 1977-78 the Blue Devils reached the NCAA’s championship game. Foster called Boone about Goetz. So did Tom Butters, the Duke AD. “And Lou was very impressive in the interview.” Boone said.
Just like that, Goetz got the Richmond job. One of the first people he met was John Averett, who had been Slone’s assistant for one year and was still getting a check from the athletic department.
“I went to pick him up at the hotel … and right away he began asking me questions … like who had we been recruiting? Then he asked if I would help him until he got a staff,” Averett said. “I thought that was unusual for someone coming in and talking to someone he was replacing. I liked him right away.”
For a few weeks, Averett worked the northeast while Goetz concentrated on a most-wanted from Manassas (who ultimately went elsewhere). “Later, I gained a lot of respect for him,” Averett said. “He was a good guy … and smart. He knew when it was time to get out.”
Perry kept in touch with Goetz off and on over the last 40 years but “I didn’t know he had cancer. I don’t think too many people did,” said Perry, who has been a coach including stops as boss at Georgia State and East Carolina. “You know, he got me to see beyond basketball … and the value of a being an educated young man.”
By the way … I’ll bet you didn’t know UR could have had Monte Knight and Edmund Sherod on the same team with Perry. They were big buddies in high school “and we dreamed about playing in college together,” Perry said.
Knight was Perry’s teammate at Teejay while Sherod was a high-scoring guard at John Marshall. Goetz didn’t want Knight, who was a year behind Perry, “because he was a 6-2 center as a senior,” Averett said — and Perry confirmed. A bright young man who hadn’t taken academics seriously, Sherod wasn’t recruited by Richmond.
So, what happened? Knight and Sherod became teammates at VCU and had integral roles on the school’s first team to qualify for the NCAA tournament in 1980. Knight (1978-82) was a 6-2 guard who scored 1,549 career points. He died in 2015 of cancer at age 54.
Sherod became arguably the best point guard in VCU hoops history, dishing out a then-record 582 assists (1977-81). He spent a season with the NBA New York Knicks and has coached in the area since then. Now 61, he is the grandfather of UR’s Nick Sherod.
You can only imagine what Perry, Knight and Sherod would have done together at Richmond.
Until next time ...
Jerry Lindquist can be reached
by email at email@example.com.