This was Mike Bobinski, then Georgia Tech’s AD, speaking in 2016: “John loathes the spotlight. He much prefers to work behind the scene in a quiet methodical way.”
The ACC Network premiered last summer. Its first major event was Georgia Tech’s game at Clemson on a Thursday night. Swofford drove to downtown Clemson, such as it is, to go live on his network at noon. His car was towed. Be advised that Mike Slive’s car NEVER was towed.
Yes, that’s a tiny joke, but I make it with affection. Swofford grew up in the ACC, playing quarterback and linebacker (that’s correct) for Bill Dooley at North Carolina. There was a time – true confession – where I questioned whether the former Tar Heel was the man to lead the ACC into the digital age. That time was long ago. Swofford kept adding to his conference, and by binding existing members to a grant-of-rights agreement – meaning if a school opts to leave, its media rights will remain with the ACC – he ensured there’d be no more Marylands.
He also brought Notre Dame into the fold, and that’s a move that could pay its biggest dividend after Swofford has called it a day. If at any time before 2035 the Fighting Irish decide that football independence is more of a burden than a benefit, they’re contractually bound to become an ACC member. Said Bobinski: “I think adding Notre Dame will be looked back on as a big piece of the future of this league. That’s a pretty big chip.”
In the College Football Playoff era – Swofford helped push for that, too – only two leagues have been represented in all six tournaments. The SEC is one. The ACC’s the other. Notre Dame has made it once.
That was the other part of Swofford’s great achievement. He took the basketball league and said, “We’ve got to get better at football.” Clemson essentially lapped the conference field in recent years, but that won’t last forever. FSU, North Carolina, Miami and Virginia Tech have major resources. Georgia Tech graced two Orange Bowls under Paul Johnson. N.C. State has the potential to get good, and don’t sleep on Scott Satterfield and Louisville.
Said Bobinski: “I remember when I came to Tech in 2013. At the league meetings, John got the ADs in a room and said, ‘Are we in this together or not? Are we going to stick together, or is it going to be every man for himself?’ With what’s been done, particularly at the football level, we’ve turned that corner from a league that was vulnerable into something’s that’s really good.”
That will be Swofford’s legacy, and it’s a shining one. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he saved the ACC. There’s no one in college athletics I admire more.