Part 1: Corrigan turned around Virginia Athletics forever

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a multi-part series about the life and times of the late Gene Corrigan, focusing on his work as athletic director at Virginia and Notre Dame, and as commissioner of the ACC.

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Phtoto: twitter.com

I guess we all knew it was coming, but that didn’t prevent the sad news of Gene Corrigan’s passing last Saturday morning from rocking our world.

We all called him “The Commish” for his decade of ruling the ACC with an iron fist and an unmatched charisma that left us all envious of his ability to deal with all sorts of people.

About every six weeks, we have this luncheon named the “Frank McCue & Jim West Memorial Luncheon,” with so many legendary figures of UVA and Central Virginia athletics attending. Corrigan was not only a regular, he was usually the center of attention because of the marvelous stories he told, his giant personality and his ability to not take himself too seriously. Though he commanded the room, he often poked fun of himself. The sparkle in his eye was pronounced.

When Corrigan missed a luncheon sometime last winter, and we were informed of him suffering a stroke, we feared the worst and prayed hard. The lacrosse Hall of Famer had too much fight in him not to bounce back, and he did. This fall, The Commish made it back to our luncheons, sporting a snazzy mint green sweater, complimenting his snow-white hair, and his ready smile. Oh, yes, and the twinkle in his eye.

Last luncheon about six weeks ago, he was conspicuously absent.

When he was gone, my mind drifted back to all the encounters I had with him over the years, one in particular. The great folks at Grandfather Mountain have hosted an ACC outing for around 60 years, started by the late Hugh Morton, a Carolina man who admired coaches and had an affinity for sportswriters and sportscasters. He brought the two together annually to share golf and good times up on The Mountain.

One of my most memorable trips there was when Corrigan hitched a ride with me. More than four hours each way and three days of at least 18 holes per day with The Commish. Let the stories begin.

It was not only entertainment, it was an education. Some of the stories I will never be able to write on a promise that my lips were sealed. Still, it was three of the best days of my life.

Some that can be told, have been by me since that trip, and may be retold in the coming series. 

Corrigan, who grew up in Baltimore, went to Duke to play lacrosse and was a great one. Years later, he accepted a job at Washington & Lee to coach its soccer team, although he had never seen a soccer game until he coached the Generals in one. He was also freshman basketball coach for varsity coach Billy McCann, who would later become UVA’s head coach from 1957-63.

He taught Corrigan basketball, and eventually Corrigan was named W&L’s head basketball coach, but he didn’t stay. He rejoined McCann at UVA.

Bob Sandell had decided to step down as the Cavaliers’ lacrosse coach, and Corrigan was a natural replacement. He believed he would win a national championship in Charlottesville. He was head soccer coach, head lacrosse coach, freshman basketball coach and varsity assistant basketball coach.

Oh, yeah, and he taught three physical education classes daily.

Over time, it became too much.

“By the time I got to lacrosse (his first love), I was wiped out,” Corrigan said. “I was a very emotional, active coach. I’m yelling at the lacrosse kids for nothing and I finally realized that.”

He begged out of basketball to take over a less-stressful role during that time of year by becoming an assistant sports information director, dealing with media, a job he eventually took over. Later, he gave up soccer when UVA hired Gordon Burris, who admittedly knew nothing of the game at the time.

Corrigan stuck with lacrosse. He was making about $10,000 a year. The only person in the athletic department at Virginia making more was the football coach ($15,000).

It wasn’t enough, considering that he had seven kids. He went to AD Steve Sabo and asked for more money, but there was none to give and Sabo recommended that Corrigan go see ACC Commissioner Jim Weaver, who was looking for an assistant.

“I went down to see Weaver and it was the greatest single thing that ever happened in my professional life,” Corrigan said. “We liked each other right off the bat. He was a big ole’ slow-talking, smart as hell, wonderful human being.”

Corrigan took the job, listened, observed and learned, but after a year he ended up back at W&L as athletic director. After a year, he was bored. All he had to do was raise money for a gym, an easy job considering he only had to talk to two or three people and the task was accomplished.

Then Virginia called. The timing was perfect. Edgar Shannon was president and Alan Williams, legendary history professor, made the call. They wanted Corrigan as AD. In the meantime, Weaver had died in Greensboro and the ACC wanted Corrigan as well.

It was an easy choice. He knew he wasn’t ready to become commissioner and moved to Charlottesville, although he really wasn’t ready for that challenge either, and he exhibited that with his first major decision on the job.

Corrigan fired football coach George Blackburn.

“When I look back on my career, I think if there was anything maybe I would not do, it would have been not to have fired Blackie,” Corrigan said.

He went to Ann Arbor to pick Bo Schembechler’s brain. Bo recommended assistant Jim Young, but when Young heard about UVA’s academics, he told Corrigan, “you can’t do it there.” He asked Corrigan if Virginia could get the same guys in school that Carolina and Maryland could, and Corrigan said no.

“Jim said, then I can’t take your job,” Corrigan said.

He ended up hiring Blackburn’s assistant, Don Lawrence, a Notre Dame grad who played for the Redskins. The program continued to struggle for three years.

At the end, Lawrence approached Corrigan and said, “How do you want to work this? Do you want me to resign or do you want to fire me?”

All Lawrence wanted was his assistants to be taken care off. Lawrence went on to the Buffalo Bills to work for Marv Levy and Corrigan ended up hiring Sonny Randle, a UVA grad, former NFL star receiver with St. Louis and back-to-back Southern Conference “Coach of the Year.”

Randle didn’t work out either, and so Corrigan turned to Steve Sloan, who agreed to leave Vanderbilt for UVA. However, when Vandy upset Tennessee, he told Corrigan he couldn’t leave Vandy after the win, that it just wouldn’t have been the right thing to do.

Corrigan tried George Welsh at Navy and got turned down. That’s when he decided on Dick Bestwick, an assistant coach at Georgia Tech.

Bestwick managed to pull some significant upsets and posted a winning season, and even recruited some real talent that eventually helped turn the program around when he was succeeded by Welsh after Corrigan left UVA for Notre Dame.

When Corrigan came to Virginia, President Shannon told him two important things: women had arrived at the school and it was up to Corrigan to develop an athletic program for them as soon as possible.

“Where’s the money?” Corrigan asked.

At that time the Virginia Student Aid Foundation owed the university $250,000, about a quarter of the whole budget. One of Corrigan’s first meetings was with the student aid board and their goal was to raise $150,000 for the year. Corrigan argued that the goal has to be to raise $300,000 because they already owed the VSAF $250,000. 

Bob Hatcher, the president of the VSAF, said they would do it and eventually the group paid off the debt in two years.

The women’s tennis program got going quickly because Maureen Connelly, a great player herself, sent her daughter to UVA to play. Barbara Kelly was the first women’s basketball coach. Kelly started the women’s ACC Tournament.

She was replaced by former men’s player Dan Bonner. His assistant was an unknown named Debbie Ryan.

Corrigan went to Bonner and told him that UVA needed more women in the athletic program and convinced Bonner to join the radio network as analyst. Bonner just celebrated his 40th anniversary of being a TV basketball analyst.

Jim West and Kelley came to Corrigan pushing Debbie Ryan for the job.

“I can’t hire Debbie … she’s my niece,” Corrigan said, knowing that she would be perfect for the job. Ryan, the only girl to have ever attended Camp Wahoo (she was so good that Jerry West used to use Ryan to demonstrate the jump shot to the other campers).

Corrigan went to new UVA president Frank Hereford with the problem. Hereford asked his AD what he thought about Ryan, and Corrigan said, “Well, she’s awfully good, but …”

Hereford asked what was her name.

“Ryan,” Corrigan said.

“[Hereford] said, ‘Well, it’s not Corrigan, so go ahead and hire her.

“How do you think that would go today?” Corrigan said. “That’s the way Hereford was.”

Virginia was adding women’s sports, didn’t have much money. It had won the ACC lacrosse championship in 1972 and had no scholarships.

The football wasn’t very good. Bestwick was a little fragile and Corrigan realized he had to be an AD that pumped up his football coach.

Basketball was different. Virginia had Barry Parkhill.

“When I came in, Barry saved us,” Corrigan said. “We could say that you can’t get a seat in University Hall if you don’t contribute to student aid. He made us competitive.”

Meanwhile, basketball coach Bill Gibson was frustrated with UVA’s academic admissions policy and a little frustrated with Corrigan. They weren’t as close as Corrigan had hoped, and eventually Gibson left for South Florida.

The Virginia AD had never met Terry Holland, who would become his next basketball coach, and a guy who made the Cavaliers a consistent winner, the school’s all-time winningest men’s coach. Corrigan had spent a month looking for someone to replace Gibson and narrowed it to three candidates: Tom Davis, who was at Lafayette and had beaten UVA in the NIT; Larry Brown, whom Corrigan had tried to recruit when Brown was at Hargrave Military Academy, but Brown went to UNC; and Holland.

Brown had agreed to come to UVA but went to the ABA’s Carolina Cougars instead. Brown had called Corrigan and told him there were only two great jobs in America, North Carolina and Virginia.

“Gene, I’m your man,” Brown told Corrigan.

Brown was going to come to Charlottesville on Sunday. Holland was coming Saturday, Davis the following Monday. Holland arrived on Saturday, a perfect weather day, and Corrigan took him to meet Shannon on The Lawn. It was a great meeting.

Holland commented to Corrigan afterward that Shannon was what the president of the University of Virginia ought to be like. Corrigan took Holland to see Ernie Ern, the dean of admissions, so the prospective coach would clearly understand UVA’s policies. Coming from Davidson, Holland had no issues with what he heard.

Later they were standing on The Lawn and Corrigan asked Holland a pointed question.

“What do you think? You want the job?”

Holland said, “Are you offering the job?”

Corrigan said yes. Holland said, yes, but asked if he could talk to his wife first. Corrigan said, OK, it’s yours. Holland never asked about salary until after he arrived.

Eventually, Virginia needed someone to coach the soccer team, but who could also be an assistant in lacrosse.

A guy named Bruce Arena, who was a graduate assistant at Cornell, had played pro soccer and was interested in the UVA job. Corrigan invited him down, but didn’t expect what he got.

“So Bruce shows up for the interview in a yellow, double-knit suit, the worst looking suit I had ever seen,” Corrigan said.

Corrigan asked Jim West what he thought and West said he believed Arena was really good. What really won them over, tough, was that Arena could also coach lacrosse.

“Who would have even known?” Corrigan laughed years later.

Arena has become perhaps the greatest soccer coach in America.

“Bruce, Terry and Debbie all go about their job in different ways, but they were pretty good hires,” Corrigan said. “I didn’t make good football hires.”

During the early years of Corrigan’s decade at UVA, the school’s athletic programs struggled because the lack of money, the admissions policy, and had no African-American athletes at the time. Corrigan wanted to change all that, and it all started with a project he began after observing the program’s struggles up until 1978.

He spent the entire summer writing a report that would later be known as “The Corrigan Report,” which would forever change athletics at Virginia. When he handed it to Hereford before a weekend in August, he was more than anxious.

“I said, ‘Please read this over the weekend, you might want to fire me on Monday,’” Corrigan said.

“The report said that I think we’re stagnant, not moving anywhere and we could be very good. He read the thing and called me to his office on Monday. I thought I might be given a ticket to the next town.”

Hereford’s vice president and powers that be were in the office when Corrigan arrived. Hereford told them all to read the report and that he wanted everybody there to figure out a way to help.

The report addressed the foreign language admissions requirement (Stanford and Harvard didn’t have one, but UVA did and it was hurting the athletic program). Some athletes had the grades but didn’t have a foreign language.

“We were losing athletes, not bad students,” Corrigan remembered.

It also addressed finances and attitude within the university toward athletics.

“It was amazing to me that a president would take the ball and run with it,” Corrigan said. “We didn’t change a lot but what I saw, it was huge. We got that through. It was the beginnings of a road map.”

Corrigan had reported that he was deeply concerned that in spite of some accomplishments, UVA was settling into an era of mediocrity (or worse) with its athletic teams. The school lagged well behind the rest of the ACC financially speaking in terms of the athletic program. He believed the situation was becoming drastic.

“My fears for the future have not been arrived at hastily nor are they frivolous,” Corrigan wrote in the report. “We stand a chance to become mediocre — and that to me is next to death.”

He also believed that had the basketball team not won the ACC  Tournament Championship in 1976, “I have no doubt we would be close to financial chaos now.”

Virginia took the report to heart, supported it, boosted Corrigan’s beliefs and changed Wahoo athletics forever.

Next time we have our luncheon, no doubt it will be renamed the “Frank McCue, Jim West, Gene Corrigan Memorial Luncheon.”

The twinkle in his eyes will be missed.

(NEXT: Corrigan moves on to Notre Dame)

 

Comments

  1. nyhoo says:

    Great articles! Thanks

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