SI: How John Swofford brought stability to the ACC

John Swofford (again) showed his true colors when he went to Indianapolis to support UNC-Chapel Hill's appeal of its nine major NCAA infractions.  Swofford NEVER attended a Committee on Infractions hearing for any other ACC school during his tenure as commissioner.  And he didn’t object when a UNC athletic official explained Swofford's presence by noting, “He’s a Tar Heel.”

John Swofford (again) showed his true colors when he went to Indianapolis to support UNC-Chapel Hill’s appeal of its nine major NCAA infractions. Swofford NEVER attended a Committee on Infractions hearing for any other ACC school during his tenure as commissioner. And he didn’t object when a UNC athletic official explained Swofford’s presence by noting, “He’s a Tar Heel.”

If you can avoid getting too nauseous, this will be good “Sunday read”.

[snip] he did what he has done for the past 10 years. He very quietly took decisive action to strengthen — and possibly save — his conference. Swofford may look like he stepped out of a Brooks Brothers ad and into a PGA tournament pro-am. He may talk with the aristocratic drawl of the lawyer you’d call before you closed on your beach house in the Outer Banks. He may seem the personification of the Old Boy Network in an era when the Old Boy Network has watched its power erode. But make no mistake, John Swofford is a ninja. He moves quickly and quietly, and by the time his enemies — or, in his case, business rivals — realize he’s struck, it’s already too late.


It’s fitting that Swofford would shut down this period of realignment. After all, he started it in 2003 when he took Miami and Virginia Tech — and, a few months later, Boston College — from the Big East. At the time, the leagues were peers. Each was a BCS automatic qualifying conference. While the Big Ten and SEC had grown richer, the ACC and Big East remained near the top of the food chain thanks to their storied basketball programs. But the business of college sports was changing quickly. The BCS had codified the power structure, and it seemed most of the new money was coming from football. “I think that people for the most part didn’t understand how big and important football was,” former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese told the New York Times in March. “It really drove the cart.”

At least one person understood: a former North Carolina defensive back named John Swofford. “At that given point in time, as much as anything, it was looking ahead and understanding that football was going to be driving the future more than it had,” Swofford said. “We felt like we needed to be stronger and better positioned both from a football and a marketplace standpoint.”

In addition to framing the big picture of the developments of conference re-alignment the article takes a look at some of the specific moves Swofford executed in recent months.

I’m actually pretty torn on the Swofford conversation – this article chooses to heap obscene amounts of praise on Swofford keeping things together over a 10 year period. A critic would take the position that the only reason he had to do so much work to keep things together was because of many of his own mis-steps. Both sides would be right. But, I do think it is fascinating how Swofford can get so much praise for leadership that effectively put the conference at such risk and coming up with the ‘innovative’ idea of effectively merging with the Big East and keeping the ACC’s name. I tend to agree with this point from SFN message forum poster, SaccoV:

I’m not going to argue about Swofford maintaining stability within the conference (other than the Maryland defection); however, your view of his ability to IMPROVE the conference from where it was has been an utter failure. It would be one thing to say that Swofford allowed FSU and Miami and Va Tech in and the football improved as a result. The only reason the schools were added was to create a more football-relevant conference. So far, that has been a huge failure. The basketball product, which is still the ACC’s calling card, has also had a consistent downturn over the last five years (consistently fewer NCAA bids, major coaching turnover, etc). I agree that you cannot heap the entire blame on Swofford, but you cannot with the same breath sing some praises with regard to his performance in the captain’s chair. The league is NOT in better shape now than when he took over.

For the record, I think the best of Swofford’s maneuvers is without a doubt the coup of landing Notre Dame. While the more recent ‘grant of media rights’ is the final sign of solidarity for the conference, I don’t think you ever get to that point without landing Notre Dame. Similarly, the conference may not even be around to replace Maryland with Louisville without the stability of the Fighting Irish. In the future, I expect Notre Dame ultimately has to become a full conference member in football and therefore leads to the ability for the conference to take a final 16th institution. THAT will be a very interesting conversation when the time comes.

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25 Responses to SI: How John Swofford brought stability to the ACC

  1. Wulfpack 05/19/2013 at 10:49 AM #

    There are excellent points made on both sides of the debate. He was obviously in scrambling mode not too long ago, and the conference was in jeopardy of imploding. In the end though the conference has been saved, with some excellent additions. So he counter-punched and it stuck pretty good. As far as basketball is concerned, this is going to be very fun to watch. And yes, adding Notre Dame was giant.

  2. Gowolves 05/19/2013 at 11:49 AM #

    I read somewhere recently that when Delany was asked if conference expansion or realignment was “dead” in light of the ACC media rights agreement. His response was dead is such a strong word. So take for that for what it’s worth.

  3. Pack78 05/19/2013 at 11:55 AM #

    Coaches around the country that might consider a open ACC post can easily see the pro-blue bias in the actions (and inactions) of the league office re officiating issues…strong staffs in our new additions hopefully will mitigate this kind of crap. Also, the description of Swoffy as a ‘ninja’ is sorely misplaced IMO…he is the definition of re- versus pro-active on issues

  4. Pack Mentality 05/19/2013 at 12:59 PM #

    I don’t like Swofford at all. But one thing that is not his fault is the way in which football has become more and more important financially. The ACC was behind the sec, big ten, big 12 and probably the PAC 10 when this occurred. The ACC is traditionally a basketball conference with poor to mediocre football and still is. Until the core members of the ACC improve at football it will always be that way, and no commissioner can change that.

  5. Wufpacker 05/19/2013 at 1:05 PM #

    Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.

  6. 13OT 05/19/2013 at 1:34 PM #

    Would somebody please tell me just how John Swofford has helped ACC athletics?

    During his tenure, we have seen the demise of the State-Duke and UNC-Wake Forest rivalries in both football and basketball. This has resulted in lost opportunity for the Pack and Deacons to host the “Blues” every season, which have instead been replaced by BC.

    We have also seen the creation of two divisions in football, which has hurt Wolfpack football by putting us in the much stronger Atlantic Division and limiting our games against longstanding Coastal Division rivals Duke, Georgia Tech and Virginia. This has also kept us from playing Virginia Tech as often as our Coastal opponents. The Hokies are the ONLY addition to our league since Georgia Tech that has made sense to me, but don’t credit that to Swofford- the Virginia legislature is the only reason the Gobblers are here.

    We have seen the creation of primary playing partners, which has greatly benefited the schools in Blue but not so the ones in Red. One of them, Maryland, was obviously not happy and is departing, which is another longstanding rivalry lost to the Wolfpack. ESPN helped destroy the Pack-Terps BB rivalry by creating a Duke-Maryland rivalry, but it’ll probably live on with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, as ESPN officials will make sure of who plays who in this event. And speaking of this event, kudos to the Comish for allowing Wake Forest, Clemson and Virginia Tech to be bumped out of next season’s Challenge altogether. So much for 60 years of loyalty to the league, right John?

    We have watched what we knew would happen, the continued deterioration of Miami Hurricanes football, which has, along with the Comish’s alma mater, given the league an academic black eye.

    We have seen the recent addition of Syracuse and Pittsburgh, which will do little if anything to raise the prestige of ACC football, yet Swofford and his ilk insist that football is driving the athletics bus nowadays. What the Syracuse addition will do is give greedy ACC officials a real opportunity to move the ACCT away from its roots and into the NYC market, so they can again sell it out.

    And why doesn’t the ACCT tournament sell out NOW? I could argue that it didn’t belong in Florida or Atlanta, but now it’s back in Greensboro, yet they still can’t sell tickets. So we could say that fans didn’t want to sit through a 12-team tourney, but they won’t have to with 15 teams next season and 16 the next.

    And Notre Damn, I’ve saved this for last. Allowing Notre Dame into the ACC as a partial member is the worst thing yet. ND already has its own tv network (NBC), so why should they hand over their football $$ to a league that doesn’t have its own network except secondary to the SEC? As with the Big East, the Irish will have NO intention of sharing their football revenue with the league, and I’ll bet Swofford that ND will NEVER join ACC football. The Big Ten apparently figured this one out long ago, otherwise, the Irish would have already landed in that conference. Did Swofford understand this little thingie about the Irish getting preference over the ACC in the bowl pecking order?

    Those of you on here who think Notre Dame in the ACC is great had better get a grip on reality. The reality in Swofford’s New ACC is that the richer are going to get richer and the poorer are going to get poorer. The Wolfpack falls somewhere in-between, but probably a lot closer to the poorer. We will struggle mightily in a 16-team league that will supposedly be driven by FSU-Miami-VT-Clemson football but in reality will be driven by Duke-UNC-Syracuse-Louisville basketball, the sport that still matters most to Wolfpack fans.

  7. BJD95 05/19/2013 at 2:34 PM #

    Making a special, one-sided deal with Notre Dame is one of the main factors in the Big East’s death. Now that the ACC has taken its place as the weakest major conference, naturally we double down on that mistake.

    I can guaran-damn-tee you that the stupid (I believe it’s unenforceable) assignment of rigths deal doesn’t apply to ND football. Not sure it COULD apply (failure of consideration), even if we had the stones to do something other than give ND exactly what they wanted (and that no other major conference would offer).

    All Swoffy has accomplished is make the schools with feasible options to better themselves (namely NC State, VPI, UVA, FSU, and GT) feel more anchored to the blues, in a bottom-feeder league that the blues control and get special treatment from.

    NC State has been shamefully (sadly, predictably) passive throughout this whole process, not fully exploring alternatives or even extracting so much as cosmetic promises of reform from a conference that clearly doesn’t have its best interests in mind.

    The statement is clear. NC State is quite happy to be a second class citizen in the worst major conference, despite its numerous institutional advantages.

    TAMU was our golden example, and we didn’t even make noise about leaving the kiddie table. F-ing great.

  8. tjfoose1 05/19/2013 at 5:11 PM #

    The best move that Swofford can make to help the ACC is to resign. Maybe then, the ACC will stop being the “thank you sir, may I have another?” conference.

  9. SaccoV 05/19/2013 at 7:46 PM #

    Thanks for the high praise in being cited on the big-boy blog, StateFans. As for Swoff, the worst move he made that was the impetus for the conference’s demise had to be the promotion of UN*/Duke as the premier matchup in the league. Once he gave that little biscuit away to ESPN, the RAYCOM table was pretty much barren. The move to make FB stronger with additions was correct, but the league didn’t meet the challenge of FSU; in fact, the ACC is the reason FSU is no longer a viable national championship contender–no real competition=no real champion.

    Although it appears that TAMU has drawn the most ridiculous inside Royal Flush in CFB history, I’m not as bitter about State’s position now as some of you are (and you are fully justified in your bitterness). I am just looking forward to the day my alma mater is the perennial conference champion in FB; the hey-day of NC State basketball (both in the Southern Conference and in the ACC) was when the rest of the league regarded the Pack as the litmus test. And yes, I still dream large!!

  10. graywolf 05/19/2013 at 8:20 PM #

    BJD95 is correct……

  11. Master 05/19/2013 at 8:50 PM #

    I don’t understand all the animus regarding either the intial expansion or the latest round. Swofford’s job was to make the ACC the best conference in the nation. Who would have predicted that two years removed from a National Championship that Miami start a slide toward irrelevance? Who would have predicted VaTech would struggle to reach the top 25? How about our very own FSU, a team that bumbles it’s way to 2nd place in the Atlantic division. You can’t blame that on Swofford and it’s sophmoric to try.

    My problem with Swofford is how he has sought to protect UNC over the last several years in a manner unbecoming of an unbiased commisioner. If the ACC commisioner came from State and had covered up any academic corruption at his alma mater, it would have been a hammerlock takedown on the national stage.

  12. vtpackfan 05/19/2013 at 8:55 PM #

    Agree that ND is a smoke screen. Looks like a successful coup early on and leads to to steady decline later on.

    I like replacing Louisville for UMd. The Cards are paying for their athletics to improve and results are there. Syracuse and Pitt suck. What era of football is Swoff thinking that these two are players in a football-centric world?

    The “U” bombed on us. VT has been great but nets a Zero at best with the BC shackle.

    I actually like this conference more in non rev sports more than ever. BBall may improve (it can’t get much worse), but football is a complete joke. ND could never stoop low enough to join as a football member.

  13. john of sparta 05/19/2013 at 9:30 PM #

    2 cents:
    our demographics of alumni and students hurt us.
    1. the alumni demo during our prominence in the 80’s
    might have grandchildren by now.
    2. the student demo is increasingly foreign-born.
    major media advertisers for TV sports avoid both.
    this post is already too long, so might as well…….

    the ACC goes to TV with a packaged pitch of
    East Coast Eyeballs. Swofford sez we have half
    of them watching collegiate sports. Swoff wins.
    BC/Duke gets the super-rich demo ($61K tuition).
    UNC/UVa locks up loads of “living here” fans.
    FSU/Miami/NCSU sweep the floor with what’s left.
    (not a Gator Fan? hate Duke and Carolina?)…soooo…
    what to do next ? Nab Notre Dame. Swoff wins again.
    yeah, he’s an assHat, but so was Steve Jobs in and out
    and back in with Apple. call it iACC. i don’t care.

  14. 13OT 05/19/2013 at 9:47 PM #

    Until last season, Notre Dame football was seldom better nationally than fair to mediocre. Yet they maintained their independence and television network (NBC).

    Now, they’re better, plus they’re going to play a much easier schedule with 5 teams from a mediocre conference replacing the Michigans and Michigan States on their schedule. This will only make Notre Dame even better, increasing the likelihood that they’ll never join the ACC in football. Why should they?

    Worse yet, why would any conference comish think that they would do this? They didn’t in the Big East; they won’t in the ACC.

    If this represents stability for the ACC, then let’s just get it over with and bring UConn into the league.

  15. blpack 05/19/2013 at 10:41 PM #

    Interesting opinions. I think Swoff’s moves ten years haven’t turned out well and he has spent the rest of his time trying to keep the league from imploding.

  16. wolfmanmat 05/20/2013 at 7:06 AM #

    Does anyone think without the additions of Miami, VT that the original ACC would be any different than the Catholic 7? The problem with the ACC is that we have Duke, Wake, UNC, UVa, even State who are NOT football schools. The Big 10 has Northwestern and the SEC as Vandy, but by and large every other school in their conference is football school in terms of both revenue and facilities. Swoff did his best to add football schols with VT and Miami and now that it is obvious that the rest of the ACC programs can’t/won’t be football schools, he is adding basktball programs. With Louisville, Pitt, Cuse, we are the best baskeball conference in the country most year.

  17. packof81 05/20/2013 at 10:31 AM #

    How bad will it have to get before we leave this conference?

  18. Lumpy 05/20/2013 at 10:33 AM #

    I’m not sure how you can heap so much praise on Swofford for the ’03 expansion. I’m not sure anyone could have foreseen the marginalization of Miami for their ’00-’02 levels to now, and they were certainly a hot commodity when we got them. He was looking to make the FSU-Miami game the ACC’s Ohio State-Michigan. Instead both programs hit the skids and the team he was forced to take- VT -becomes the premier program in the conference. His original version would’ve had them replaced with an awful decade of Syracuse football. He has continuously poached the Big East, which is the only conference to take football less seriously than the ACC, and the day ND says they’ll play as a full member of the ACC in football is the day I give Swofford props for the move. Until then, you’re just another sucker who gives the rest of their athletic programs a home while they get to do whatever they want in football.
    And although Maryland can certainly justify its move to the B1G from a dollars and cents standpoint, there is no way they even start looking for a new home unless they didn’t feel completely overlooked by the ACC leadership due to the focus always being on what’s best for UNC and Duke in basketball.

  19. VaWolf82 05/20/2013 at 11:09 AM #

    The league is NOT in better shape now than when he took over.

    The teams are not any better, but the ACC is certainly more stable and thus is in better shape.

    I’m not going to argue with BJD over legal issues, but to a lay-man, it’s not obvious why the media rights deal is unenforceable.

  20. SaccoV 05/20/2013 at 11:37 AM #

    VaWolf, the league is currently 5th best in conference media income. The conference’s brass token is going to be moved to MSG in two or three years because the league can’t even sell tickets to its game. I guess you must define ‘stability’ the way presidents define protecting citizens from terrorist attacks.

  21. BJD95 05/20/2013 at 1:03 PM #

    Uneforceable because it’s clearly punitive in nature. Contract law in most every state doesn’t allow “penalty” clauses.

    That’s why standard boilerplate contracts will always couch a layman’s “penalty” as “liquidated damages and not intended as a penalty” instead.

    Once you pass a certain $$ amount, I don’t think even a buyout clause is enforceable (ie, $5-10M probably stands, $50M probably does not). An assignment of rights goes even farther than that. Clearly punitive and thus unenforceable IMHO.

  22. VaWolf82 05/20/2013 at 1:39 PM #

    Unenforceable because it’s clearly punitive in nature.

    Interesting…we’ll see if this ever goes to court.

    I could argue that it’s not intended to be punitive (even though it is), but simply a necessity so that the conference can move forward with a long-term deal for the ACC network.

  23. PoppaJohn 05/20/2013 at 3:44 PM #

    I believe the media rights deal COULD be of some worth in holding the league together, but only if we don’t fold on the UMD exit fees. If that turns out to be “just a guideline” rather than a law we intend to enforce, then the ACC is just a bunch of clowns and we deserve what we get.
    On the other hand, if we get vicious in court and hold them accountable for making that agreement, then anyone else thinking of leaving will have to take into consideration the fact that they are going to end up in court and it could get to be very expensive.
    I’m hoping for the latter, but expecting the former.

  24. wolfmanmat 05/20/2013 at 6:23 PM #

    I hear everyone rumbling about Swoford just poaching the Big East. The question is “where else is he going to poach?” Geogaphically the SEC and maybe Big 10 are the only other 2 conferences with legit ACC type schools(sans pulling a Big 12 and taking a school 2,000 miles away). Why would you leave either for the ACC? So, you poach where you can. Syracuse, Pitt and Louisville are good adds. Those top revenue schools in the Big East and better football programs than almost all the ACC sans FSU/Miami/VT.

  25. packalum44 05/21/2013 at 5:30 PM #

    Louisville Cuse and Pitt are NOT value adding schools in terms of football, meaning on average each school will make ACC better in football in the long run….

    Louisville has been no better historically than State, not accounting for the lightning in a bottle they caught with Strong who may be able to build a solid program if he continues to stay. Don’t bet on it if the right job opens up. Not to mention the demographic trends in Ohio Valley, Pittsburgh and upstate NY are all deteriorating. Long term football talent will be harder to come by which does not bode well for teams who always get out-recruited by neighbors from Big V.

    Anyone recall the “success” BC had in football in the several years before they joined not to mention the Matt Ryan years right after? Louisville is likely a similar story waiting to unfold.

    Doesn’t matter though. Raycom owns significant TV rights of ACC through the next decade or longer. If you recall Swofford has a friend or relative who works there that bought rights on cheap. So much for arms length deals in the Good Ole’ Boy world of NC and Swoffordland.

    We have no way to monetize the conference with a channel. Even if we did it would be suboptimal.

    The cable companies will pay second tier money to second tier quality. Not many folks are interested in a Wake vs. BC vs. Syracuse vs. Duke. Those are the bottom tiers. The medium tier are only popular locally. Said another way, not all but some ACC schools will be offered more money to leave bc the top half of the schools are effectively subsidizing the bottom half.

    Merging the conferences creates economies of scale and synergy which can be realized in the TV market. SEC payout per school increase with the addition of a NC and a VA school. The sum are worth more than the parts. (Opposite is true for notre dame)

    Long term threats for ACC include the lack of revenue we currently experience from TV money having a cumulative negative effect in recruiting and facilities.

    The optimal solution for the top half of schools would be an absorption into Big V 12 and SEC. Those 3 all get more $ per school with minimum downside. The challenges to that occurring are very large at the moment thanks to all the asymmetrical information and frictions in the market.

    We’ll see how this MD court issue plays out. Clemson or FSU could be counseled to slow play until then.

    Just remember several million a year in perpetuity is worth a boatload of money in present value terms. Upwards of 9 digits with as little as 6 million a year and a 6 percent discount rate.

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