Industrial-Strength QB For Super-Sized ACC Becomes $500 Million Man
By Bob Thomas
June 28, 2004 John Swofford was raised in North Wilkesboro, N.C., a three-sport athlete and accomplished scholar in a county best known for turning out auto racing legend and moonshine-runner Junior Johnson. "This is kind of heresy when you're from North Wilkesboro, but I'm not a NASCAR fan," Swofford admits, sheepishly. "My father, who died when I was 12 years old, owned the Goodyear franchise store, and Junior Johnson bought all his tires from my dad. I can remember my dad talking about how those guys were such great customers, because they always paid in cash."
Negotiating For Success
Good business sense continues to run in the family, which is a stroke of good fortune for the Atlantic Coast Conference.
After surviving last summer's firestorm of criticism over expansion, Swofford begins his eighth year as ACC commissioner in a place of envy. With perennial powers Miami and Virginia Tech on board, and Boston College waiting in the wings for 2005, the ACC will embark on its 52nd season from a position of great strength.
"The ACC is stronger today than (before expansion)," Swofford said, "and may well be at its strongest point in history."
Thanks in no small part to lead negotiator Swofford, and to the controversial expansion he helped orchestrate, the conference upgraded its deals with television partners this spring so that it will take in more than $500 million in television revenue (excluding the NCAA Tournament) over the next seven years. Even prior to expansion, during the first seven years of Swofford's tenure, ACC universities consistently received larger financial distributions on a per-school basis than any conference in America.
In 2002-03, the league became the first in history to surpass the $10 million mark. Its nine schools earned an average of $10,846,423 from their pooled revenue, which each year consists largely of money generated from television contracts (football and men's basketball), the Bowl Championship Series, other bowl bids, the NCAA Tournament and the ACC Tournament. Even in today's big-money environment, the other major conferences Big Ten ($9.9 million per school), SEC ($8.5 million), Big East ($7.1 million), Pac-10 ($6.9 million) and Big 12 ($6.4 million) haven't been able to keep up with that pace.
Since leaving his job as the athletic director at North Carolina in 1997, Swofford has overseen the greatest period of growth financially and numerically in the history of the ACC. As recently as 1981, the conference as a whole collected just $4.8 million in total income for the entire fiscal year. The number grew to about $18 million in 1986 and more than $50 million in 1996. Under Swofford, ACC revenues ballooned to more than $97 million last year, will top $100 million in this year's final calculations, and are expected to surpass $120 million in 2004-05. For his part, the commissioner earns from the league a compensation package that was worth $538,369 in 2002-03.
Clearly, business and football have never been better in the ACC.
In the wake of expansion, preseason publications have trumpeted the ACC's emergence as a national football power, offering favorable comparisons to the Southeastern and Big 12 conferences.
"It is exciting to reach this point and to see the anticipation of the coming season and the perception nationally of the conference," Swofford said in late June. "I think that perception is better today than it's ever been in our history from the football standpoint. This gives us the opportunity to be just as competitive nationally as we have been in basketball for a long time. It's nice to see that recognized. Hopefully, in the years to come, our teams will perform in that manner."
While the ACC's performance will play out on the field, the maneuvering behind the scenes that made expansion possible demands a closer examination of the man who was one of the key figures behind the biggest, boldest move in league history.
Consummate Team Player
Calm, compassionate, patient, bright and articulate are just a few of the words used to describe Swofford by the people who know him best. And it became abundantly clear that Swofford would have to call on all of those characteristics to carry him through the public persecution, the Big East's failed lawsuit and the waffling of nine ACC university presidents to carry him through the expansion crisis of last summer.
Many of Swofford's leadership qualities already were well-established when UNC football coach Bill Dooley signed the two-time all-state quarterback from Wilkes Central High in 1968.
"It wasn't hard to determine that he was a real leader," Dooley said. "And it wasn't hard to determine that no matter what he did, he was going to be successful."
"He was bright, blonde-haired, good-looking," said current UNC football coach John Bunting, a former teammate of Swofford with the Tar Heels. "He was supposed to be what quarterbacks looked like."
Not even a shoulder injury, which sacked Swofford's quarterback days prior to his senior season, could prevent him from contributing to the Tar Heels' first outright ACC title in 1971. Selected as a team captain, he made the transition to defensive back and excelled on special teams, despite playing in pain.
UNC star running back Don McCauley said Swofford was the prized recruit in the 1968 class. More importantly, he remembers him as a reluctant star.
"John doesn't like to have the limelight," McCauley said. "He was always a dean's list student and someone you aspired to be like a consummate team player and that kind of sums up his life."
Many athletes of the time chose to enter the coaching ranks at the end of their playing days, but Swofford said he never had that desire. Instead, he sought the advice of then-UNC athletic director Homer Rice on the best way to pursue an administrative career.
While attending Carolina on a prestigious Morehead scholarship, Swofford earned his undergraduate degree in industrial relations. Following Rice's advice, he then moved on to Ohio University, where he received his master's degree in athletic administration.
Swofford launched his meteoric administrative career as the ticket manager at Virginia, where he was hired by UVa athletic director Gene Corrigan.
"(Corrigan) tells the story that he was looking for somebody young," Swofford said, "who he didn't have to pay too much."
Swofford credits Rice and Corrigan, whom he succeeded as ACC commissioner in 1997, as the guiding forces behind his career.
"Those two gentlemen, on an equal basis," Swofford said, "have probably influenced me career-wise and personally more than any other two people outside my family."
Youngest AD In America
Upon returning to Chapel Hill in 1976, Swofford was on the fast track. In 1980, at age 31, he became the nation's youngest athletic director.
Over a 17-year stretch, Swofford guided UNC's athletic program through an unparalleled period of growth and success, while developing a reputation for standing behind his coaches even when it wasn't popular.
Swofford was ripped for firing football coach Dick Crum in 1987, two years into a 10-year deal, requiring UNC to make an $800,000 buyout almost unheard of at that time. Those same critics railed when Crum's replacement, Mack Brown, went 2-20 over his first two seasons with the Tar Heels.
Brown said he remembers Swofford candidly telling him the football program "wasn't in great shape" when he was hired. "I'll never forget, John told me, 'I want you to commit three years to us, and we'll commit five years to you.'"
It was a commitment Swofford stood strongly behind, even as Brown struggled through two dreadful seasons. Instead of cutting his losses, the athletic director wrote letters to every high school coach in North Carolina, explaining that the university was going to stand behind its coach.
"I wouldn't be the coach at Texas today if not for John Swofford having the confidence in me and the integrity to do that," said Brown, who rewarded that support by leading UNC to back-to-back top-10 seasons in 1996 and '97 and becoming the second-winningest coach in school history.
UNC women's basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell, hired by Swofford from Francis Marion College over three candidates with Division I experience, shared a similar story.
"It must have been my third year here," said Hatchell, whose program was still struggling to win games at the time. "It was probably January or February, and I was coming out of the weight room late one night, and John was coming out of the fieldhouse. He had been visiting Mack. He walked up to me, put his arm around me and said, 'You're my coach and I believe in you.' I probably stayed there all night working, because my boss believed in me. What a powerful message."
In 1994, Swofford's loyalty was rewarded again, with Hatchell's team delivering an NCAA championship, one year after Dean Smith's team captured the men's title.
I know what the people in this league are about. When you love an entity the way I love the ACC, that's when the intangibles kick in. It makes you more determined to try to push things through to a result that's positive.
ACC commissioner John Swofford
In Other Words: John Swofford
That's the same kind of personal touch Swofford continues to use on a larger scale as the commissioner of the ACC. His ability to forge lasting relationships is a true strength and critical to his success as a consensus-building CEO.
"Everybody likes him. Everybody respects him," Dooley said. "No one is surprised about the success he's enjoyed."
That includes former UNC teammate and Sugar Bowl executive director Paul Hoolahan, a Brooklyn native with a keen mind, quick wit and the kind of street savvy that might scream "Yankee" to someone who grew up in North Wilkesboro. Despite their obvious differences, Swofford and Hoolahan have remained life-long friends.
"(Swofford) is extremely loyal as a friend," Hoolahan said. "I can tell you that from a personal experience. He's a very loving, caring individual."
In early 1999, when Swofford discovered that his older brother Bill had cancer, he learned that his bone marrow was a good match and volunteered to donate. Doctors took a long needle and scraped bone marrow from John's hip while he was under anesthesia, then transferred the marrow intravenously. Bill, a popular singer (with two top-five hits) under the name Oliver (his middle name) in the late 1960s and 1970s, lived through the remainder of 1999 in improved health but died in February 2000 at the age of 54.
The commissioner's caring side is readily evident professionally as well. He was extremely well-liked during his time at UNC, and he has drawn overwhelmingly positive reviews from presidents and athletic directors for his leadership of the ACC. He seldom forgets names and always is quick to offer a personal greeting.
"He doesn't forget the personal piece of it, and that's great," said MAC commissioner Rick Chryst, who spent more than two years as an assistant commissioner under Swofford. "On the professional side, I never get the sense with John that I'm trying to read an agenda. He's thoughtful and open to telling you what you need to know."
Chryst and other college administrators rushed to the defense of Swofford last year, after Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese portrayed the ACC boss as a corporate raider running a clandestine operation during the height of last year's expansion debate.
"I don't think John is viewed as a Gordon Gekko," Chryst said, referring to Michael Douglas' "greed is good" character in the movie Wall Street.
That's not to say Swofford isn't careful and calculating when it comes to negotiations.
"John doesn't do things that he doesn't know the answer before he asks the question," North Carolina associate athletic director Steve Kirschner said.
The expansion process, of course, proved to be the exception to that rule. But even through the waffling of university presidents and CEOs, Swofford maintained his composure, focusing on the long-term, best interests of the league.
"It was a challenge in terms of building a consensus," Swofford said. "And a lot of the challenge came from outside influences in the process, whether it was a lawsuit or a political situation. When it's something that important, there are agendas involved with a particular member institution, and you try to assuage that if it can't be changed."
Successfully navigating the ACC through that process tested all of Swofford's talents.
"John rarely, rarely shows emotion of any nature in a professional setting, whether that be anger or disagreement," Florida State athletic director Dave Hart said. "He does not let his emotion override his desire to maintain a professional demeanor. That was particularly true when we were coming down the stretch in this expansion, where potholes were turning into craters."
"There were some things in the process a lot of us would have liked to have seen played out a little differently," Swofford said. "But the end result turned out OK. I think where we ended up is a very positive place for our league in the future."
ESPN executive vice president Mark Shapiro concurred.
"From day one, John Swofford was a total visionary on this deal, just as he was for conference realignment," Shapiro said, after announcing the new TV deal between ABC/ESPN and the ACC. "It's truly a win-win for everyone."
The Future: Happy At 12
For three years, Swofford regularly was confronted with the same question: Where does the expansion issue stand with the ACC? Finally, he can answer honestly that it's on the back burner.
"I guess our conference is finally settled," Swofford said, "and I anticipate it will be for a long time."
Now comes a different question: Where does the ACC go from here? In the face of the ongoing NCAA reform movement, Swofford said he anticipates that the bigger, stronger ACC will have significant influence.
"One of the things our presidents wanted to accomplish (through expansion) is more clout," Swofford said. "The stronger you are as a conference competitively, if you couple that strength academically, then you can have more influence with legislative issues in reform efforts."
Swofford proudly pointed out that once Boston College arrives for the 2005-06 academic year, six of the ACC's 12 members will be among the top 40 academic institutions nationally, according to recent rankings by U.S. News and World Report. That's more than any other Division I-A conference in the country.
"It's an association of schools that have put themselves together for athletic purposes that can represent all the right things about college athletics at the highest level," Swofford said. "That's a responsibility we have."
Perhaps only more time, and the on-field success of the reconfigured ACC over the long haul, will provide a true measure of Swofford's tenure as commissioner. But it's already clear that last summer's anguish over expansion has given way to anticipation of the immediate future.
"(Swofford) obviously did take on some water," Hoolahan said. "I also know that he has built so much currency in the industry, people are going to be able to step back after the carnage and realize this wasn't all his (doing). People will look back in time and see he has two really good teams that will improve the quality of that league exponentially."
That's all that ever mattered to Swofford, who successfully has worked his way through the ACC as an athlete and an athletic director to become its commissioner and unquestioned leader.
Bob Thomas is the ACC and Florida State beat writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. ACC Sports Journal editor Dave Glenn also contributed to this article.