Photo: AP Photo/Nell Redmond
Photo: AP Photo/Nell Redmond

John Swofford: The man who saved the ACC

John Swofford will retire as ACC commissioner in June 2021. Had he not been the league’s commissioner these past 23 years, there mightn’t be an ACC. 

Think back 10 or so years. Conference-hopping had become a thing, and not an especially pretty one. The Big 12 lost four members – Colorado to the Pac-12, Nebraska to the Big Ten, Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC. The ACC and Swofford had done their bit of poaching, luring Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College away from the Big East in 2004/5, but it still was regarded as the league most apt to be raided by the bigger boys. 

Sure enough, Maryland – an ACC charter member – announced in 2012 it was splitting for the Big Ten. (The belief along Tobacco Road remains that only two people involved with Maryland wanted to change leagues, but they happened to be the school president and the athletic director.) That, however, was it. The ACC, which had just added Syracuse and Pittsburgh as full-time members and Notre Dame in every sport except football, lost nobody else. It added Louisville to replace Maryland, and there the league remains – 14 ½ strong. 

In those days of frantic rumors, Florida State and Clemson were believed to have had one foot out the door. They’re still around, having won football national championships for the basketball league in Januarys 2014, 2017 and 2019. The sport remains rather good in roundball, claiming NCAA titles in 2015, 2017 and 2019. (And FSU, it says here, would have won in 2020 had the Big Dance been staged.) 

The ACC is a more genteel operation than the chest-thumping SEC, but one man took this Southern-based league and allowed it to look the It Just Means More crew in the eye. (Oh, and the SEC’s last men’s basketball title came in 2012.) That man was Swofford, who’s understated in a way big-time sports execs seldom are. He’s never the life of the party. He’s not an especially memorable orator. He’s just good at his job. 

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.

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About the Author

Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.
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