Swofford left indelible mark on ACC sports

The longtime conference commissioner, who plans to retire following the 2020-21 academic year, deftly navigated the league through expansion

John Swofford, who guided the Atlantic Coast Conference as commissioner for more than two decades, will retire following the 2020-21 academic year. (Chuck Burton / AP Photo)

John Swofford has been the face of the ACC through an unprecedented two-decade stretch of transformative change.

He guided the league through an expansion that grew it from a compact nine-school unit into a 15-team megaconference with members spread out along the entire length of the Eastern Seaboard and as far west as Indiana.

He brokered a media rights deal that ensures the league’s stability well into the future and has seen his dream of a dedicated ACC Network become a reality.

But even as Swofford takes the first steps toward retirement from the job he’s held since 1997, the longest-tenured commissioner in ACC history still has several important challenges left to face before stepping down at the end of the 2020-21 athletic year.

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Regardless of how he and the conference negotiate their way through the global pandemic that has already wiped out an NCAA basketball tournament and an entire spring season, along with the contentious “name, image and likeness” debate, Swofford’s legacy is already secure.

Love him or hate him — as many at NC State and Clemson, in particular, do because of his ties to rival North Carolina and the sanctions he once orchestrated against the Tigers’ football program — there is no denying that the ACC wouldn’t exist today, at least not in its current form, if not for Swofford’s decisive leadership.

“His foresight related to expansion, not once but twice, kept the ACC not only ahead of the other conferences,” said Gary Stokan, CEO of the Peach Bowl and an NC State graduate, “but allowed the league to build a strong and long-lasting foundation that has allowed them to thrive both on and off the field.”

As stable as the ACC has become today as one of the NCAA’s Power Five conferences, its future was anything but certain when the wheels of conference realignment began turning in the mid-2000s.

The league had a target squarely on its back as the SEC and Big 12, in particular, began making overtures toward several member schools, especially football powers Clemson and Florida State.

But instead of sitting back and waiting to fend off potential poachers in what would eventually become a Darwinian battle of the fittest, Swofford ensured the ACC’s survival by convincing conference administrators to fire a preemptive strike — raiding the Big East for new additions Virginia Tech, Miami, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Boston College and, eventually, Notre Dame in all sports but football.

“John Swofford oversaw and successfully navigated the Atlantic Coast Conference through the most dramatic era of change in its storied history,” Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Since 1997, John worked to represent the best interests of all ACC institutions, now up to 15 after the latest round of expansion, in pursuit of making the league the best version of itself.”

Among his other notable accomplishments are the establishment of a conference football championship game, a financially lucrative affiliation with the Orange Bowl, basketball’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge and the hiring of the league’s first full-time women’s basketball administrator.

“It has been a privilege to be a part of the ACC for over five decades and my respect and appreciation for those associated with the league throughout its history is immeasurable,” Swofford said in a statement announcing his retirement plans. “Having been an ACC student-athlete, athletics director and commissioner has been an absolute honor.”

A native of North Wilkesboro, the 71-year-old Swofford was a Morehead Scholar who was part of coach Bill Dooley’s first football recruiting class at UNC. He started at quarterback as a sophomore and finished his career as a defensive back on the Tar Heels’ 1971 ACC championship team.

Swofford became the athletic director at his alma mater at the age of 31 in 1980. Under his leadership, UNC won more ACC and NCAA championships than any previous AD in league history. Under his watch as commissioner, the ACC has won 92 national team titles in 19 of the league’s 27 sponsored sports.

“John Swofford is the best commissioner I ever worked with in 32 years as a head coach,” Tar Heels’ basketball coach Roy Williams said. “He truly has the best interests of student-athletes on his mind at every moment. He cares about people whether they are players, coaches, administrators or student managers.

“I’ve known John since we were in college together and worked with him when he began his administrative career in athletics as the business manager and I was an assistant with Coach (Dean Smith). He is genuinely a great individual and one I am very happy to call a close friend.”