Gene Corrigan: we may never see another like him come our way again

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you would like to read more about the life and times of Gene Corrigan, we feature a three-part series on his years as athletic director at both Virginia and Notre Dame in addition to his era as commissioner of the ACC. All of that appears on this site along with a 73-minute podcast that I did with “The “Commish” a couple of years ago, which I believe was his last sit-down interview.

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Gene CorriganNothing captured the spirit of Eugene Francis Corrigan better than his final farewell on Saturday at Church of the Incarnation in Charlottesville.

Hundreds jammed every nook and cranny to enjoy a brilliant homily by Rev. Michael Suarez, S.J., who touched on all of Corrigan’s achievements with a waggish flair. Rev. Suarez noted how Corrigan absolutely loved being inducted into halls of fame — and he in fact was a member of four of those — but that in Corrigan’s aw-shucks nature, he always accepted with an, “I can’t believe you want little ol’ me in your hall.”

The summation of Corrigan’s amazing life was followed by eulogies by all seven of his children, who obviously inherited his sense of humor, as they merrily described growing up Corrigan under Gene and their “rock-star” mother, Lena. Collectively they totaled nine cars, the leader in the clubhouse being Kevin, the longtime lacrosse coach at Notre Dame.

We should all be as fortunate as to have a grand farewell, a true celebration of life as the 91-year-old former athlete, coach, athletic director, commissioner.

Many more friends and admirers attended the wake the night before at Charlottesville Catholic School, something the Corrigans helped create and enhance.

At the wake, family members and insiders saluted him with a verse of the Corrigan song, and one of his favorite songs, “High Hopes.”

Several of his values and philosophies were shared by the children, including one of Corrigan’s favorites: “It’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than open it an remove all doubt.”

Most of Corrigan’s achievements have been documented in a three-part series and a 73-minute podcast archived on this site for your pleasure. During the weekend, we asked as many folks as we could catch up with to share a favorite story or memory of the “Commish.” Rather than attempt to interview all those into a much longer story, we believe it would be more effective to allow them to tell those in their own words.

Here are those stories:

JOHN FEINSTEIN, writer/author:

“The first time I met him, I was the night police reporter for the (Washington) Post, but I was moonlighting doing sports stuff and they sent me down to Virginia to do a story on (football coach) Dick Bestwick. I went to see Dick and back to (sports information director) Barney Cooke’s office. Gene was sitting in Barney’s office when I walked in, and he said, ‘Gene, I’d like you to meet John Feinstein.’

I said, ‘Mr. Corrigan, it’s a pleasure to meet you.’

And he says, ‘Oh John, I’m so glad you walked in right now. Do you mind getting me some coffee?’

I said, ‘No, what do you take in it?’

And Barney goes, ‘Gene, John is down here working on a piece on Dick for the Washington Post.’

Gene goes white. He said, ‘John I’m so sorry,’ and I said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m 21 and look 18.’ He thought I was an intern or a student assistant.

A couple of hours later I’m sitting in an empty office working on the story on Dick, and Gene walks in with a cup of coffee. He said, ‘I brought you cream and sugar because I don’t know what you take in it, but I figured you could use it right now.’

We joked about it for years. Whenever one of us would walk into a room, the other would ask for coffee.

The other story I love and that a lot of people know was when Rick Barnes and Dean Smith were having their big thing. Finally, Gene called them both to his house. Dean came with film to show how dirty Clemson was, and Rick came with film showing how dirty Carolina was.

Gene said, ‘We are not looking at any film. This is the press release we’re putting out tomorrow and you’re both saying how much you respect each other, and that’s the end of it.

If you’re asked about Rick, you think he’s a great coach. If you’re asked about Dean, you think he’s a great coach. OK, let’s have a drink.’”

More Feinstein… “I went up to Notre Dame in 1984 to do a story on how Gerry Faust was failing (as football coach). They’re playing Miami and they’re getting crushed.

I see Digger Phelps (Irish basketball coach) and Digger says, ‘It has gotten so bad that we can’t even bring in basketball recruits for football weekends.’

Next day, I saw Gene and told him what Digger said. Well Gene didn’t like Digger, and through clenched teeth, he went, ‘There have been years when we couldn’t bring football recruits to basketball games. Tell the bishop — that’s what he always called Digger — I said that.’”

LARRY KEECH, retired writer Greensboro:

“I don’t think Gene was a fan of Vic Bubas (former Duke basketball coach and later commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference). During a conversation I had with him one day, and I said, ‘Well, Vic Bubas said thinks such-and-such and does such-and-such.’

Gene said, ‘Vic Bubas? He’s just a polack from Gary, Indiana, whose real name is Bubbalakowski!’”

DAVE ODOM, former basketball coach, Wake Forest/South Carolina/East Carolina/Virginia:

“I was going through a particularly tough stretch of games one year (at Wake) and I got too involved with officials, let’s put it that way. We weren’t losing, but it was just a hard stretch.

I got a call one day and my secretary said that Fred Barakat wants to talk to you. (Barakat oversaw ACC basketball officials). I said, ‘Oh geesh.’ I answered and said, ‘Fred, I know, I know.’

Fred replied, ‘Dave, we’ve got someone else on the line, too.’ Mr. Corrigan was on the other line.

The end result from Gene was, ‘You’re doing a good job, you’ve got a good team, just coach your team and let the officials do their job.’ Coach your team. I never forgot that.”

More Odom… “When you think about Gene, he was a great coach, a great administrator, a great friend, just a great person. But he had a keen eye for what was right at the moment. Every year we had the ACC meetings at either Myrtle Beach or down in Florida, the first minute we got off the plane and the bags were in the lobby, everyone wanted a piece of Gene. Coaches wanted to know where they should go, what do we do, what’s the schedule. He didn’t want to deal with that, so as soon as he got there, he would go straight to another big room and all the coaches’ wives would meet him in there. He would have a big picture made with all the wives and his wife, Lena. The women loved him. My wife, Lynn, has that picture hanging in our house.”

TERRY HOLLAND, retired head coach Virginia, AD at UVA/ECU/Davidson (hired by Corrigan at UVA):

“He was a good man who did everything he could for his own family, and families of those around him. Just a great human being. We will miss him.”

When Corrigan hired Holland as basketball coach, he had never met the former Davidson player, who was then coaching as an assistant at Davidson.

Holland visited UVA, and with the two standing at The Lawn, Corrigan said, “What do you think? Do you want the job?”

Holland said, “Are you offering the job?”

Corrigan said, “OK, it’s yours.”

Holland said, “Just like that?”

Corrigan said, “Just like that.”

TODD TURNER, former sports information director, marketing director, assistant AD at Virginia; former AD at NC State, UConn, Vanderbilt; presently founder and president of Collegiate Sports Associates, an executive search and consulting firm:

“So the ‘Variety Store’ was a little lunch spot right across Alderman Road from University Hall. We would go over there and have a cheese sandwich and a bowl of tomato soup or something.

Invariably, Corrigan would come by office in the little ticket office and say, ‘Hey, you wanna go to lunch?’ Sure I would want to go with the AD. He would almost always have mustard on his tie.

George and Doc, who ran the little Variety Store, Gene would get a hot dog or something, and would get to the cash register and started reaching in his pockets and say, ‘Oh man, you guys got any money? I left my wallet in the office. I don’t have any money.’

I’d jab, ‘Aren’t you the AD? I work in the ticket office.’ And we all loved it because that was just Gene. He was such a genuine fun guy that made people feel like they mattered.

AL GROH, former head football coach New York Jets, Virginia, Wake Forest, longtime NFL assistant, former UVA football and lacrosse player, now currently with ESPN and Westwood One:

“Gene Corrigan was the athletic director that every coach wished they had, but only a few did. He truly understood where coaches were coming from because he had been one.

While Gene may have gone on to be a great athletic director and commissioner, he never stopped being a coach. He loved his time as a coach and as an administrator, he kept coaching us all from a different point of view.”

DOUG ELGIN, former Virginia sports information director and in his 32nd year as commissioner of the Missouri Valley Conference:

“When I was a student at Lafayette, we beat Virginia in the NIT in 1972. Eight years later, I was the SID at Lafayette and we went to Virginia when Ralph Sampson was a freshman. That’s when I met Gene Corrigan. He spent time with my party of my people in a hospitality room at the old Cavalier Inn.

At that time, Todd Turner was moving to promotions and marketing and I was fortunate enough to get the SID job. What I loved about Gene, no pretenses, one of the most humble people you’d ever meet, just humble and that’s why you see this kind of a turnout.

I knew him longer as a colleague commissioner as a boss/AD. He was just one of my most important mentors throughout my life. Just a man that was kind and genuine, but tough when he needed to be. I can honestly say I don’t know that there’s anyone I respected more than Gene Corrigan.”

JOHN HEISLER, Senior associate athletics director and former sports information director at Notre Dame where he has spent the past 39 years:

“When Gene started as athletic director at Notre Dame, women’s sports were just getting started. We weren’t anywhere near where Notre Dame is now in terms of offering scholarships in all these other sports. I remember our baseball team had one scholarship, that’s it, it was basically a walk-on program.

Notre Dame wasn’t playing a national schedule (in baseball), wasn’t recruiting nationally. It just wasn’t anything like that.

There was a midweek baseball game against a regional institution and Gene’s reaction was, ‘I am thinking that our Notre Dame baseball players didn’t wake up this morning thinking, boy, I can’t wait to play this game against School X.’

He figured, ‘If you’re coming to Notre Dame — doesn’t matter what sport it is — we ought to be able to do something more meaningful than where we are now.’

You don’t change all that in one day. Maybe it takes a couple of athletic directors to advance that, but I thought Gene’s perception was so great. That was the beginning of a big transition in South Bend from thinking you had a couple of programs with scholarships (football and basketball) to what it became. Now you’re giving every scholarship you can give. It all started with Gene.”

IRWIN SMALLWOOD, former reporter and editor Greensboro News and Record from 1947-1989:

“Those seven eulogies of his kids told the story of his life and I certainly hope that was recorded.

He was one of the three or four most intellectually honest guys I ever met in athletics, and I’ve met a few. He was an extraordinary man.

Jim Weaver (former ACC commissioner) and I were great friends and I see a lot of Jim Weaver in Gene. Jim was very quiet and wise, while Gene was an occasionally loud wise man. When he opened his mouth, something worth listening to usually came out.

When he first came to work for Weaver in the ACC service bureau, my wife was his secretary for a while because he needed someone who knew what was going on in ACC sports. It was such a wonderful time. You don’t find many like Gene.”

RICK CHRYST, former commissioner of the Mid-American Conference, assistant commissioner of the ACC and Southwest Conference, presently senior vice president of Dietz Trott Sports & Entertainment/ brother of Wisconsin head football coach Paul Chryst:

“We were in the old ACC office and had a big conference room. We had some great ADs in the conference in those days and we were getting ready to extend our TV deal, so Raycom comes in and that meeting goes great, then we move on to NCAA legislation and no one wanted to talk about that at all.

So Gene started to get frustrated, the sun is coming through the window, and when he would get really focused, he would turn to (Duke AD) Tom Butters. They had a great relationship.

During this NCAA legislation type, no one is talking. No one.

Gene finally goes, ‘Tom, Tom, what do you think?’

Well, for the previous 15 minutes, [Georgia Tech AD] Homer Rice has been out like a light, just dead asleep. So Butters paused like he liked to do and said, ‘I agree with Homer.’

The meeting shuts down.

So that became sort of a thing over the years, ‘I agree with Homer.’”

More Chryst… “When I first got to the ACC, Tom Mickle (assistant commissioner) told me not to ever schedule a lunch because you never know when Corrigan may pull you in. He would pull us into his office and start talking.

Soon, you’d realize that what he was talking about was going to happen three weeks from now, six months from now. You just got the sense that you were seeing it before it happened.

Everyone trusted him. People didn’t always agree with him, but they trusted him. All of us that worked for him then knew it was a special time. A lot of good stuff was happening.”

RALPH “ACE” HARRISON: former UVA and high school football coach, Hall of Fame official:

“He was the lacrosse coach and a sports information guy when I met him. He lived right down the street from me and Bob Sandell back then.

He was very good for athletics at Virginia and the ACC. He came up with the Corrigan Report, which changed UVA athletics forever. He was just a great man.”

BOO CORRIGAN, athletic director at NC State, formerly AD at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, baby of the seven children, and arguably his mother’s favorite:

“The lifelong path that he was on, his own journey, when you look back on it, the journey was because he was Gene Corrigan. The way he got the jobs was because he was Gene Corrigan.

It was more about, ‘I really like him, he’s a guy I can follow, he’s a guy that I want to be around.’ That’s how he ended up where he did.

He didn’t have a plan, like, ‘By the time I’m 30, I want to be this,’ or, ‘When I’m 40, I’m this.’ That was never part of who he is. It was all about being the best he could be at that moment, whatever the moment was.

It’s a little bit like the Forrest Gump movie, when Forrest is running and two people are following them, then 10 people. At the end of it, there was hundreds following him and it wasn’t like, ‘C’mon do this,’ it was more, ‘I want to be part of this.’

That’s more of what he was about. People wanted to be a part and share their story of how he impacted them. He was so great one-on-one, that by the time you left, you were like, ‘That’s my buddy.’ That’s a great gift.

We were all better off to have known him and that’s why it’s great to see a scene like this.”

BRIAN MORRISON, longtime associate commissioner of the ACC for football and basketball media relations and former director of the ACC Basketball Tournament:

“All the football outings we had (annual ACC Football Kickoff, which used to be held all over the conference, mostly at golf resorts) always included at least a round or two of golf. When we were going to our first ACC Kickoff with Gene as commissioner, I had done the golf pairings (usually more than 120 players, up to nearly 200).

Gene wanted to look at the pairings, and immediately he started switching out names. He was looking for the 2- and 4-handicappers.

Gene said, ‘Brian, there’s one rule in these golf outings: the commissioner always wins.’ He’d get Steve Spurrier or a golf pro from whatever resort we were playing at, always fun people, but always great golfers.

It was very rare that anyone else came close. But he never took the awards, he’d pass those along to the team that finished second.”

More Morrison… “When Gene became commissioner, I had only 70 seats for media at the ACC Tournament. By the third year, I had 270. He was media-savvy. He had been in media relations and he understood. When the Carolina Panthers were about to become reality, he understood the implications of having an NFL team in the ACC’s backyard and he asked myself and Tom Mickle what we could do to enhance our football exposure, and we suggested that he hire a great video guy for ACC football and other sports. We suggested Scott McBurney. I think we have the best person in the country, who puts poetry to his videos and has been there ever since.

Gene was a man’s man. That’s simply said and that’s not cheating him of his complexity. When you have someone like that, you’ll gladly follow.

Gene moved the ACC into the 21st century. He enhanced our ACC Football Tour. One day he came in and said, ‘You’re running the Tour.’ I figured I had better know what the budget for the (nine to 14-day tour of the schools by media) would be, so I went back to his office and asked.

‘There is no budget,’ Corrigan told him. ‘Just do everything first-class except for the airline tickets.’

When the presidents of the Big 10 brought in Penn State, they didn’t tell Jim Delaney (commissioner) or the ADs. They made the announcement. Gene brought all our staff in and said, ‘Gentlemen, Penn State is an ACC school, they should have been in our league.’

At that moment, things changed. Mickle and I went to the library that day — before the internet came around — and Tom was smart enough to find Dun & Bradstreet. Gene had given us 10 schools to completely research and we looked at everything, average SAT scores, what percentage of students were from the southeast or northeast, average family income of students, all sorts of things.

The next morning, Tom presented him the spreadsheet. Gene took out a red pen and crossed out eight schools and left Florida State and Miami, and said, ‘We need one of these two.’ I think eventually Syracuse replaced Miami on the list, but Florida State was his No. 1 choice all along.

One of the things I loved about Gene, working for him, is that it was his league. When we had a disciplinary problem pop up, it was, ‘We’re not going to have this in my league.’ I was appreciative that he took ownership of the conference.”

The commissioner always wins.

Others that we didn’t get an opportunity to speak to in the swarm of attendees were: ACC commissioner John Swofford, former Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage,  NC State basketball coach Kevin Keatts, former NC State basketball coach and player Derrick Whittenberg, former Boston College athletic director Gene DeFilippo, Horizon League commissioner Jon LeCrone, former UVA women’s basketball coach Debbie Ryan, former CAA commissioner Tom Yeager, Jill Mickle, senior director of relations for the Citrus Bowl, and many more.