John Swofford announced that he’ll be retiring next year after nearly a quarter-century as ACC commissioner and instantly created one of the biggest vacancies in the sports world.
The change at the top will come at a time when the ACC, and all of college sports, are in a time of great change. The ACC Network will be entering just its third year when Swofford’s successor takes over. The question of whether it will develop into the revenue-producing machine the conference office hoped will still be open.
Sports will still likely be feeling the aftereffects of the pandemic that threw everything into disarray this year. Questions about how to safely get college athletes in front of capacity houses will still need to be answered.
Then there are the big issues facing the college model, as athletes look to get more freedom to earn off of their name, image and likeness.
It will be a big job. Fortunately, there is no shortage of qualified candidates.
One reason for Swofford’s success in leading change in college athletics was his ability to surround himself with capable people, most of whom have had time to develop in the ACC office in a variety of roles.
They may not be household names, but the long-tenured in-house candidates who will be considered for the job will include:
Ben Tario — A member of Swofford’s team since 2007, he’s risen to the league’s chief financial officer before turning 40. He was one of the key factors in most of the ACC’s contract negotiations, including media rights, bowl arrangements and the ACC Network.
Paul Brazeau — He’s been the senior associate commissioner for basketball since 2014 and helped take the conference tournament to Brooklyn and D.C. Prior to that, he served in the same role for the Big East and AAC and also had a 10-year stint as the NBA’s vice president of basketball operations.
Michael Strickland — The senior associate commissioner for football operations, he’s been in charge of the conference’s championship game since 2013.
Lee Butler — The conference’s assistant commissioner for basketball, he’s been with the ACC since 2010, also serving as associate director for championships.
In addition to their skills and experience, the internal candidates also have the additional benefit of representing schools that are (relatively) new to the ACC. Tario went to Florida State, Brazeau has roots in the Big East, and Butler played basketball at Miami. The conference has been careful in the past to make sure that all member schools feel represented by the commissioner’s office, and this will be the first opportunity for the expansion era schools to get a say.
Michael Kelly — He’s external now, but Kelly spent years as the ACC’s senior associate commissioner for communications and football operations. Since then, he’s gone on to become the first COO of the College Football Playoff and currently serves as athletic director for South Florida. That’s significant since no one has been named ACC commissioner without AD experience since Wallace Wade, who was interim commissioner for the league’s first year of existence.
Bernadette McGlade — The world has changed in the 24 years since the ACC last searched for a new commissioner, and this will likely be the first time that female candidates will get serious consideration. McGlade should be one of the top candidates of either gender. Like Kelly, she spent a long time in the league office, working with women’s sports for 11 years after a successful career playing and coaching at Georgia Tech. She’s spent the last dozen years as commissioner of a major conference, heading the Atlantic 10.
Carla Williams — The ACC didn’t go wrong the last time it looked at an AD from Virginia for its top spot. Gene Corrigan had seven years at Notre Dame in between his time at UVA and his promotion to conference commissioner. Williams, who has presided over UVA during a time of great success for its programs, including a national title in basketball and Coastal title in football, as well as a significant facilities upgrade, will be a strong contender for the commissioner’s spot. She’d also be the first African American woman to be named commissioner of a Power Five conference.
Jack Swarbrick — The Notre Dame to ACC commish pipeline paid off with Corrigan. Now, with Notre Dame a partial member of the conference, it would make even more sense to select the school’s AD for the top job.
After the favorites, there are plenty of other candidates to consider. The list would include Clemson AD Dan Radakovich, NC State AD (and son of Gene Corrigan) Boo Corrigan and former senior associate commissioner/men’s basketball operations at the ACC Karl Hicks, who has also worked at FSU and with the NCAA.