In many ways, the Atlantic Coast Conference was, for years, reflection of its Tobacco Road environment. Things moved at a comfortable, albeit slow, pace. There was a down-home charm to the people who ran the league. With the exception of its postseason basketball tournament, it was a mom-and-pop operation that hadn't changed much in a world swallowed up by television ratings and market shares.
It was, in essence, a child of the '50s that hadn't grown up.
"We needed a shot in the arm," said Georgia Tech athletic director Homer Rice.
Particularly in football, where the ACC had grabbed few national headlines outside of Clemson's winning the national championship in 1981 and then being put on probation the next year by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Though the conference still was considered one of the best in the country in basketball, it was beginning to share the stage, not to mention the blue-chip recruits, with a made-for-television monster called the Big East.
Enter Gene Corrigan.
Once an assistant to Jim Weaver, the ACC's first commissioner, Corrigan was a former lacrosse coach and athletic director at the University of Virginia who had settled into his job and his life as athletic director at Notre Dame. Then Bob James called him four years ago. James, the ACC's commissioner since 1971, was dying of cancer and wanted to know if Corrigan would be interested in coming home to his professional roots.
said to him, 'I'm almost 59 years old. What do I know about being a conference commissioner?' " Corrigan recalled recently. "But, then, one of my grandchildren had a serious illness, and I said to my wife, 'What are we doing out here, so far from the family?' The idea of coming back to a part of the country that I loved, to a great conference that I was familiar with, began to make sense."
So much sense that Corrigan took the job in June 1987, a month after James died. The move appears to have been the right one, both for Corrigan and the ACC. He is now recognized as one of the power brokers in intercollegiate athletics, perhaps the most influential person in the business. The ACC suddenly has gained football credibility, with the planned addition of Florida State, the out-of-nowhere rise of Virginia to No. 2 in the national rankings and three teams in the top 25.
Football recognition for the ACC is no small achievement, but one that Corrigan placed at the top of his list of priorities when he took the job. Though the addition of the Seminoles was largely the result of other moves being made around the country -- most notably, Penn State's joining the Big Ten and the Southeastern Conference's expansion agenda -- it certainly will be part of Corrigan's legacy.
"I didn't have expansion in our plans, but we were sort of forced into doing something because of what had happened," Corrigan said. "For us to sit still and not to react wouldn't have made any sense."
It was not easy to convince the league's athletic directors and faculty representatives that expansion was in the ACC's best interest. Needing six votes, Corrigan started out with only four: North Carolina, North Carolina State, Clemson and Georgia Tech. Gently, he swayed Wake Forest and Virginia onto his side.
"I pushed it simply," he said. "If I had gone in with a neutral attitude, we might not have done anything. Once we went to a vote, I didn't say anything."
Corrigan traces much of his success as ACC commissioner to his background as an athlete, coach and administrator. He grew up in Baltimore, played a number of high school sports at Loyola, was an All-America lacrosse player at Duke and later coached lacrosse and taught English, Latin and history at St. Paul's School. His coaching career took him to Washington and Lee, as well as the University of Virginia. He left to work briefly in the ACC office, then returned to Washington and Lee as athletic director in 1969. Two years later, he was back in Charlottesville as athletic director. He stayed until Notre Dame beckoned in 1981.
"I think more like an athletic director than most commissioners do," said Corrigan, 62. "I have great empathy for most ADs, and know what their jobs entail both politically and emotionally."
But Corrigan is more than another AD-turned-commissioner. He is part politician, part priest, a man who pursues his objectives in a manner both aggressive and persuasive. "You don't want to let him down," said Geiger, who has served on a number of NCAA committees with Corrigan.
At an age when many in his profession are slowing down, Corrigan is trying to make sure, as he said often, "that we [the ACC] don't get left at the altar." It meant putting together the Florida State deal in six weeks, and beating the SEC in the race down the aisle. It meant getting the ACC aligned with the Florida Citrus Bowl, a marriage that could produce this season's national championship game on New Year's Day.