Bill Millsaps was a dad, husband, writer, editor, athlete — and a mentor to so many. Here are just a few stories we heard from the countless people he touched during his 77 years — some funny, some poignant, but all of them Saps.
‘A reputation for being amazing’
Last year marked the 30th anniversary of the World Series interrupted by an earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area. Bill Millsaps was there. He called in a front-page column from a pay phone. I took the dictation. How does a newspaper writer earn a reputation for being amazing? With opening paragraphs like this one, composed word by word as 62,000 fans emptied into parking lots around him:
At first, I thought I was dizzy. Then I realized it wasn’t me. It was Candlestick Park.
— Tom Silvestri, retired Richmond Times-Dispatch president and publisher
One of the best
If I had a Mount Rushmore of career influences, he’d be on it.
— Mike Harris, longtime News Leader and RTD sports reporter and sports editor from 2006 to 2008
Saps was one of the great ones, both as a journalist and as a person. He ranks at the top of my list of people who shaped my career at The Times-Dispatch.
— Jack Berninger, who spent 37 years at the News Leader and Times-Dispatch, including sports editor from 1995 to 2006
‘A true pro’
Bill Millsaps was my boss, mentor and friend from the time I came to work for the Times-Dispatch in 1978 until he retired in 2005. He remained my friend. My last, fond memory of him is of him, Nancy, Karen and me watching the UVA-Auburn semifinal game of the NCAA men’s basketball championship last year. Saps, a true pro who never rooted for anybody’s team, allowed himself to be a fan for an evening. He was the most important and beloved person in my 44-year career in journalism.
— Howard Owen, author and former Times-Dispatch deputy managing editor and sports editor
‘What can I do to help?’
Back in the early ‘80s, I think, there was a flu virus going around and the T-D sports department was short-handed. Saps, the sports editor at the time, said, “What can I do to help?”
Go to Highland Springs and cover this basketball game, he was told.
He got a long legal pad, drove to Highland Springs and covered the game on a Friday night.
— Paul Woody, retired Times-Dispatch sports columnist
‘Four Corner’ joke
Saps and I covered the NCAA East Regional in March 1975 in the Providence (RI) Civic Center. We were there to cover — he for the RTD, me for the News Leader — Dean Smith’s UNC team, which played Syracuse in the regional semifinal. (Syracuse won 78-76.)
With a large group of writers from other papers, we went to dinner one night at an outstanding Italian restaurant in Providence’s Federal Hill neighborhood. Must have been at least a dozen of us. We consumed a river of alcohol and a mountain of food, so a ton of cash was going to be required to pay the bill.
It so happened that Dean Smith and his entourage were dining in the same restaurant. The two groups acknowledged one another with waves and smiles. When we asked our waiter for the check, he informed us that a gentleman with the other group had paid our bill. We went to Dean’s table and thanked him profusely.
In the taxi on the way back to our hotel, Saps and I jokingly agreed that Dean Smith now owned us, and our UNC basketball stories from now on would have to be positive.
“Yeah,” I said. “After a UNC loss I’ll probably write: With two minutes to play and Carolina trailing by 8, Dean Smith wisely went to the Four Corner offense.”
Saps’ laughter was a roar loud enough to be heard in Boston.
— Steve Clark, retired Times-Dispatch columnist and staff writer
‘A master storyteller’
I was honored to get to know Saps over the last few years. With Joe’s Inn as our meeting place, and good company with [managing editor] Mike Szvetitz, it was just old school storytelling by a master storyteller. So many of those stories centered on press rooms and press boxes at some of the world’s largest events with some of the greatest sports writers ever, and Saps was in the middle of all of it. I always left our get-togethers, which we called “Beers and Lies” with a deeper appreciation for him and the profession he loved so much.
— Dennis Bickmeier, president of Richmond Raceway
A giant of sports writing
I was saddened to hear of Bill’s passing. When I was DL coach at Virginia in the early ’70s, Bill covered our team. Coaches and writers enjoyed a different relationship in those days, so I got to know Bill as a friend. We were of the same age and starting our careers, so it was a very natural relationship and friendship. From that point on, I always knew of his integrity, honesty, fairness and professionalism.
When I was with the Patriots, I was fortunate to develop a deep friendship with the great Will McDonough. I am privileged to have enjoyed the company of these two giants of sports writing.
... Bill was such a genuine and talented man, I’d be honored to add a few words to his legacy. Shortly after I came back to Virginia, I had lunch with Bill in Richmond. I recall him saying that he appreciated why he had been put in executive roles, but he really missed covering sports and the participants. At heart he was a sports writer, and a great one.”
— Al Groh, former UVA football coach
When I was working at the NCAA in the 1970s, the RTD was part of our newspaper clip service, so I had the chance to read and marvel at Bill’s work long before I met him. When I moved to Richmond in 1985 to start the CAA, one of my first visits was to meet Bill, and this genuine sports icon welcomed this neophyte commissioner with open arms. We remained professional and personal friends for 35 years. Rest in peace, Saps.
— Tom Yeager, former Colonial Athletic Association commissioner
A gift that kept giving
My father used to read The Times-Dispatch sports section at the breakfast table when I was growing up. I sat across from him, straining to read the stories upside down.
Bill Millsaps’ column often was on the front page in my teenage years. It didn’t matter how you read him — upside down or right side up — he had such a gift for words and telling stories that if you were interested in sports you made every effort to read.
In a 1998 tribute after the death of his friend Jim Murray, Saps wrote this:
“It’s a baseball truism that if you want to raise your batting average, you shorten your swing. Choke up on the bat. Hit the ball where it’s pitched. Put the ball in play. Go for singles.
“In his chosen line of work, sports journalism, Jim Murray was down at the end of the bat every time up at the plate. He swung from the heels with everything that was in him on every pitch. He intended to hit a 500-foot grand slam and leave his readers gasping, in either laughter or tears. If he were going to fail, he was determined to fail nobly. Even so, his batting average was extraordinarily high, and his death Monday morning, at the age of 78, robbed American journalism of a singular voice. If he was not the greatest American sports writer, he was, in my view, at least in the photo with Red Smith and Blackie Sherrod.”
Make room in the picture.
— Tim Pearrell, News Leader and RTD sports writer, 1983-present