Corrigan on NCAA's cutting edge President's forum: One-time Govans resident always has understood the art of compromise.

January 08, 1996|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

As an athletic director, Gene Corrigan hired Terry Holland and replaced Gerry Faust with Lou Holtz. He brought Florida State to the Atlantic Coast Conference and some order to the bowl system. As president of the NCAA, he's shaped legislation that would give more power to the colleges that produce the money.

Not bad for a guy who claims that he got into sports so he could get a shower at Loyola High every day.

Corrigan's fingerprints are on nearly every major issue in college athletics over the last decade. The ability to give, take and move forward is a main reason he was made NCAA president last year, and while that boyhood home in Govans might not have had a shower, it did have a kitchen table around which Corrigan learned the art of compromise.

"My dad encouraged us to speak our minds," said Mary D'Ambrogi, the youngest of Corrigan's five siblings. "There are three Democrats and three Republicans, and we don't agree on the weather. When we were kids, Gene was always the peacemaker. Whenever a comment was taken as a personal attack, he'd get back to the issue."

Things are going to get very personal at the NCAA convention in Dallas this week. Some of the major conferences in Division I-A have threatened to break away if they don't get more say in how the organization operates. On the other side are the colleges that don't play 85-scholarship football, who are wary of losing basketball revenue and championship access.

Corrigan started a two-year term as president of the NCAA at the conclusion of last year's convention. He may be the front man for the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 10 and Southeastern Conferences, but he's also told the major conferences where and when to back off on restructuring, in part because he knows how the other half lives.

Before he was the athletic director at Virginia and Notre Dame, Corrigan ran the show at mighty Washington & Lee.

"Gene's the perfect leader for this time period," said Rich Ensor, the commissioner of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the league that includes Loyola and seven other Catholic colleges.

"Gene's been an AD at various levels, and he's able to talk to us because he understands some of our issues. He understands the art of compromise. Sure, he deals from a position of strength, but he'll pick up the phone, and try to fine-tune some legislation. Because of the hierarchy, some other I-A commissioners couldn't even conceive of doing that."

The small colleges grab their wallets when most power brokers start talking, but Corrigan has a proven track record when it comes to spreading around the money generated by football and men's basketball.

"The most significant thing that's happened in the ACC since I took over was the day we decided to share our money equally," Corrigan said.

Without that policy, Maryland's deficit would be worse than $7 million. The conference still has the reputation of being a basketball league, but it has been a leader in gender equity and enjoys a high profile in most Olympic sports. The men's champion hurdlers at last year's world track and field championships were from North Carolina and Georgia Tech.

"On every big issue, Gene's been there," said Dr. William E. Kirwan, the Maryland president who represents the ACC on the NCAA Presidents Commission. "Because of the breadth of his experience, he's the first person I call when I have a concern about anything. Whether it's what you want to hear or not, you're getting his honest assessment and opinion.

"There's a lot of suspicion and bad feeling over restructuring, and Gene's one of the few people who could have kept this train on course."

Corrigan hammered out the Bowl Alliance, ran Notre Dame and speaks for the super conferences, but his roots are strictly non-revenue.

When he left Baltimore in the late 1940s, it was to play lacrosse at Duke. Corrigan came back to teach and coach three sports at St. Paul's School, and his mother was mad because he took the job without asking what it paid.

Corrigan coached year-round at both Washington & Lee and Virginia. Colleges now are forced to hire bureaucrats to make sure they comply with the NCAA's ever-expanding rulebook, and he laments the loss of a simpler time. Corrigan can't understand why his son Kevin, who took Notre Dame to the NCAA lacrosse quarterfinals last year, coaches only one sport.

"You cannot convince me that coaching 15 games a year in lacrosse is a full-time job," Corrigan said. "I keep telling Kevin that. Couldn't he do two or three other jobs there? You watch, we're going to go back to doing business that way."

Corrigan has seven children, and family concerns have shaped his career. The ACC wanted him as commissioner in 1969, but his oldest was in the sixth grade, so he opted for Washington & Lee and less travel. When he left Notre Dame to become the ACC commissioner in 1987, it got him closer to his children and grandchildren.

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