When the NCAA athletic season ends in June 2021, so will John Swofford’s 24-year tenure as ACC commissioner — the longest in the conference’s 67-year history.
Swofford, who led his final meeting with the conference's athletic directors on Thursday, has extensive ties to North Carolina. As a student at UNC, he was a Morehead-Cain Scholar and became the starting quarterback for the Tar Heels, only switching to defensive back for his senior year in 1971.
After graduation, he was hired as a member of Virginia's athletic department before returning to UNC. In 1980, Swofford would move up to become UNC’s director of athletics when he was just 31 years old.
When Swofford took the reigns for UNC, the school had not won a national title in any sport since 1957. During his tenure, North Carolina won at least one national championship in every year, and he hired the first Black head coach in the ACC in 1981.
It was Swofford who hired Mack Brown for his first stint as UNC's head football coach. What followed were two top-10 AP poll finishes, three double-digit win seasons and three bowl game victories, including a Peach Bowl win. UNC football was on the rise to national prominence. Brown was the engineer — and has since been brought in to do it again — but Swofford left a few fingerprints of his own and would leave a few more, even after moving on in 1997.
Swofford took his talents from Chapel Hill to Greensboro, where he would inherit a nine-school ACC, primarily known as a basketball conference. During his tenure, he would add Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech in 2004-05.
When he faced bigger fish swirling around his pond, Swofford would make up for the loss of Maryland in 2012 with the additions of Notre Dame in the same year (except in football), Syracuse and Pittsburgh in 2011 and Louisville in 2014, while also keeping Florida State away from the Big 12.
The Notre Dame move is symbolic of Swofford’s ability to make the most out of the chances he got to grow the conference. The ACC honored the Fighting Irish’s desire to remain independent in football in 2012, but as the COVID-19 pandemic robbed the coffers of athletic departments across the country, the ACC’s relationship with Notre Dame made sure the school’s season was played in the conference.
Swofford has little to do with the on-the-field action that led to the 92 national team titles ACC programs have won in 19 of 27 varsity sports. But he knew exactly how to take advantage of the success. ACC football powerhouse Clemson has made the College Football Playoff every year since 2016, and an ACC representative has been in the bracket every year since its inception, but there might not have been a playoff were it not for Swofford pushing for an expansion of the BCS model as early as 2008.
And it was Swofford who encouraged member schools to invest in football, driving the ACC away from its basketball-first reputation.
All of the ACC’s moves attracted an ESPN partnership, leading to the launch of the ACC Network in August 2019. Now, sports outside of basketball and football have a 24/7 chance at exposure to new markets and potential recruits, benefiting the many successful athletic programs at UNC and the revenue the school would take from sports.
Now in his 70s, Swofford leaves the exploration of the digital frontier for someone else. “UNC alumnus” doesn’t properly explain Swofford’s full impact on his alma mater. His guidance of the ACC from nine members when he started to 15 when he will finish has delivered mouth-watering revenue year by year to member schools like UNC.