Recalling the legacy of former Notre Dame athletic director Gene Corrigan

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

His reach and influence in college athletics consistently went beyond his many job titles, and ultimately weren’t bound by retirement, either.

It is why the condolences to Gene Corrigan’s family came from so many corners of the sports world Saturday, when the news of his death overnight in Charlottesville, Va., at age 91 came to light.

"As a coach, athletic director, commissioner and NCAA president, Gene's impact on countless students, coaches and athletic administrators was unprecedented, and I am privileged to be among that number,” said current Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick.

“From my earliest engagement with the NCAA some 30 years ago through my time as Notre Dame's director of athletics, Gene could always be counted on for great counsel and an encouraging word. Now more than ever, college athletics needs leaders like Gene Corrigan; he will be greatly missed."

Corrigan’s immediate connection to South Bend, though, was his run as athletic director at Notre Dame from 1981 to 1987 that included two notable coaching hires — football program ressurrector Lou Holtz and current Irish women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw.

Yet, in his role as Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner (1987-95), which immediately followed his run at ND, he helped form the forerunner of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) — the Bowl Alliance.

The Bowl Alliance morphed into the Bowl Coalition, and the BCS gave way to the College Football Playoff. Yet at every step of the evolution, there was inclusion for an independent Notre Dame to have access to playing for a national championship, part of the original Bowl Alliance template.

In the two decades that followed his ACC commissionership, Corrigan had volunteered to play matchmaker intermittently whenever ND winked or flirted or even studied making the historic step of joining a conference.

In September of 2012, Notre Dame agreed to flee an imploding Big East and move its basketball teams and most Olympic Sports teams to the ACC. As part of the agreement, Notre Dame football would play an average of five ACC games per season.

“Not sure I can think of anyone who contributed more and had a better feel for college athletics and its people than Gene Corrigan,” tweeted former longtime Notre Dame sports information director John Heisler, now at UCF. “A truly legendary figure, not just in ACC territory but all across the country.”

Corrigan is survived by his wife of 66 years, Lena, and children Louise (Scott Wawner), Kathryn (Tony Zentgraf); David (Jean), Kevin (Lis), Brian (Kathy), Timothy (Jackie) and Boo (Kristen), 19 grandchildren and five great grandchildren.

Kevin Corrigan has been ND's men's lacrosse coach since 1988. Three more of his seven children attended Notre Dame.

A Wake will be held on Febr. 7 from 5-7 p.m., at Charlottesville Catholic School, 1205 Pen Park Rd., Charlottesville, Va. 22901. A Funeral Mass will be held Feb. at 2:30 p.m., at Incarnation Catholic Church, 1465 Incarnation Dr., Charlottesville, Va. 22901.

“I was born at the right time,” Corrigan told Karen Croake Heisler in her chapter about him in the 2015 edition of the book Strong of Heart. “Lena and I had such a great time working in college athletics. It sure was a lot of fun.”

The fun started for the Baltimore native, 1952 Duke graduate and standout college lacrosse player in 1955, when he became an assistant coach for basketball, soccer and lacrosse at Washington and Lee University.

He moved onto Virginia, three years later. There he served in a variety of roles, including head lacrosse and soccer coach and assistant basketball coach, then later as the school’s sports information director.

Two years as Washington and Lee’s athletic director ensued, then it was back to Virginia to serve as athletic director for 10 years.

Then it was onto Notre Dame, where he followed legendary Irish AD Edward “Moose” Krause.

Among Corrigan’s contributions were initiating an athletic endowment fund. That, in turn, turned into men’s lacrosse, women’s swimming and diving and women’s cross country achieving varsity status during his tenure.

He also presided over the addition of Rolfs Aquatic Center to the Joyce Center, while also spearheading the projects that would become Loftus Sports Center and Eck Tennis Pavilion.

The more seismic achievements involved people.

In 1987, Corrigan hired McGraw to succeed Mary DiStanislao to take over a national afterthought of a women's basketball program a little over a year after he lured Holtz to resuscitate the storied football program that had been relegated to a similar stature.

“I am so grateful for the opportunity Gene gave me when he hired me and his support for women’s athletics,” McGraw said upon Corrigan’s passing. “I had such a great respect for him. 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.”

In football, Corrigan inherited Gerry Faust (30-26-1) as his head football coach and eventually replaced him with Holtz (100-30-2).

“I was lucky,” Corrigan told the Tribune in a 2009 interview. “We were friends. Our (son) Tim and Skip (Holtz’s son) went to school together. And I knew Lou wanted the job.

“There were some things that could have gotten in between us. I think he actually got offered (another) job right about the same time he was coming to Notre Dame. I was so fortunate. And Lou knew he wasn’t going to make a lot of money. In fact, he took a big bite to come here.”

Holtz’s résumé wasn’t without blotches, at least on the surface. He was coming off a 6-5 season at Minnesota, one that landed the Gophers in the less-than-coveted Independence Bowl, but in reality he rescued that program from oblivion.

And Holtz had been forced out at Arkansas two years before ND hired him.

“That didn’t scare me at all,” Corrigan said. “Ara (Parseghian) and I went through the five names, and when we got done, we looked at each other and both said, ‘He’s the one.’ ”