Under Jerry Claiborne, the Virginia Tech football team liked to run the ball.
But under Charlie Coffey, the Hokies took to the air.
Coffey, who was Tech’s head coach from 1971-73, died Monday night in hospice care at his farm in Shelbyville, Tennessee, at the age of 81.
He had been suffering from stomach cancer and gall bladder cancer for four years, his daughter Cindi Johnson said Tuesday.
The Hokies had a pass-happy offense during Coffey’s reign. Their starting quarterback for the 1971 and 1972 seasons was Don Strock, who had a long NFL career after earning third-team All-America honors as a Tech senior.
“We brought some excitement to the football team and he was the guy behind it,” Strock said of Coffey in a phone interview Tuesday. “He was a good guy to play for.”
Strock threw for 2,577 yards in 1971 and 3,243 yards in 1972. His 1972 total remains the school single-season record. Strock led the nation in both passing yards and total offense in 1972.
“We were arrogant. Everybody knew we were going to throw — it didn’t make any difference,” former Tech receiver Ricky Scales said with a laugh. “We were in Sports Illustrated. We were a three-ring circus.”
Strock threw for 527 yards in a 1972 tie with Houston; that total remains the Tech single-game record.
Coffey was a defensive line coach for Tennessee, his alma mater, and the defensive coordinator for Frank Broyles at Arkansas before becoming the Hokies’ coach. Coffey succeeded the late Jerry Claiborne, who had left to take over at Maryland.
“It was a very big culture change for Virginia Tech,” Scales said of Coffey and his staff taking over. “They were used to winning.”
The Hokies went 4-7 in Coffey’s first season. The team’s offensive coordinator was Dan Henning, who later became an NFL and college head coach.
Tech improved to 6-4-1 in 1972, including a 34-32 upset of No. 19 Oklahoma State.
Mike Burnop, now the Hokies’ radio analyst, played tight end for Coffey as a junior and senior. Burnop had 46 catches as a junior in 1971 — a total which stood as the Tech single-season record until 2002.
Scales, a Martinsville High School graduate, was a standout wide receiver for Coffey. Scales had 43 catches as a Tech sophomore in 1972 and 36 catches in 1973.
“I was catching 60- and 70-yard TDs,” Scales said. “Lane Stadium was hopping.”
Scales said Coffey was there for him after Scales’ father committed suicide during Scales’ freshman year.
“I had a special relationship with Coach Coffey,” Scales said. “Coach took over as my dad. … A lot of people thought he was a hard-ass [but] he was the kindest person.”
Without Strock, the Hokies dropped to 2-9 in 1973.
Coffey resigned in January 1974 — just two days after Billy Clay, the defensive coordinator he had hired only weeks before, resigned to return to the University of South Carolina.
Coffey’s resignation shocked the Tech administration and Coffey’s staff, The Roanoke Times wrote that month.
Coffey, who was replaced by Jimmy Sharpe, had the freedom at Tech to spend as much as he wanted on the program.
“Coffey spent and spent and spent,” Bill Cate of The Roanoke Times wrote in January 1974. “Sharpe will not need to spend the money Coffey did. The orange carpet, the new offices, the new weight room and all the other extras are already there. It is easy to knock Coffey but when he went to Tech it was a picture of backwoods football. Regardless of the record, it is backwoods no more.”
Strock said Coffey “did an awful lot” for his players.
“He spruced up Hillcrest [Hall], put all the football players in there, and we had our own dining hall,” Strock said. “He wanted to make everything upscale, and I think he did a great job of that.
“He was a guy who was kind of a pioneer of … remodeling a lot of things around the football program.”
Burnop said Coffey had a knack for marketing.
“He was before his time in terms of some of the stuff he did, kind of getting the excitement back in Lane Stadium — the checkerboard end zones and the orange jerseys,” Burnop said.
After leaving Tech at the age of 39, Coffey never coached again. He returned to his hometown of Shelbyville and devoted himself to the trucking business. In 1981, Coffey founded his own trucking and warehouse company, Nationwide Express.
Coffey is survived by his wife of almost 60 years, Mai Coffey; four children; 10 grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
“He was challenging and motivating as a dad,” Johnson said. “We laughed a lot. It was hard for us when he was disciplining us to not laugh.”
His funeral will be held Saturday in Shelbyville.