One fall afternoon in 1980, University of Virginia athletic director Gene Corrigan stuck his head into Todd Turner’s office at University Hall and asked him to come on a walk to Scott Stadium.
Corrigan and Turner, then Virginia’s sports information director, hiked to the top of the new upper deck, and took it all in, an expansion of the stadium that increased capacity to 40,000.
Corrigan, who died Jan. 25 at the age of 91, always preferred the elevated, long view. As Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner, he transformed a basketball-focused league by convincing reluctant presidents and athletic directors to add football power Florida State. He served as president of the NCAA and led the creation of the bowl coalition, the precursor to the Bowl Championship Series.
Corrigan’s impact at Virginia was no less profound, said Craig Littlepage, athletic director from 2001 to 2017.
“He got things started for the modern era of Virginia athletics we know now,” Littlepage said.
Born in Baltimore, Corrigan coached soccer and lacrosse at Virginia from 1958 through 1967 and returned as athletic director in 1971.
It was an uncertain time for Wahoo sports. Budgets were scant. Apathy was rampant.
Corrigan wrote a report advocating taking athletics more seriously by investing resources, without sacrificing academic integrity.
“He sat down with the powers that be and said, ‘Listen, we’re going in one direction or the other,’” said former basketball great Barry Parkhill (Educ ’73), now an associate athletic director. “Some things had to change. Otherwise, Virginia at that point might well have tried to get in the Ivy League.”
President Frank Hereford (Col ’43, Grad ’47) went along, and Corrigan had what he would call “a blueprint for success.” His eye for talent also transformed the department. Among his coaching hires were Terry Holland (men’s basketball), Debbie Ryan (Educ ’77) (women’s basketball) and Bruce Arena (men’s soccer), all of whom took their sports here to unprecedented heights.
Corrigan’s administrative hires were equally impressive. Current ACC commissioner John Swofford began his career as a ticket manager. Numerous others became athletic directors, Turner included.
“He had a unique ability to hire people that fit the culture he was trying to create,” Turner said.
It was a culture of hard work, but also fun and collegiality. A favorite Corrigan dictum was to take your job seriously, but not take yourself seriously.
Corrigan also had a deft personal touch, including on the day he invited Turner to go for that walk.
Corrigan wanted to tell him that he had accepted the athletic director’s job at Notre Dame.
“I was happy for him, but it broke my heart,” Turner said. “He was such an important figure in my personal and professional life.”
Countless others who worked with Corrigan at Virginia and elsewhere could say the same.
Corrigan is survived by his wife, Lena; seven children including Kathy Corrigan Zentgraf (Col ’78, Educ ’83); 19 grandchildren and five great grandchildren.