GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — Gene Corrigan, the former NCAA president who also helped change the look of college sports as Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner and Notre Dame and Virginia athletic director, died early Saturday. He was 91.
The ACC said Saturday that Corrigan died “peacefully overnight surrounded by his family” in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Corrigan was the ACC’s third full-time commissioner, serving from September 1987 until retiring in December 1996. He was NCAA president from 1995-97.
“His impact on the ACC and college athletics was profound and immeasurable, only surpassed by his impact on the individuals he positively affected — and there are a multitude of us,” ACC Commissioner John Swofford said Saturday in a statement. “I will miss him immensely, but I am so grateful to have had him as a mentor, boss, friend and colleague for so many years.”
Corrigan spent his entire career involved in college sports as a coach, administrator and conference commissioner. He was a leader in the creation of the bowl coalition, the precursor to the Bowl Championship Series in the pre-College Football Playoff era.
“In trying to find a place for the ACC in the bowls, we figured out a way to get the ball rolling on creating a plan to have No. 1 play No. 2,” Corrigan once said in a profile that appeared on Notre Dame athletic department’s website. “Everybody had been complaining about the bowl system for years—we just got everybody on board and tried to create a better system to determine a national champion in football.”
He also worked to pass several NCAA reforms.
Corrigan led the effort in 1990 to have Florida State join the ACC, which helped a league primarily known for basketball improve its football credentials.
“Gene’s leadership was critical to getting that done,” Swofford said in an interview. “I think it was an extraordinarily important move for the league at that time in terms of improving our football and bringing more pizazz to the league from a football standpoint. Our league needed that. It was not a slam dunk by any means. Several of the eight schools at the time were opposed to it, but fortunately there were enough votes to get it done, and Gene’s persuasiveness and leadership had a great deal to do with that.’’
Swofford said that bid showcased the qualities that made Corrigan an effective commissioner and athletic director.
“He had a leadership style that was very comfortable for people,” Swofford said. “He had a way of getting buy-in from people and building consensus in a way that people felt good about.”
As an athletic director, Corrigan had a knack for finding the right coach.
At Notre Dame, Corrigan hired Lou Holtz as football coach and Muffet McGraw as women’s basketball coach. Holtz led Notre Dame to its last national football title in 1988. McGraw has led the Fighting Irish to two national championships, nine Final Four appearances and over 800 wins during a Hall of Fame career.
“I had such a great respect for him,” McGraw said Saturday in a statement. “He was so highly admired in all of sport and he always inspired people to be their best. He’s a great role model for coaches to look up to.”
During 10 years as athletic director at Virginia, Corrigan hired men’s basketball coach Terry Holland and men’s soccer coach Bruce Arena, who led the Cavaliers to five NCAA titles and later coached the United States to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup.
Corrigan was Notre Dame’s athletic director from 1981-87 before taking over as the ACC’s commissioner.
Swofford believes Corrigan’s diverse background as a former athlete, coach and sports information director helped make him a great judge of coaching talent.
“It was a combination of the experiences that he had had and, because of that, the intuition he had with people and what they were and what they would become,” said Swofford, who started his career in athletic administration by working for Corrigan at Virginia. “He was very value driven. Gene’s a very high-principled person – not a judgmental one but a high principled one. And he lived that and expected the people he hired to live that way, not to be clones personality-wise, but to live the right values in terms of college athletics. I think that affected everything that Gene did, every decision that he made.”
Corrigan, a Baltimore native, played lacrosse at Duke after serving 18 months in the Army. He started out teaching Latin, English and history in high school, and then became coach of the basketball, lacrosse and soccer teams at Washington and Lee. He then moved to Virginia to coach lacrosse and soccer and serve as an assistant basketball coach.
He moved to Virginia’s sports information office. In 1967, he became assistant commissioner of the ACC. Two years later, he returned to Washington and Lee as athletic director. After two years there, he moved back to Virginia as athletic director.
Corrigan is survived by his wife, Lena, seven children, 19 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
The ACC said details on a memorial service are incomplete.
Corrigan’s children include North Carolina State athletic director Boo Corrigan and Notre Dame men’s lacrosse coach Kevin Corrigan.
Boo Corrigan said in a statement Saturday that his father “led a remarkable life.” He described him as someone who valued his family while working “in a profession where you can quickly lose sight of what’s most important.”
“Since I arrived at N.C. State, there’s hardly a day where someone doesn’t tell me about an interaction they had with my father and how it somehow made their day a little better,” Boo Corrigan said. “He had that kind of impact on people.”