Gene Corrigan's Deft Touch at Notre Dame Included a Twinkle in His Eye
Reading Tony Barnhart’s heart-warming tribute to Gene Corrigan made me smile. And it made me wistful for the good old days.
Thank you, Tony, for a nice read about a man who knew how to get things done in a tough business—and always did it with respect and a deft touch.
It brought back memories of the Gene Corrigan I knew as athletic director at Notre Dame. He was the first AD I worked closely with when I moved onto the sports staff at the Chicago Sun-Times after working as a cityside reporter and feature writer.
I took over the Notre Dame beat in 1984, when ND was suffering through the fourth, but not final, year of the Gerry Faust Experiment.
A hugely successful coach at Cincinnati Moeller high school. Faust was anointed in 1981 to coach at Notre Dame when Dan Devine stepped down. Father Hesburgh and Father Joyce, the wise and wonderful men who guided ND through what I consider its greatest era, thought they had a marvelous idea. By 1984, though, it was pretty clear that for all of Faust’s enthusiasm, elevating a high school coach was too big a leap of faith.
And yet, in those simpler times, Notre Dame was going to honor the five-year contract it had given Faust.
A string of three October losses left the Irish 3-4, with ominous trips to LSU and USC, plus a home game vs. Penn State, still remaining. (Amazingly, ND would win all three, and beat Navy, before losing to SMU in the Aloha Bowl.)
And yet, Gene Corrigan sat sunnily in the top row of the press box during each of those October losses—to Miami, Air Force and South Carolina—fielding all manner of questions about Notre Dame’s struggling football program.
He not only joked with his interrogators about ND’s flailing ways; he engaged with the toughest of questioners—remaining upbeat and not tipping his hand.
Gene Corrigan set the bar so high that on my next collegiate stop, at Illinois, I had some rocky times with athletic director Ron Guenther when Lou Tepper’s run as coach was coming to an end. Not every AD was as candid and engaging as Corrigan. Actually, hardly any were.
I wrote some things that were shot from the hip about Guenther and Tepper. Some of them, I wish I had written more diplomatically. Eventually, Guenther and I got to know each other and enjoyed a productive and friendly relationship.
It took me a while to understand that while Guenther had his way of doing things, Corrigan was, from a beat writer’s perspective, the consummate AD.
The end of the Faust era was awkward, to say the least.
After the Irish beat Doug-Flutie-led Boston College 19-18 in the 1983 Liberty Bowl in frigid Memphis, Faust hoisted the trophy said, ``We’ll be back!’’
``Oh, no, we won’t,’’ Notre Dame officials muttered quietly under their breath.
Publicly, thogh, Corrigan always stood by his man until the end.
That moment came after the Irish lost 10-7 to LSU in their final home game. On the Monday before ND finished its season at Miami, Faust announced his resignation.
I was already in Miami, to advance not only Notre Dame’s game but also the Bears’ infamous Monday game against the Dolphins. (ND's game also would be a disaster.) A week in the sun turned out to be a week in the hotel room, on the phone, trying to figure out who would be Notre Dame’s new coach.
Lou Holtz’s name came up, but it was one of several. And there was a real question about whether Notre Dame would try for someone who fit its profile better. At that time, while Holtz certainly had the coaching credentials, it was not clear if his nomadic, comedic background would be a good fit.
As it turned out, Holtz was an excellent fit.
Gene Corrigan once again had proven his knack for making the right move.
At the time, Holtz had just completed his second season at Minnesota. He had the Gophers moving up in the world, and was already adored in the Twin Cities.
Holtz had a strange—and rare in those days—clause in his Minnesota contract, though: If Notre Dame came calling, he was free to go.
Looking back, I always wondered if Corrigan and Holtz had worked out an arrangement when Holtz took the Minnesota job in 1984, knowing there was a good chance Notre Dame would be looking for a new coach after the 1985 season.
Although I never got anyone to admit to anything, it was a pretty strange coincidence. That would have been quite a coup, to do a deal like that and keep a lid on it.
The Gene Corrigan I knew would have been just the guy to have pulled that off.