John Swofford announced this June that the 2020-21 athletic year would be his final year as the ACC Commissioner. With all the twists and turns the year has presented, his veteran leadership has proved far more valuable than one could have imagined. In fact, his final year may prove to be the one that defines much of his career’s legacy.
Before becoming the conference commissioner, Swofford was a QB and DB for UNC in 1970 and 1971. After getting a graduate degree from Ohio, Swofford worked under Virginia AD (and future ACC Commissioner) Gene Corrigan before landing a job back at his alma mater. In 1980, he rose to be the Athletic Director for the Tar Heels at just 31 years old. He held that position until 1997 when he took on the leadership role for the entire conference.
Back then, the conference was composed of just nine schools: Georgia Tech, Florida State and the seven remaining charter members (the eighth charter member, U of SC, left in 1971). There was no conference championship game and Florida State was riding a five-year conference title streak. A lot has changed in the over two decades of John Swofford’s leadership.
Throughout all that change, Clemson fans have been somewhat sour on his performance in the role. The negativity is often focused on him being too Tobacco Road-centric and focusing too much on basketball (at the expense of football). Here’s a sampling of Clemson fans’ ire (via 2013 Reddit post):
Swofford is a graduate of UNC, and their former AD. As a result, UNC is the most influential school in the conference. UNC, Duke, and NCST are all within a few miles of one another, and all band together to get their wishes.
There have been plenty of experiences that formed this perception in the collective consciousness of Clemson fans. While a lot of decisions are made by member voting, the credit or blame belongs to the leader.
Adding Pittsburgh and Syracuse to the ACC was generally not well received by Clemson’s football-first fan base. Both were mediocre on the football field in the years preceding the additions (Syracuse was just 13-12 in their last two years in the Big East while Pitt was only 12-14) and are undoubtedly “basketball schools.” It was explained as a move to add major TV markets, even though the dynamic was already shifting away from that old school geographic model.
Related to TV markets, the ACC Network coming years after the Big Ten and SEC Networks and failing to land a deal with cable Goliath Comcast is another pain point.
A more emotional situation that inflames the passions of Tiger fans is how the Tar Heels avoided penalty for their academic transgressions when they hosted fake classes for student athletes. It is often said that John Swofford pushed for additional sanctions on Clemson for the 1985 season after the NCAA put Clemson on probation for the 1983 and 1984 seasons. In reality, the ACC voted 7-0 to uphold the additional year of probation. In another appeal, it was upheld 5-2 with only Wake Forest and Maryland siding with the Tigers. Swofford was far too young and early in his AD role at UNC to have taken a leadership role in pushing for the extra year of sanctions. The hypocrisy may be overblown, but it is hot button nonetheless.
Finally, in baseball, the conference finds itself locked into a deal with the Durham Bulls’ stadium for the ACC tournament. A rotation that includes some much closer and/or appealing sites such as the Fluor Field in Greenville or Pelicans Ballpark in Myrtle Beach would garner excitement, yet it in the heart of Tobacco Road is where it remains - despite their lack of ability to fill the stadium.
While some of those critiques are well-founded, the broader story of John Swofford’s career is one that kept the ACC among the power conferences, adapted to the changing landscape of college football, and played a significant role in saving the 2020 college season and therefore dozens on non-revenue sport jobs and scholarships in the years to come.
One of the biggest moves of the Swofford era remains the additions of Miami and Virginia Tech in 2004 and Boston College in 2005. Miami was 35-3 in the three years prior to joining the ACC. While they’ve fallen far short of expectations, they’re 71-57 in ACC play through 2019 and off to a hot start in 2020. Virginia Tech has been a huge success in the ACC winning the conference four times and finishing as runner-up three more times. Boston College joined the next year. The Eagles have been mostly solid, and importantly gave the ACC 12 teams. With 12 members, the conference split into the Atlantic and Coastal Divisions and began hosting an ACC Championship game.
The introduction of the ACC title game in 2005 followed the SEC which started in 1992 and Big 12 which started in 1996 (but had a hiatus from 2011-2016). It came before the Big Ten and Pac-10 in 2011 and kept the ACC from being the laggards. With the on-field success of FSU and Miami in the preceding years, Jacksonville and then Tampa were the first two host sites before settling on Charlotte. Not jumping immediately to North Carolina was a sign that mollifying Tobacco Road wasn’t Swofford’s priority.
He also deserves credit for working out one of the most unique win-win agreements in college sports. Starting in 2013, Notre Dame joined the ACC as a partial member. While it may seem like capitulation to let them join without being a full member in football, the reality is it brought $1 million dollars per school via a more attractive TV deal. That’s in large part because the deal requires them to play five football games against ACC teams each year (they’d prefer not to schedule Duke and Wake Forest). The deal also ensures that if the landscape ever changes and they become willing to join a conference it’ll have to be the ACC. When you’re watching UNC vs. Notre Dame instead of UNC vs. Charlotte, you can thank Commissioner Swofford.
Another defining situation was how he handled Maryland leaving the ACC. The Terrapins were offered a spot in the Big Ten, and with the money the Big Ten Network was raking in and the financial woes of their athletic department they couldn’t resist. While this was partially the ACC’s fault for falling behind with their TV deal and release of their network, Swofford’s response was great. He demanded they pay the previously negotiated exit fee, and eventually settled on $31.4 million from Maryland. Then he replaced the Terrapins with a program that is generally better in football, basketball, and baseball - the Louisville Cardinals.
With COVID-19 adding layers of complications to playing sports, Commissioner Swofford’s final year on the job has proven to be his most difficult and most memorable. Amid conflicting information, clouds of uncertainty, and intense pressure, his experienced leadership was key in guiding the ACC to be the first Power 5 conference to take the field. Contrasted against the rookie commissioner of the Big Ten, Kevin Warren, it is easy to be grateful for Swofford’s leadership.
The ACC delayed their season for one week and moved to a 10+1 model that allowed for one non-conference game. When the SEC released their plan almost immediately after, which did not include a non-conference game, all the blame for the cancellation of ACC-SEC rivalry games landed on the SEC. Avoiding a long delay to the start of the season and pushing the ACC championship back two weeks gave the ACC three bye weeks. That has already proven valuable as several games have been rescheduled. Again, contrasted against the Big Ten playing nine games in nine weeks, it’s clear the ACC handled this challenging situation brilliantly.
As his time as ACC Commissioner nears its end, John Swofford’s overall legacy is looking more impressive than ever, and in an unlikely turn of events that could only happen in 2020, I’m finding myself extremely grateful for Swofford’s leadership in the ACC.