Jim Corrigan awoke Tuesday morning as the top assistant coach of a proud and successful basketball program enduring a historically dreadful season. By lunchtime, he was the head coach at Old Dominion, with practices, games and the task of focusing and unifying the team in the final weeks.
“I’ve worked 19 years as an assistant here with the goal of becoming a head coach,” Corrigan said, “but I never thought it would happen this way.”
Corrigan spoke by phone Wednesday night from Philadelphia, where the Monarchs will face Drexel on Thursday, in the aftermath of the bizarre episode in which head coach Blaine Taylor was abruptly fired after 12 years on the job.
Corrigan was called to meet with ODU athletic director Wood Selig late Tuesday morning, when he was told that Taylor had been fired. He was told that he would be the interim head coach for the remaining eight games.
He said his initial reaction was “shock and disbelief” as he listened to Selig, followed by a professional’s warp-speed mental checklist of what lay ahead.
“It’s certainly something you never expect,” Corrigan said. “I was telling a friend that normally in these situations, you get hired in April and you have five or six months until your first game. We’ve got 36 hours.”
Corrigan reflected on the ODU situation, without going into details of the circumstances.
“On the one hand, I’m sad because I consider Blaine a great friend and mentor,” Corrigan said. “On the other hand, the staff and I have a great opportunity. Most of the time this happens, it’s at the end of the year. The head coach gets fired, everybody gets fired, and you’re looking for a job. We have eight games to demonstrate what kind of people we are and what kind of team we can be, in light of a very difficult situation.”
As peculiar and potentially unsettling as a mid-season coaching change can be, few programs are equipped to deal with it as well as ODU. The 54-year-old Corrigan has been there for 19 years, working for both Taylor and predecessor Jeff Capel during their entire tenures. He knows the school, the league and its players better than most.
Assistant Rob Wilkes has been at ODU for 11 years. Assistant John Richardson returned to the staff after a two-year stint at Virginia Tech, and has been there six years. Director of basketball operations Drew Williamson played at ODU from 2003-07 and has been on staff for two years.
Selig hasn’t elaborated on his decision to make a change mid-season, but that level of experience and stability beneath Taylor had to factor into his thinking, that the move wouldn’t plunge the team into chaos in the final weeks.
Full disclosure: I’ve known Corrigan for 25 years, dating back to his days as an assistant at William and Mary under Chuck Swenson. I’ve always found him to be engaging, helpful and instructive – a genuinely good guy who coaches because it’s a calling, not because of an ego that requires constant feeding.
Corrigan returns phone calls. He compliments you if he thinks you’re on target. He corrects you, respectfully, if he thinks you’re wandering down the wrong path. Like most coaches, he lives and dies with results. You can often gauge how a game is going by watching his facial expressions and body language. As an assistant coach, he had that luxury. Now, as the head coach, he is well aware that everyone looks to him for guidance and leadership, that he must project calm and strength.
This isn’t Corrigan’s first turn in the big chair. As a young man not long removed from Duke University, he was head coach for four years at his alma mater, Bishop McGuinness High in Winston-Salem, N.C. His teams won two of every three games they played, made the state finals three times and won a state title in 1987 before he embarked on the college coaching path.
“I’ve done it before, so it’s not completely foreign to me,” Corrigan said. “That said, coaching 15-16-17-year old kids is different than coaching kids who are 18-19-20-21, on a bigger stage. I’ve run practices before, when Blaine was recruiting or had media obligations. I ran practices for Jeff sometimes. The difference now is that I’m running practices and making decisions on game night.”
It’s too late in the season to make wholesale changes, Corrigan said, not that he necessarily would, anyway.
“We aren’t going to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “There are some things we need to work on, offensively and defensively, to give ourselves a chance.”
Corrigan said that he had not spoken to Taylor since he was fired but, “I definitely want to reach out to him. I plan to speak to him in the very near future. He’s a friend.”
The Monarchs practiced Wednesday before departing for Drexel, their first time back on the court since Taylor’s dismissal.
“I think the kids were happy to be back on the court,” Corrigan said. “They were pretty energetic, pretty enthusiastic. I could tell we had their attention. But that hasn’t been a problem this season.”
The Monarchs are 2-20 and winless in the CAA (0-10) heading into Thursday’s game at Drexel, a truly jarring nosedive for a program that’s averaged 24 wins over the past eight years, with four NCAA tournament appearances and an NIT final four.
Despite the gruesome record, the Monarchs rarely have been blown out. Even in Monday’s 85-74 loss to George Mason, the Monarchs continually battled back from double-figure deficits.
“What makes that pretty impressive is that we don’t have the carrot at the end of the year, of the tournament to look forward to,” Corrigan said. “No matter how bad your season is, most teams can always regroup and say: at least we have the tournament. We don’t have that. But yet, the kids are still working hard and competing. I think that speaks very well for them and the kind of program we have.”
ODU was prohibited from competing in this year’s CAA tournament, as a departing member that will join Conference USA next season.
Beyond strategy and game-planning, Corrigan said that he’s tried to keep it simple with the players.
“One of my messages to them was, just play hard,” Corrigan said. “We’re kind of starting over. What’s done is done. We have an eight-game season, and we have a chance to do something over these next three weeks.”
There’s no easing into the schedule. There’s Thursday’s game at Drexel, back home for a Saturday afternoon game versus league leader Northeastern, then back on the road for a Monday night game at Delaware.
Though these eight games are a mini-audition for Corrigan, he can’t afford to think big picture or look too far ahead. He said that Selig has offered him support and said that his office door and phone line are open for whatever questions or immediate needs might arise.
“I’ve been in this business a long time,” Corrigan said. “I know how it works. I don’t have any expectations for anything beyond what’s directly in front of us. All I can do is do my job to the best of my ability and see how it turns out.”