Virginia icon Sonny Randle passes away at the age of 81

Sonny Randle made it very difficult not to like him. The former Virginia player and coach who died Tuesday at age 81 felt like a friend to many in the Commonwealth, particularly in Central Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley, most of whom never actually met him.

After Randle’s move into broadcasting later in life, even Virginia Tech Hokie fans would have a hard time not smiling when his welcoming, unmistakable sing-song voice came on the radio, signing off each time “Until our next visit … this is … Sonny Randle sayin’… soooooooooo long everybody.”

Randle grew up north of Charlottesville near Culpeper. He didn’t even play football until his senior year of high school and joined the Cavaliers program as a walk-on after originally enrolling at VMI. But he became a star wide receiver and kick returner at UVA, leading the ACC in all-purpose yards in 1958 before becoming a four-time NFL Pro Bowler in the 1960s.

His coaching career was more varied. After winning two Southern Conference titles at East Carolina, he returned to UVA in 1974 as head coach but won just five games in two seasons before he was let go.

Coaching at one’s alma mater can be a difficult thing. Only two men have done it at UVA since 1922, and both were fired. Al Groh’s tenure ended in bitterness with the patriarch of a once beloved Cavalier family more or less estranged from the university.

Randle, who also later coached Marshall, simply moved on. If he held any kind of grudge against his school, he didn’t show it. In turn, an unsuccessful stint as head coach didn’t keep the Virginia community from embracing him the rest of his life.

“He was so loyal to the people who were loyal to him,” former UVA play-by-play announcer and Randle friend Mac McDonald said. “He just made sure whatever loyalty he got 10 fold. Anytime I needed anything I could pick up the phone and he’d help. He would never really tell me stories about himself, but he’d spend all day talking up his friends.”

The transition into full-time broadcasting brought him back to the region where he lived just over the mountain from Dear Old UVA and was a near constant presence on the airwaves.

Younger Virginians might only have known Randle as the funny old guy on the radio. Ahead of his time as a speed-burner wide receiver, he was decidedly old school as a broadcaster, coming on in his later years to offer a minute of wit and insight about whatever the big sports story of the day happened to be. It was like listening to a kindly grandfather explain what sports used to be like, and how they ought to be.

So, until our next visit, Sonny. So long from everybody.