A conversation with ACC commissioner John Swofford

Swofford, in his 15th year as ACC commissioner, shared his thoughts on, among other things, the "traumatic" process of conference realignment, the move toward a college football playoff and the recent blemishes on the ACC's record of integrity.

Q: What do you think are the two or three most important issues facing college athletics right now?

A: I think the first is maintaining the collegiate model in a very commercialized world. By that, I mean the balance of running the business of college sports in an educational setting while keeping the best interests of the student-athletes first. . . .  No. 2 is finding the right governance approach nationally that best serves an increasingly heterogeneous NCAA membership. We've got wide gaps within our divisions at the NCAA level in terms of financial support, public support, fan support and ability to fund programs. . . . And No. 3, I think, would be restoring the integrity in terms of rules adherence and process. I don't think college athletics is bankrupt or broken, but I think we definitely need a direction, if you will. In fact, I think we must have it. We need fewer and simpler rules and a process that [is] consistent and understandable to both the public and the membership.

Q: Did NCAA investigations within the past year of rules violations at North Carolina, Miami and Georgia Tech damage the ACC's brand? And if so how do you go about rebuilding it?

A: Well, you go about rebuilding it by not having any further problems of that nature. I think the ACC brand, from an integrity standpoint, has built up a great deal of equity over the years because if you look at any of the major conferences in the country over five or 10 or 20 years, the ACC has the fewest major NCAA incidents by a long shot. . . . So [the recent series of problems] was very disappointing because it flies in the face of what this league has been all about. . . . I hope and believe that most people understand the commitment to integrity and the record of it, and that's something [to which] we need to collectively recommit ourselves.

Q: Do you expect conference alignments nationally to remain in flux or to settle down for a period of time?

A: I hope it will settle down for a while. I think the whole collegiate enterprise needs that. It's been kind of a traumatic time in recent years, and the effects have been nationwide. I've been in this business over 35 years, and I've never seen the sense of instability that was there a year to two years ago. There were things that happened –- and some things that almost happened but didn't -- that were somewhat unthinkable.

Q: Looking back on last year's round of realignment, was there a sense of panic that caused some folks to jump too quickly?

A: I can't really gauge that in terms of other conferences. I feel very good about how our conference approached all of that with a lot of thought. . . .  We quietly evaluated it and came to the conclusion that it would be wise to go ahead and expand our footprint and bring in two schools that fit our academic and athletic profile very well and also close the geographic gap between Boston College and Maryland so that now we have nine contiguous states. That's why we feel we are so well positioned for the future.

Q: So is the ACC not now thinking in terms of expansion to 16?

A: I think the best way to answer that is we are very settled right now with 14, very happy with 14. I don't think that means we would never consider 16, but it's not something that is on our plate at this given point in time.

Q: What is the latest on when Syracuse and Pitt will begin play in the league?

A: We know they will not be with us in ‘12-13, and beyond that, we will respect Pitt and Syracuse and their working with the Big East on the departure.

Q: Are you concerned about the revenue disparity between the ACC's television contract and some other leagues' larger deals? Will a renegotiation of your ESPN contract address that?

A: It will. One of the benefits of our expansion . . . is that it allows us to renegotiate our television contract. A lot of TV negotiation is timing and circumstance. The deal we made just a couple of years ago was an outstanding one at the time, [but] circumstances changed and other players came into the marketplace. So the relativity of it changed sooner than we would have ever dreamed, but this gives us the opportunity to [alter] that arrangement, and we're in the process of doing that.

Q: One report had each ACC school gaining an extra $1 million to $2 million per year from the renegotiation. Is that correct?

A: We haven't finalized that yet. I'd rather not comment on that at this point, other than to say that I think we're going to be very pleased with where we are financially when all is said and done.

Q: In 2008, you and [the SEC's] Mike Slive were the only commissioners from BCS conferences to support a four-team football playoff. Now, there seems to be broad support. What changed?

A: What is evident is the collective feeling within the room that change is needed beyond tweaking. . . . I think there's a collective realization that there's enough dissatisfaction with the current system that it's really important to step back and make it better. . . . Now, where that will lead us, I don't know. Over the next few months, the [BCS] commissioners will continue to have meetings and ultimately will take the leaning of our group to our respective conferences and get the feedback of conference [members] and presidents. That's where the decisions ultimately will be made, but we've got a lot of work to do between now and then.

Q: Is it fair to say the group is leaning toward a four-team playoff?

A: It's a little early to say that. I don't think we're going to see an NFL-type playoff, [but] there is a receptiveness to discuss more teams being involved beyond just the [current] two. A four-team approach can be done in multiple ways.

Q: Is there an inclination to limit the field to conference champions?

A: Not yet. That would be part of the discussion. I think winning your conference championship is important in the overall scheme of things and maintaining the quality of the regular season.

Q: With the ACC's geographical proximity to the SEC, do the SEC's six consecutive football national championships cast a shadow, especially in light of the ACC's record [2-13] in BCS bowls?

A: First of all, you give credit where credit is due, and that is a remarkable run [by the SEC]. Beyond that, we just need to be the best we can possibly be, regardless of anybody else, and I think that is where our programs are focused. We've had some real good things happen in ACC football, but we can do better on the national stage than we have done over the past decade.  I am fully confident we will do that.

Q: ACC schools had mixed opinions about the NCAA legislation authorizing multi-year scholarships, replacing the previous practice of offering one-year renewable scholarships.  [Six members, including Georgia Tech, voted last month to override the legislation.]  Why was there such a split?

A: I think some of [the opposition] was a concern from a financial standpoint; some of it was a philosophical concern; some of it was due to the fact that we had multi-year scholarships years ago and they were eliminated. I think others felt that a stronger commitment to the athletes was appropriate at this given point in time. . . . The devil is in the details with this and the [proposed $2,000 stipend for athletes] as well. I think  some [schools] are philosophically in favor of both but not happy that maybe the details were not tied down to the degree they would have wanted.

Q: Now that the override failed and multi-year scholarships will be permitted [but not required], do you expect all ACC schools to offer them?

A: I suspect that they will, but it is up to each institution to do what it believes is in its best interest.

Q: Do you see the NCAA basketball tournament growing larger than 68 teams in the near future?

A: I don't think so. I suspect it'll settle at 68 for a while, and that discussion will come at some point down the road. . . . The larger it gets, what effect does that have on the regular season and on how special it is to be in the tournament? Those are things we have to weigh looking forward.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.