Former ACC Commissioner John Swofford:
“I’ve Never Seen As Much Change In College Athletics In Such A Short Period”

From: “In The Front Row,” with Mike Vaccaro

John Swofford, the longest-tenured commissioner (1997-2021) in Atlantic Coast Conference history, visited this week with UNC Wilmington “Voice of the Seahawks” Mike Vaccaro on the “In The Front Row” podcast (link at bottom).

Below are select quotes from that 52-minute interview, which tackles dozens of interesting topics, well beyond those mentioned here.

On his proudest accomplishment as ACC commissioner: “We built on a very solid culture that existed when I took the job, and I’m very proud of the culture that was left there (when he retired in 2021) and was built during that time. … You really have to build a level of trust around that table to get anything accomplished. I think we — emphasis on we — did that really well. So that would be the thing that stands out the most to me.”

On the difficult challenge of navigating the multiple ACC expansion/realignment issues that occurred on his watch: “Particularly, the early (ACC) expansions were tough, because some people wanted it, some people didn’t. It was an adjustment for the fans, but for the long-term viability of the league, it was absolutely necessary. There’s no question in my mind about that.”

On key ACC decision-makers and the nature of their interactions: “In a conference, you’ve got, obviously, presidents and coaches and athletic directors, and they’re very competitive people. … You’re asking them to make collective decisions that are in the best interest of the whole, while they’re competing with each other in recruiting, on the field, on the court. They’re competing with each other in every way, including the presidents in a way, because they’re competing for money, they’re competing for students, they’re competing for their own academic rankings and that type of thing; (the presidents just) don’t show it as much as the coaches and the athletic directors.”

On the gradual but massive growth of the importance of college football, as compared to men’s basketball, over his 50 years in NCAA sports: “In the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, the ACC made a lot more money in basketball than it did in football, collectively, and that was fine at that point in time. But the world started changing, and if you had much vision, and you’re in the business, you could tell: This thing is turning, and football revenues are beginning to dominate this, and that has continued. As important as basketball is, and the revenues from basketball, and the ACC does a tremendous job there, we had to develop the football side of things, business-wise and competitively.”

On the importance of upgrading ACC football, with the additions of Florida State in the early 1990s and additional schools during more recent rounds of expansion: “We finally got our football back, to a degree, in a world in which now you pretty much have to have some success in football as a league to generate what you need to generate (financially). That was one of the main reasons we felt like we really needed to expand — more markets, television-wise, and more schools that could carry the football torch to a degree, too. … The (football) depth always was a little bit of an issue. Our best teams were as good as anybody’s in the country, obviously, but we had a slow run there for a decade or so, when we were in the BCS era. … Ultimately, Florida State had its great run, and Clemson having its great run, certainly has helped the league tremendously.”

On the most difficult stretch of his 24-year tenure as ACC commissioner: “It was very challenging (at the end). Just candidly, the COVID year was about as challenging as it gets, because everything was right in front of your face, and you’re trying to play games and trying to do them in a way that protects your athletes and the people who might be coming to those games. There wasn’t a class at Ohio University, in sports management or sports administration, on how to deal with a pandemic. (Laughs.) That was about as challenging as anything in my entire career. I loved challenges, always did, but that was a different kind of challenge. … I was very proud about our schools, and how they came together and worked through issues during a very, very challenging and difficult time.”

On how the college sports world has changed in the two-plus years since his retirement: “College athletics changes. Some of the challenges are always the same, but new ones emerge. I will say, in the three years I’ve been out, and I’m not the one dealing with these things now … in my almost 50-year career in college athletics, starting from the time I was a player, I’ve never seen as much change in college athletics in such a short period of time, and it’s dramatic change, with the transfer portal and NIL (name-image-likeness). It looks very different than it did even three years ago. I feel for the commissioners, the ADs, the coaches in making an adjustment to such fundamental, broad changes and having to do it basically on the run.”

On his optimism/concerns about NCAA sports moving forward: “I’ve always been a huge believer that college athletics is very, very resilient, and I think it’s something very important to our way of life in this country. It’ll find its way through this, and people are still gonna love watching the games. I just hope we never lose the educational aspect of it, the opportunity for young people to participate in a sport — whatever sport that may be — at the highest level competitively and gain an education and have the opportunity to have that education at the same time. We’re the only country in the world that has that type of system, and I hope through all these changes, the educational part of it doesn’t get damaged.”

On how he has had fun with his inductions into various halls of fame: “I get a kick … I tell my kids every now and then, on the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, which I’m also very proud of, I tell ‘em, ‘I’m in the same Hall of Fame with Michael (Jordan) and Arnie (Palmer). Michael and Arnie and I are in the same Hall of Fame!” (Laughs.) And they just roll their eyes.”