Gene Corrigan Talks Conference Expansion
By Jacob Shoor
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Former ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan recently gave his take on conference expansion, including his thoughts on Notre Dame joining the ACC.
Gene Corrigan may not be the most interesting man in the world, but when he speaks about college athletics, everyone with good sense pays close attention.
When Corrigan became athletic director at Virginia in 1971, Cavalier sports were anything but impressive. When Corrigan left UVA to become AD at Notre Dame in 1981, UVA's athletics department was at a height no one dreamed possible ten years before, and it was poised for even greater heights because of Corrigan's vision. No AD in history has achieved more for a school within ten years than Corrigan did for UVA. Corrigan's tenure in South Bend coincided with the last great Irish run of dominance. Barely more than a half decade after Corrigan became commissioner of the ACC in 1987, ND basketball fell off the map of semi-relevance and Irish football began a slide into mediocrity from which it has yet to recover.
Corrigan took over an ACC that featured ADs who continued to see the sports landscape as it had been in the 1960s and 1970s. It was a tussle for him even to get them to lobby for a New Year's Day Bowl tie (reports from the time were that some ACC ADs said it was foolish to pursue bowl ties because an NCAA playoff was imminent). The first year of the ACC's tie to the Citrus Bowl, Georgia Tech won the National title.
He is not a man who prattles endlessly to keep his profile before the public, which means that when Corrigan speaks, it has great meaning to him. And over the past two or three years, Corrigan's rare public utterances invariably address ACC expansion, past and future.
The latest is a July 1 article in the Charlottesville Daily Progress by Jerry Ratcliffe. Among the interesting items in this article is that Penn State's decision to join the Big Ten "shook Corrigan." It remains unsaid whether he were shook because he felt the ACC, had it been proactive, could have landed Penn State. Corrigan clearly wanted the Nittany Lions in the ACC: '“[Penn State] should have been with us,” Corrigan said. “Geographically and everything else made sense."' Corrigan says he pushed to try to add Penn State, "but there didn’t seem to be a strong interest by the rest of the league."
Especially with what we have come to learn about how Joe Paterno ran things, dominating the entire university and not just the athletics department, I can understand a reticence to pursue Penn State at that time. Penn State backing away from disciplining JoePa's players and covering up the sordid tale of a pedophile coach signal a football factory ethos, and the ACC is not keen on football factories.
Equally interesting is that then, before the formation of Big East football, BC, Pitt, and Syracuse wanted to join the ACC: “At that time, Syracuse, Boston College and Pittsburgh came to see us before the Big East formed and wanted to know if they could come in for football only,” Corrigan said. “We put it to the membership and they said no, we don’t want any partial members.”
If those three schools had been able to shuck their faith in Big East basketball in 1990, there never would have been the freakishly unnatural construct that was and is Big East football.
That history of Big East schools approaching the ACC - a history that goes all the way back to the Big East's glory days in basketball - should be kept in mind every time some semi-knowledgable journalist waxes poetically about the evil ACC raiding the Big East.
The main subject of the article is no surpirse: Notre Dame. Ratcliffe asks about the possibility of Notre Dame joining a conference for all sports. “'It’s really hard for [Notre Dame] and the athletic director there to change what has been there forever, an independent football program that plays all over the country,” Corrigan said. “To change that would be a major move.'”
The first sentence of the quote will be parsed by many to mean that Corrigan knows, or at least feels, that ND AD Jack Swarbrick is trying to persuade Irish football boosters and the school's administration to join a conference for football for the good of the entire athletics department.
And if that is the case, which conference? “'The ACC would be great for Notre Dame, but it’s hard for them to let go of the football thing,” Corrigan said. “Historically it’s tough to do something like that, but if they do, I think they know this is where they would go. They would be perfect in the ACC. This is who they are.'”
Corrigan acknowledges to Ratcliffe that he tried to arrange Notre Dame to be a partial member of the ACC, playing six football games per year. “'He liked the idea,' Corrigan says presumably of previous ND AD Kevin White now the Duke AD, "but I couldn’t get our schools to do it,” Corrigan said. “Our schools said you’re either totally in or you’re out.'”
And yes, Corrigan sees Pitt and Syracuse as making the ACC even more attractive to Notre Dame than it was when the Irish were ready to join for all sports as long as they would be required to play only six conference football games.
Anyone who thinks that the ACC added Pitt and Syracuse for basketball reasons or out of desperation is, quite simply, ignorant.