Not surprisingly, athletics has always been an integral part of John Swofford’s life.
The long-time commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference is the youngest of four brothers, all of whom were multi-sport lettermen at Wilkes Central High School. Each went on to play in college, too.
For Carl, who was 16 years older than John, the chosen sport was golf at Davidson. Jim was an offensive lineman at Duke, a member of the 1958 Orange Bowl team. And Bill – who would go on to musical success using his middle name of Oliver, with gold records for “Good Morning Starshine” and “Jean” -- earned North Carolina’s prestigious Morehead Scholarship and ran track for the Tar Heels.
But it was Saturday afternoons spent watching Jim on the football field at Wallace Wade Stadium that proved pivotal for the youngest Swofford boy.
“Going to Duke and seeing him play is when I really fell in love with college football and the Atlantic Coast Conference, which ended up being a huge part of my life,” Swofford told Lead1association.com in 2019.
And the youngest Swofford turned out to be the best athlete of the four.
He played football, twice earning all-state honors at quarterback, as well as basketball and baseball. The president of the Wilkes Central student body, as his brothers had been, Swofford was also a Morehead Scholar and played football for Bill Dooley at UNC.
While in Chapel Hill, Swofford found a mentor in athletic director Homer Rice. He earned a degree in industrial relations and a masters in athletics administration from Ohio University followed. After a three-year stint working for ACC commissioner-in-waiting Gene Corrigan, another friend and confidante, at Virginia, Swofford found himself back at UNC as one of Bill Cobey’s assistant ADs.
And when his third mentor, Cobey, left Carolina for the political arena, the 31-year-old Swofford was the man who took over at Chapel Hill. He was the youngest athletic director at any Division 1-A college or university. He would spend 17 years at his alma mater before Corrigan retired and the ACC came calling in 1997.
Swofford was the right man at the right time for the ACC. He oversaw the expansion of the league from nine to 11 members in 2005-06, and later to 12 members in 2006-07, as well as the current 15. The growth was not without its challenges -- beset by public and private opposition -- but Swofford remained focused on the common goal, finding institutions that were a fit with the ACC’s existing members and could contribute to its reach.
“His leadership was essential in moving the league from a basketball-centric, regional conference to one that eventually covers the entire Atlantic Coast and has resulted in the inclusion of the ACC as one of the Power 5 conferences which comprise the College Football playoff,” said Jeff Elliott, the executive director of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, who worked with Swofford at UNC and at the ACC, ending his long career last year as special assistant to the commissioner.
“During the expansion discussions, John was able to withstand strong criticism from much of the local public and some member institutions in developing a sound strategic plan for the competitive and financial future of the conference. His strong commitment to bringing in like-minded academic institutions to the ACC, in addition to strong demographics and television markets has resulted in the conference being included in the top hierarchy of collegiate athletics.”
Swofford’s vision was rewarded by the creation of the ACC Network in partnership with ESPN in 2019. He also helped start the ACC/Big Ten Challenge for men’s and women’s basketball and the ACC Football Championship game. He was instrumental in the development of the College Football Playoff, as well. During his tenure as commissioner, member schools have won 91 national titles in 19 different sports.
Earlier this year, Swofford, who was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 2009, announced that he will retire at the end of the 2020-21 athletic year. He is just the fourth commissioner in the history of the league, which was formed in 1953, and the longest serving by seven years.
“It has been a privilege to be a part of the ACC for over five decades and my respect and appreciation for those associated with the league throughout its history is immeasurable,” Swofford said when his retirement was announced. “Having been an ACC student-athlete, athletics director and commissioner has been an absolute honor.
“There are immediate challenges that face not only college athletics, but our entire country, and I will continue to do my very best to help guide the conference in these unprecedented times through the remainder of my tenure. Nora and I have been planning for this to be my last year for some time and I look forward to enjoying the remarkable friendships and memories I’ve been blessed with long after I leave this chair.”
For his vision and many accomplishments, Swofford has been selected as the NCSHOF’s Member of the Month for July.
Swofford hired NCSHOF President Nora Lynn Finch as the ACC’s first women’s basketball administrator. She is fond of saying that he was the only person who could recruit her away from N.C. State, and she says his tenure as the ACC Commissioner has been the “greatest era” in league history.
“As a member of his ACC senior staff, I listened to his vision, heard his passion, and saw firsthand his commitment to doing things right for the right reasons, to providing the best conference competition and championships for our student-athletes, and for pursuing national championships in concert with academic excellence,” Finch said. “A Morehead Scholar himself, he knows firsthand that athletics and academics can complement.”
Finch calls Swofford, who is known affectionately as “Commish,” the consummate Southern gentleman, a man whose handshake is his word.
“While innumerable honors and awards have been bestowed upon him, he remains unassuming and appreciative,” she said. “He is gracious and kind, professional and poised, contemplative and insightful. And I am enriched and blessed by the eleven rewarding years I enjoyed as a member of his senior staff.”