Dennis Corbin wasn’t exactly the man on campus Western Michigan athletes were eager to encounter.
Sometimes it was to discuss a devastating injury, perhaps a career-ending blow. Sometimes it was to handle a disciplinary issue. Sometimes it was in regards to a drug test.
That Western Michigan athletic director Kathy Beauregard has heard from hundreds, if not thousands, of former athletes in the last two days tells you all you need to know about Corbin’s ever-lasting effect, even if those first meetings weren’t always welcome.
Corbin died Wednesday at Bronson Methodist Hospital in Kalamazoo at the age of 63, after suffering a massive stroke a day earlier while having lunch with his wife, Gayle.
“That’s what Dennis did, he helped mentor Broncos for life on the lessons of life,” Beauregard said. “Many football players, for instance, said they couldn’t stand him the day he walked in.
“And now he’s on their list of, ‘Who made me what I am today.’ ”
Corbin spent 36 years working for Western Michigan, and was planning to retire in the spring after a lengthy run as senior associate athletic director for medical services.
He started at Western Michigan as an athletic trainer, and rose to the forefront of the field, eventually being inducted into the Michigan Athletic Trainers Society Hall of Fame in 2014, and earning the MATS Distinguished Athletic Trainer award in 2009.
Corbin earned a degree in athletic training and physical education from Central Michigan in 1976, and a master’s from the University of Arizona in 1979. He spent three years as an assistant athletic trainer at Bowling Green, then arrived at Western Michigan.
It wasn’t just broken bones and ACL tears that Corbin concerned himself with. He also took a significant interest in the mental health of his athletes, even before that was in vogue.
“In secondary education and on college campuses, mental health has become a real concern,” men’s basketball coach Steve Hawkins said. “But in sports, it has really become a major topic of conversation, and Dennis has been way, way out in front of it. We had resources that a lot of other programs and athletic departments have not had.
“His care for his athletes and his rapport with them — his love, quite honestly, his love just set him aside.”
Corbin worked closely with many different programs, particularly football.
He started at Western Michigan around the same time as Jack Harbaugh started as football coach — 1982 — and John Harbaugh was a graduate assistant. The families remained close through the years.
Most recently, Corbin was the supervising athletic director for men’s and women’s soccer, golf and women’s basketball. He attended Monday night’s men’s and women’s opening-round Mid-American Conference basketball games, and planned to travel to Cleveland for Wednesday’s women’s quarterfinal. The women’s team learned of his death during its pregame meal, just before its 65-54 upset victory over third-seeded Ball State in Cleveland on Wednesday.
“I think they rallied around each other. I’ve never been one to say, ‘Let’s win one for the Gipper,’ ” women’s coach Shane Clipfell said late Thursday night. “I didn’t go down that road.
“Honestly, it probably was harder for me. Kids are more resilient. I had a tougher time. But I knew he was looking down shaking his finger at me, ‘Dammit, get them to play harder.’
“It made you stop and pause and think how many lives that guy impacted in so many positive ways.”
Western Michigan’s sixth-seeded women’s team will try to continue its postseason run when it faces No. 2 Buffalo at 1:30 p.m. Friday.
Corbin was a tough man. He was tough on his student-athletes, when they were facing adversity. He faced his fair share, though, too, including three battles with cancer in the last five years — one diagnosis so particularly grim, the doctor told him, “This isn’t the type of situation where you come in to see me twice.”
But Corbin beat the odds each time, and was in remission three times.
That’s why when word started making the rounds Wednesday, so many former Western Michigan athletes were stunned, and incredibly saddened.
Corbin wasn’t just about giving medical diagnoses, or drug-test results, or a disciplinary suspension. He also was great at putting things in perspective.
“I don’t want to get too hyperbolic over the whole thing, but he truly was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He was incredibly intelligent on a lot of topics,” Hawkins said. “You could have a conversation with him about basketball or hockey or all sports, and have a conversation with him about politics. He would debate Copernicus with you. Literally, it ran the gamut with him. Because of that, he was also able to connect with so many different athletes, because of their varied interests.
“One of the things he was probably as good at as anyone, he had a way of turning everything into an analogy. If it was a knee injury that was going to ruin your career, he’d spend an hour with you explaining, ‘This is the beginning of the rest of your life.’
“He helped young people prepare for life. You’ve gotta learn how to win, you’ve gotta learn how to lose, you’ve gotta learn how to play as a team.”
Corbin and wife Gayle lived in Kalamazoo, and he also is survived by two adult children, Natalie and Nicholas.
A celebration of life is scheduled for 4 p.m. Monday at Betzler Life Story Funeral Home in Kalamazoo.