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Former ACC Commissioner Gene Corrigan Was An Exceptional Man

The ACC will forever be in his debt

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Gene Corrigan had as much to do with building the modern ACC as anyone. He did a lot more than that though.

Gene Corrigan died January 24 at the age of 91.

It didn’t take long for the eulogies to start coming in.

Duke claimed Corrigan. He’s in Duke’s sports hall of fame.

But the University of Virginia claimed him. So did Notre Dame, Washington and Lee, the Atlantic Coast Conference, the NCAA, the National Football Federation, the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame and probably a half-dozen I’ve omitted.

His nephew Jim Corrigan says they all had that right because Gene Corrigan felt like he belonged to them all.

Gene Corrigan had a career and a life dazzling in its depth and width. If it had anything to do with sports, he probably did it and he did it well. He was a soccer star at Duke and went on to coach not only lacrosse but also soccer, basketball and football in high school, then Washington and Lee, then Virginia. He was athletic director at Virginia from 1971-’80 and at Notre Dame from 1981-’87, followed by a decade as ACC Commissioner (1987-’97) and NCAA President (1995-’97).

He even had a stint in sports information at Virginia. I know lots of people in college sports information departments and I’m reasonably certain none of them see their jobs leading to president of the NCAA.

Gene Corrigan was born in Baltimore in 1928, the second of six children. In other words, he grew up during the Great Depression.

Jim Corrigan was one of Gene’s nephews and is an assistant women’s basketball coach at Duke. Jim’s father James also starred at lacrosse at Duke.

He has some thoughts on what made his uncle so good at what he did.

“He was never too big for his britches. He grew up in a time where if something needed to be done, you went out and got it done.”

It was that kind of practical, hands-on approach that informed Corrigan’s life. He was hired by Saint Paul’s High School in Baltimore to coach lacrosse but the deal also included coaching soccer, a sport new to him. Corrigan joked that the first soccer game he ever saw, he was coaching it.

Jim Corrigan says Gene “didn’t start at the top. He was hands-on, learned what he needed to learn and applied that wherever he went.”

One of the things he learned was the value of teamwork. Corrigan “got along well with everybody. He could relate to anyone,” Jim Corrigan says. He was a consensus builder, the perfect example of the ancient adage that it’s amazing what you can get done if no one cares who gets the credit.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Gene Corrigan several times and he went out of his way to make sure someone else got the credit. He once told me that his greatest gift was hiring the right people.

But it was under his tenure that Virginia got serious about competing in football and basketball. He hired Terry Holland at Virginia, Muffet McGraw at Notre Dame. It was under his tenure at the ACC that his assistant Tom Mickle came up with football’s bowl coalition. Gene Corrigan was behind the ACC’s decision to add Florida State, thus dramatically improving the league’s ACC profile.

Corrigan was also one of the most media-friendly people imaginable for someone in his position, perhaps a result of his years toiling in that arena but also a function of his fundamental decency.

He worked at top-tier academic institutions and always prioritized academics.

And he did not put on airs. This is a man who instituted “no-socks Fridays” at the ACC, which was exactly what it sounds like.

But he could bring the hammer when he needed to.

In the mid-1990s North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith and Clemson coach Rick Barnes got into a very public feud. Corrigan eventually called them to his home in Greensboro and told them in no uncertain terms to knock it off.

They knocked it off.

Corrigan made sports seem fun and made them seem important. Jim Corrigan isn’t the only relative to go into a career in sports. Gene’s son Boo is athletic director at North Carolina State, another son Kevin has been Notre Dame’s men’s lacrosse coach since 1988, while son Tim has covered the NBA for ESPN for decades.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s practically the family business. If you were a Corrigan, then you probably played college sports, usually lacrosse, usually at Notre Dame.

Jim Corrigan says with today’s specialization, we may never again see anyone like Gene Corrigan again. Jim recalls being with his uncle last summer at a family gathering and says Gene was like he always was, gregarious, self-deprecating and fun to be around.

Hard to come up with a better legacy than that.