John Swofford earned the nickname “Ninja Commissioner” for his innate ability to wield influence and work behind the scenes to stealthily broker deals that benefitted the ACC.
But he was just as comfortable stepping front-and-center into the spotlight as the face of the conference whenever the situation required it.
Such was the case last March when he opened himself up to media questioning at a press conference the morning the league’s signature event — its men’s basketball tournament — was canceled. He followed that up with an impassioned speech on the floor of Greensboro Coliseum once the plug was pulled.
The now-retired commissioner didn’t always have the right answers, as illustrated by his desire to continue playing even as other sports entities were bowing out in response to coronavirus concerns. But at least you knew he was in charge and that, right or wrong, the ACC had a clear direction.
It’s the kind of leadership that was glaringly missing last week when the conclusion of this year’s tournament unexpectedly found itself hanging in the balance.
Instead of being a reassuring face of the conference during a tenuous 48-hour stretch that saw Duke and Virginia both forfeit games because of positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing, and North Carolina’s Roy Williams — however briefly — considering opting out of a semifinal matchup with Florida State as a precaution, Swofford’s replacement Jim Phillips chose to go into ninja mode.
Not once did he make himself available to address the questions that demanded answers.
What exactly is going on? How is the league handling the situation? What, if anything, is the plan should one or more of the three remaining semifinalists drop out?
Phillips didn’t even go on his league’s own network to field softballs lobbed at him by Packer & Durham.
It took public shaming on social media for him to finally issue a statement. And even then, it read as though it was written by a low-level public relations staffer rather than someone that had control during a difficult situation.
“I’m heartbroken for our student-athletes, coaches and support staff at both Duke and Virginia,” the statement said. “Our teams have worked incredibly hard and sacrificed so much throughout this season. We continue to be led by our ACC Medical Advisory Group and the protocols put in place that have allowed our teams to safely compete during the 2020-21 season.
“We will follow the lead of our medical personnel to ensure the health and safety of our programs remain the top priority. Our student-athletes and schools have been remarkable this entire season while enduring incredibly challenging circumstances.”
In fairness, there’s not much Phillips could have said or done that would have changed the situation as it was playing out.
But by coming forward and publicly addressing the uncertainty, he could at least have provided a calming voice during a time of crisis.
It’s the reason politicians go up in a helicopter to survey the damage after a natural disaster. While their presence does little to substantively help those adversely affected, the show of leadership does reassure them that somebody cares.
And that somebody is in charge.
As it turned out, disaster was averted. The final two games were played and the trio of UNC, Florida State and eventual champion Georgia Tech rose to the occasion with performances — and, in the case of the Yellow Jackets’ Jose Alvarado, a postgame interview — that will be remembered long after any off-the-court drama has become a mere footnote to history.
That doesn’t change the fact that the ACC’s new commissioner wasted an important opportunity by creating doubt about his ability to lead.
Yes, leadership styles are different, as are personalities. And it does take time to grow into a job, especially when replacing someone the stature of Ninja Swofford.
At the same time, you only get one chance to make a first impression. And Phillips airballed his.