Mr. CFB: John Swofford 's Bold And Sometimes Controversial Moves Secured the Long-Term Future of the ACC

Under commissioner John Swofford, the ACC expanded from nine to 14 teams while adding Notre Dame in every sport but football.Jeremy Brevard/USA Today

Tony Barnhart

When John Swofford announced that he was retiring as ACC Commissioner in June of 2021, a significant page in the history of college athletics was turned.

You may disagree, but to this correspondent the modern-day enterprise of college athletics is divided into two parts: Before the Bowl Championship Series and after.

Because it was the BCS, launched in 1998, and the dollars generated by it that set college athletics on a path to the College Football Playoff, which was started in 2014 and now pays out about $608 million per year. It changed everything.

Swofford, who has been the ACC commissioner for 23 years, is the last of the original six conference commissioners who formed the BCS.

Here is the list of those commissioners with their successors in parentheses:

Roy Kramer, SEC, retired 2002 (Mike Slive)

Kevin Weiberg, Big 12, retired 2007 (Bob Bowlsby)

Tom Hansen, Pac-12, retired 2009 (Larry Scott)

Mike Tranghese, Big East, retired 2009 (John Marinatto)

Jim Delany, Big Ten, retired 2020 (Kevin Warren)

John Swofford, ACC, retired 2021 (TBD)

All of the above commissioners had their challenges and left their legacies: 

Roy Kramer left a huge footprint as he expanded the SEC to 12 teams by adding South Carolina and Arkansas and created the first conference championship game in 1992. The rest of the conferences would soon follow. He was also the godfather of the BCS.

Delany retired this year leaving the Big Ten in incredible financial shape, with each of its teams receiving $54.8 million in shared revenue compared to the SEC’s $45.3 million. For his work he is set to receive more than $20 million in future bonus payments.

But it was Swofford, the former North Carolina quarterback and athletics director, who had to navigate the choppiest waters in order to walk away next year with the ACC in good shape, both competitively and financially.

Think about where the ACC was when Swofford took over for Gene Corrigan in 1997. Corrigan was one of the most powerful commissioners in the history of intercollegiate athletics. Through the sheer force of his personality and will, Corrigan brought Florida State into the conference for the 1992 season when the majority of the button-down schools in the conference wanted no part of the Seminoles. But Florida State and Bobby Bowden made the ACC relevant in football on a national stage, winning a national championship in 1993 and another in 1999.

When Swofford took over in 1997, the SEC had already expanded to 12 teams and had created a conference championship game. The SEC had also lined up a weekly national football broadcast on CBS. The BCS was a year away from starting. He looked up at saw the Big Ten’s Delany, who played basketball at North Carolina for Dean Smith, who had added Penn State and was destined to grow even more.

Swofford faced some hard truths. As great as the ACC was in basketball, the financial future of college athletics was going to rest with football. In order to negotiate from a position of strength in future television contracts, the ACC would have to expand.

It was not a pretty process. There were hard feelings created that exist to this day.

How ugly did it get?

Let’s just say that Swofford and Mike Tranghese, the former Big East Commissioner, don’t exchange Christmas cards each year.

In 2004 the ACC dipped into the Big East to add Miami and Virginia Tech in June and then Boston College before the year was out. Then in 2011 the ACC added Pittsburgh and Syracuse to make it a 14-team conference. There were lawsuits against the ACC from Big East schools claiming that the ACC was systematically destroying their future as a major football conference. The lawsuit was ultimately settled.

“I respect the right for people to leave but there is a way to do business, Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese said on a radio show in 2011. “And they’ve done it twice and they’ve bludgeoned it.”

But Swofford insists to this day that the ACC could not maintain its viability in football as a nine-team conference while others were going to 12.

“Where would we have been under those circumstances?” Swofford said at the time. “The answer is not in a very good place.”

Then in 2012 Swofford pulled off another very important move. Given the struggles of the Big East, Notre Dame was looking for a new home for all of its sports but football. The ACC agreed to be that home with two very important stipulations:

 1) Notre Dame would agree to play five of its 12 regular-season football games each year against teams from the ACC, which was a huge boost for ticket sales in the ACC and 2) Should Notre Dame determine to give up its independent status in football before 2035, it was contractually bound to join the ACC.

But also in 2012 Maryland, a charter member of the ACC in 1953, shocked the world by leaving to join the Big Ten and its promises of greater riches.

The ACC and Swofford responded by convincing Louisville of the Big East to join. And then came the most important move of all.

Knowing that the ACC was still vulnerable to further poaching should the SEC choose to expand, Swofford met with his presidents and convinced them to sign a “Grant of Rights.” Simply stated, if teams chose to leave the ACC they would not only be fined $50 million, but they would also forfeit their television rights. It was an enforced promise of solidarity.

Swofford had made it pretty clear to those who knew him that he wanted to get the ACC television network launched before he and his wife, Nora, rode off into the sunset to spend more time with their grandchildren. That happened last August.

“Nora and I have been playing for this to be my last year for some time,” Swofford said last Thursday. “I look forward to enjoying the remarkable friendships and memories I’ve been blessed with long after I leave this chair.”

In his time the ACC has won four national championships in football--Florida State in 1999, 2013 and Clemson in 2016 and 2018. The ACC has won eight NCAA championships in men’s basketball: three by Duke, three by North Carolina, and one each by Maryland and Virginia.

“John has been the bedrock of the ACC,” said Dan Radakovich, the athletics director at Clemson. “The years of his tenure have seen tremendous success and growth.”

Not only was Swofford a visionary—the No. 1 trait a commissioner must have—he was a consensus builder. He convinced his presidents and athletics directors that the status quo was unacceptable. The ACC had to get bigger and better if it wanted to keep moving forward.

Take the Big 12. Former commissioner Kevin Weiberg told the members of his league that a conference television network was going to be the wave of the future. But the blue bloods in his conference (Oklahoma, Texas) would not listen. So Texas A&M and Missouri left for the SEC, Nebraska left for the Big Ten and Colorado went to the Pac-12. The Big 12 added West Virginia and TCU and now has 10 teams. And the Pac-12 is more vulnerable than it’s ever been.

The point is this: Had Swofford not made the tough decisions to expand and bring in Notre Dame, the ACC would not be as strong as it is as he prepares to pass the baton next year.

He inherited a strong conference from Gene Corrigan and made it better.

It has been a job well done.

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Tony Barnhart

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