The man who annually introduced Brill was Gene Corrigan.
Yes, the ACC commissioner would happily leave behind all the corporate sponsors he spent the weekend wining and dining to wade into a crowd of mostly overserved reporters and be part of what was called “The Brill-a-thon.”
Try to imagine your garden variety Jim Delany or John Swofford doing that. No way, no how, no chance.
But Corrigan, who died early Saturday at 91, was anything but your typical conference commissioner — or athletic director or human being. He was usually the first person to point out his mistakes or flaws.
In 1996, during an endless foul- and turnover-infested opening-round game in the ACC tournament, he stood up late in the game and said: “Will this game never end? Whose dumb idea was it to make this a nine-team tournament?”
That person would be Eugene F. Corrigan, who had brought Florida State into the league to give it much-needed respectability in football. The Seminoles also brought a very good basketball team with them, but their presence as the ACC’s ninth team forced an 8-9 game to be part of the basketball tournament. Most years, the game was torture for everyone involved.
Corrigan could confidently chide himself publicly because his won-lost record in 40 years as a coach (lacrosse and soccer), athletic director (Washington and Lee, Virginia, Notre Dame) and commissioner had very few L’s.
He hired Terry Holland to coach basketball at Virginia and George Welsh to coach football. Each turned his team from an ACC bottom-feeder into a program with a national profile — Holland went to two Final Fours; Welsh got the Cavaliers to a No. 1 ranking and made them a perennial bowl team, including a trip to the Sugar Bowl.
When he took over at Notre Dame, Gerry Faust was the football coach. In 1984, with Faust, a sweet, warm person, clearly overmatched by the job, I went to South Bend, Ind., to do a story on his woes. Digger Phelps was the basketball coach. “It’s gotten so bad we can’t even bring our recruits to football games anymore,” Phelps said. “It’s become embarrassing.”
The next day I ran that quote past Corrigan. I could literally see him grit his teeth as he answered. “There have been times,” he said, “when we couldn’t bring football recruits to basketball games!”
At least in my experience, Corrigan never went off the record. He told you what he thought, and if someone didn’t like it, that was fine with him.
The first time I met Corrigan was in the office of then-Virginia sports information director Barney Cooke. I was the night police reporter at The Washington Post, and I moonlighted writing for sports. I was at U-Va. to do a piece on football coach Dick Bestwick. I walked into Cooke’s office after talking to Bestwick and found Corrigan sitting there. Cooke introduced us.
Corrigan stood up, shook my hand and said: “Your timing’s perfect. Would you mind getting me a cup of coffee?”
Actually, I didn’t mind at all. Cooke — embarrassed — did. “Gene, I should have mentioned that John works for The Washington Post. He’s here doing a story on Coach Bestwick.”
“John, I’m so sorry,” Corrigan said. “I thought you were an intern.”
I told him I understood, that I frequently had trouble convincing people I worked for The Post: I was 21 and probably looked about 18.
A couple of hours later, I was sitting in an empty office writing my story. Corrigan walked in — carrying a cup of coffee. “Figured you could use some about now,” he said. “Got two cream and two sugar because I didn’t know how you take it.”
It was a joke we returned to for the next 40 years.
In 1985, Corrigan hired Lou Holtz to replace Faust to, as he put it, “wake up the echoes.”
He left a year before Holtz won a national championship to return to his roots as ACC commissioner. After serving in the Army, Corrigan starred in lacrosse at Duke before coaching at Virginia and then becoming AD.
The first thing he did as commissioner was begin searching for a football power to join the conference. The second thing he did was tell media director Brian Morrison to increase the number of courtside seats for the media at the ACC tournament.
“By 400 percent,” Morrison, who retired last year, said Saturday. “He told me: ‘The print media played a huge role in the development of this conference. Let’s show them the respect they deserve.’ ”
Corrigan also played a role in the evolution of college football’s postseason from crowning a “mythical” national champion each year to today’s College Football Playoff. In the 1990 season, Georgia Tech played in the second-tier Citrus Bowl even though it was the only unbeaten team in the country. Corrigan was furious and wanted to be sure that wouldn’t happen again.
He assigned top deputy Tom Mickle to “come up with a plan” to ensure the ACC’s presence in a major bowl game every year. Mickle came up with what became “The Bowl Coalition,” which was accepted by other conferences because it guaranteed a matchup between the top two teams in the regular season and increased bowl revenue for everyone. Most important to Corrigan, each of the major conference champions was guaranteed a major bowl slot.
The Bowl Coalition begot the Bowl Alliance, which begot the Bowl Championship Series, which begot the College Football Playoff.
As friendly and self-deprecating as Corrigan was, there was no doubting his authority. In 1996, after Clemson Coach Rick Barnes and North Carolina Coach Dean Smith had almost gotten into a fight during an ACC tournament game and then followed up the next season with an on-court shouting match, Corrigan ordered them both to his house for a meeting.
“They both showed up with film,” he said later, “that supposedly showed dirty plays by the other team. I said, ‘We’re not looking at any film!’ Then I handed them a press release in which they both apologized and said they had nothing but respect for one another. Then we all had a drink.”
Corrigan was married to his wife, Lena, for 66 years. They had seven children, 19 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Corrigan loved to tell the story about the night in a hotel room when he was sick and insisted he needed to go an emergency room.
“Just stop whining,” Lena said to him. “I swear, if men had to have the babies, there would be no children.”
Corrigan would finish the story and, laughing, would add, “Boy, did she get that right.”
Swofford, who succeeded Corrigan as ACC commissioner in 1997, has been on the job more than twice as long as Corrigan held the position. But to those who were around the ACC during Corrigan’s tenure — staff, media, coaches, athletic directors — Corrigan is still and will always be “The Commish.”
The one and only.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.