By David Teel, email@example.com | 757-247-4636
November 18, 2012
GREENSBORO, N.C. — The Brushy Mountain Smokehouse and Creamery offers myriad southern staples, from country ham biscuits to deep-fried catfish. The fare also includes scores of homemade ice creams, from oatmeal cookie dough to chocolate brownie cheesecake.
But when John Swofford returns to his North Wilkesboro, N.C., roots and strolls into the family's restaurant, he sticks to the basics: pulled pork barbecue and vanilla ice cream.
"Obviously," he says with a smile, "I don't venture out too far on food."
Swofford's leadership of the Atlantic Coast Conference has been the antithesis of his palate. With bold and occasionally covert strikes, the ACC's fourth commissioner has guided the league of his boyhood dreams to a size, scope and strength unimaginable when he took office in 1997.
Swofford's influence has been most essential during the past two years of national realignment frenzy. As media — social, online and mainstream — insisted the ACC was poised to lose members and relevance, the conference countered dramatically.
In September 2011, the ACC added Pittsburgh and Syracuse. One year later, the league welcomed Notre Dame as a football scheduling and bowl partner and full member in other sports.
The moves enhanced the conference competitively and financially and secured its long-term inclusion in college football's impending playoff. Moreover, they affirm the vision and consensus-building of a commissioner who lost his dad too young, earned the University of North Carolina's most prestigious academic scholarship and donated bone marrow to his cancer-stricken brother.
Swofford's guidance may soon face another stern test. Several media outlets, including ESPN, reported Saturday that Maryland, a charter member of the ACC, is in serious negotiations to join the Big Ten.
The Terps would be only the second school to leave the ACC. South Carolina exited in 1971.
"Johnny Swofford's always had a great intellect and a fire in his belly," says another brother, Jim. "He's as competitive as he can be, but in a nice way."
That acumen, ambition and affability have been indispensable in steering the ACC, a disparate mix of schools, personalities and agendas that has grown from nine to 15 members in the last decade, even while struggling on the football field and enduring NCAA sanctions and allegations.
"It's like herding cats," Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman says. "It is a real challenge. … (John) lets the cats run quite a bit, but in the end, he brings them back together."
Relaxed in his spacious office adjacent to a golf resort, Swofford, sans tie on a Friday morning, chuckles at Wellman's analogy.
"As you grow geographically and in numbers," he says, "there are that many more opinions and views of a particular issue. The key is maintaining the fundamental core in terms of how you look at the world and what your values are and how you see major college athletics."
John Swofford's values have changed little since his youth in rural NASCAR country. His father, Jack, owned retail stores specializing in tires and appliances; his three siblings, all boys and all older, excelled athletically and academically.
The eldest, Carl, played golf for Davidson College. Next, Jim was an offensive lineman on Duke's 1957 Orange Bowl team. Bill received North Carolina's renowned Morehead Scholarship and ran on the Tar Heels' track squad.
Though separated by 16 years, the Swofford boys were close, sharing their love of sports and music. They bonded further when their father died of lung cancer at age 51. John was 13.
"I have very few regrets in life," he says, "but one of them is not knowing my dad during my adult years. … I have wonderful memories of him, and extremely high regard for him, through a child's eyes.
"I'm always a little envious of grown men who have, or have had, their father through most of their lives, and I remind some of my friends sometimes how lucky they are.
"There were still a lot of formative years there, (when) having three older brothers who were really good role models was really beneficial. They were achievers. … I felt like I had a lot to live up to."
Swofford cleared the bar his siblings set. He served as president of the student body at Wilkes Central High, the fourth Swofford brother elected, and starred in football, basketball and baseball.
"Johnny, he was the (family's) best all-around athlete," Jim says.
Swofford grew up a Duke fan, cheering for Jim at Wallace Wade Stadium and for the Blue Devils' basketball team when it played at nearby Wake Forest. A spinoff of the Southern Conference, the ACC was in its infancy, a cozy, eight-member league stretching from Maryland to South Carolina.
"College athletics, to me, was the Atlantic Coast Conference," Swofford says.
He soon joined the ACC family, attending North Carolina on a Morehead and playing quarterback and defensive back for Bill Dooley's Tar Heels.
Mononucleosis shelved Swofford for a season, and injuries interrupted others. He started at quarterback for portions of his sophomore and junior years, but in a 1970 loss to South Carolina threw three interceptions.
"The next Monday," he says, pausing for effect, "I was a defensive back."
Swofford was relegated to special teams as a senior in 1971, but the Tar Heels won the ACC and played in the Gator Bowl.
The yin and yang of his football career "really did give me an appreciation for the whole experience that college athletes go through," Swofford says, "both losing and winning, and playing and not playing, being hurt and unable to play. For what I've ended up doing, career-wise, it was a great experience to have because it was all over the map."
Swofford's college journey included a 1969 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, a week after he threw three touchdown passes in a victory over Vanderbilt. An entertainment kingmaker, Sullivan was showcasing Oliver, a singer whose singles "Good Morning Starshine" and "Jean" had gone gold.
Oliver was John's brother Bill, using his middle name for the stage.
"Johnny, stand up and take a bow, would you please?" Sullivan said during the show.
Dressed in a gray, double-breasted leisure suit, Swofford obliged.
During Swofford's redshirt freshman year at North Carolina, the school hired Homer Rice as athletic director, and after the 1968 season, Rice spoke at the football team's banquet.
"He talked about the importance of goal setting, attitude and positive thinking," Swofford says. "I'd never really heard anybody talk about those things in the way he did."
Almost immediately, Swofford began plotting a career in sports administration. He courted Rice as a mentor and majored in industrial relations.
"Basically, that was a business degree without accounting," Swofford says, "and I was very happy to avoid accounting."
"You could tell from that twinkle in his eye, whatever you want to call it, that he had that charisma thing," Rice says. "You just knew, this guy's going to make it. He's going to do whatever he wants to do.
"He just has that wisdom that takes (him) to the top and leads other people there."
Swofford earned his master's in sports administration from Ohio University and landed a job as ticket manager at the University of Virginia, where Gene Corrigan was the athletic director. Soon he returned to his alma mater as an assistant AD under Bill Cobey.
In 1980, Cobey resigned to enter politics, and chancellor Chris Fordham made Swofford the nation's youngest Division I-A athletic director at 31.
Swofford's tenure included unprecedented success and growth.
The Tar Heels won 24 national championships during his 17 years, becoming top-10 fixtures in the Directors' Cup all-sports standings. With Swofford as the point man, the athletic department raised more than $80 million privately to construct the Smith Center basketball arena and Kenan Football Center.
Swofford's signature hire came in 1988 after football coach Dick Crum resigned. His choice was as unconventional and risky as Fordham's eight years earlier.
Mack Brown had four years of head-coaching experience, one at Appalachian State and three at Tulane, and an uninspiring record of 17-28. But he had guided Tulane to its first bowl in seven years and was a former assistant at Oklahoma and LSU.
Following 1-10 finishes his first two seasons at Carolina, Brown turned the Tar Heels into postseason regulars, capped by top-10 years in 1996 and '97.
"John's the best," says Brown, who has since coached Texas to four Big 12 championship games and a national title. "He knew the program was not in good shape when I took the job, and he was very up front and honest with me. … A lot of the success that I've had in coaching should be attributed back to John and his commitment to me. …
"He's got great vision, and I think that's been obvious by what he has done in the ACC by putting together one of the better leagues in the country and also adding Notre Dame."
Citing his lifelong affiliation with the conference, ACC presidents appointed Swofford to succeed the retiring Corrigan as commissioner in 1997.
Florida State had joined the league as a ninth member in 1992, but with the Big 12 and Southeastern Conference each with a dozen schools and staging lucrative championship football games, some ACC athletic directors began to think bigger.
By 2003, the league's expansion targets were clear: Syracuse, Boston College and Miami, all from the Big East. But as the process unfolded, the Swofford hallmarks of discretion, discipline and collegiality vanished, replaced by open infighting and indecision.
The cats overwhelmed the herder.
Antiquated conference bylaws — they required ACC officials to publicly tour prospective member campuses — were one culprit. Virginia politics — then-Gov. Mark Warner mandated that the University of Virginia reject any expansion that did not include Virginia Tech — was another factor.
"But some of it," Swofford says, "was self-inflicted."
North Carolina State changed positions several times. North Carolina and Duke opposed any expansion. Votes taken via conference call were leaked to reporters within minutes.
With only two dissents required to derail any prospective member, Virginia essentially had veto power, allowing the Cavaliers to demand Virginia Tech's inclusion.
Even as his alma mater abandoned him at a defining moment, Swofford remained the southern gentleman.
"It was enormously difficult for me to be in that position," says Dick Baddour, Swofford's friend and successor as UNC's athletic director. "It was important to him to have North Carolina stand with him, but credit to John, he showed no signs of resentment toward (our) position."
Finally, with two votes separated by more than three months, the ACC added Virginia Tech, Boston College and Miami. Syracuse was jilted — temporarily.
The expansion was so messy that Thomas Hearn, then Wake Forest's president, posted a letter-of-apology online.
"The Godsend of it all, in my opinion, was Virginia Tech," Swofford says. "In a lot of ways, Virginia Tech should have been in the ACC a long time ago. I think there was a period there where we were so focused on new markets that the obvious didn't hit us in the face the way it should have, the obvious being that Virginia Tech belonged in the ACC.
"And Virginia Tech has been a great addition to the ACC. I think it's been good for Virginia Tech … and I think it's been good for the state of Virginia. It was the right thing to have happened when you take a step back and look at things."
Among Swofford's first post-expansion initiatives was amending the ACC's bylaws. Any future conference growth would be more deliberate and confidential.
"It was critical we get to the point where we not have these public courtships," Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage says. "There are too many sensitivities. … The change allowed the conference to move ahead much more discreetly and expeditiously, an absolute must."
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick recalls a conversation with Swofford shortly after talks between the school and the ACC turned serious this spring.
"How will we handle leaks?" Swarbrick asked Swofford.
"There won't be any leaks," Swofford said.
"This is Notre Dame," Swarbrick gently reminded Swofford. "Everything about us leaks."
"There won't be any leaks," Swofford repeated firmly.
Indeed, news of Notre Dame's move to the ACC didn't break until less than three hours before the official announcement Sept. 12.
"We found a process that was more appropriate and effective," Swofford says.
The process mirrored its conductor, a grandfather of two whose athletic appearance belies his 63 years.
Swofford isn't law-school polished like Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive. He's not new-aged trendy like the Pacific 12's Larry Scott, or overtly forceful like the Big Ten's Jim Delany, the latter a classmate at North Carolina.
"He just gets the job done," says Steve Hogan, who runs the ACC-affiliated Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando, Fla. "He's not talking a whole lot about it, or tipping any cards. It's just, in the end, he finds a way to carve out a place for the ACC to be successful."
In short, Swofford's been underestimated.
While conferences such as the SEC, Pac-12 and Big Ten expanded amid great fanfare, Swofford went stealth. Nary a word linking Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the ACC hit the media until less than 24 hours before the unveiling.
"That 2011 spring and summer … was a wild time," Swofford says. "There was a lot of talk going on. A lot of things going on in the Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC … and during that period of time we were doing some really good work internally with our membership on what ended up being Pitt and Syracuse, because there were a number of schools that were approaching us about wanting to join.
"Syracuse had been on our radar for a good while. Pitt, academically, had been to some degree. … We also talked about Notre Dame at that point, and from a strategic standpoint, I suspect that Notre Dame's interest in the ACC, which was strong anyway, was enhanced with Pitt and Syracuse coming in.
"That all wasn't happenstance. There's some method to the madness there, looking ahead, in terms of taking those two schools and then sitting and seeing what evolves (with Notre Dame) from that."
The spring and summer of 2012 were even wilder.
In May the conference announced a 15-year contract with ESPN that provides unrivaled exposure via platforms both traditional and innovative. ACC rights fees jumped nearly 30 percent, to approximately $17 million annually per school, this a windfall from the Pitt-Syracuse expansion and an override of a 12-year deal signed in 2010.
But when a Florida State trustee publicly and inaccurately pilloried the new terms, media pounced.
The ACC was doomed financially, they crowed. Florida State and Clemson would bolt for the Big 12. College football's playoff, set to begin in 2014, would exclude the ACC.
"It really was sobering," Swofford says of the national instability, "whether you felt like we were going to be directly impacted or not, and I don't think we were ever in any danger of being impacted by it all. It made you think, there are different ways to look at this."
The most different way was to consider Notre Dame as a partial member. The school treasures its football independence but wanted a more stable home than the Big East for its other sports.
ACC officials, Swofford included, had long resisted such an arrangement. They valued Notre Dame's national appeal, athletic achievements and academic standing, but wanted total commitment.
Realignments of other conferences, financial projections from ESPN and Notre Dame's agreement to play five football games per year against the ACC changed their outlook.
"Notre Dame just fits our league extraordinarily well," Swofford says. "The Eastern seaboard, and particularly the Northeast corridor, is really important to Notre Dame as an institution. Not just athletically. In terms of Catholicism, in terms of the institution itself."
As natural as the fit is, the deal hinged on Swofford and Swarbrick.
They bonded not over cigars and single-malt, but lunch and Diet Cokes. They dined with their wives and talked about their families.
Frequent gatherings of BCS commissioners and Notre Dame provided cover for their wider mission.
The country quarterback from North Carolina and big-city lawyer from New York became fast friends.
"John's a great listener," says Swarbrick, citing Swofford's innate ability to hear what is not only said but also meant.
"Sometimes people don't say exactly what they mean," Swofford says. "Sometimes we all speak in code. The better you listen the more you can read between the lines."
The ACC has no time to bask in the Notre Dame coup.
Even with Florida State and Clemson among the top 10 this season, the league's football continues to lag nationally. Marquee non-conference victories are scarce, and there's no spinning the ACC's 2-13 record in BCS games.
The NCAA is probing apparent rules violations at Miami involving imprisoned booster Nevin Shapiro, while athletes have been implicated in an academic fraud scandal at North Carolina.
Swofford acknowledges the pain the NCAA issues have, and likely will, cause. But he stands by the conference's history of compliance and academic achievement, not to mention on-the-field success.
ACC teams have won 58 national championships in the last 15 years, five in men's basketball and one in football. As measured by the Directors' Cup standings and NCAA graduation success rates, the conference's blend of athletics and academics is unsurpassed.
Entrenched in college football's latest postseason incarnation, the ACC announced Thursday a 12-year Orange Bowl partnership with the SEC, Big Ten, Notre Dame and ESPN. The conference and ESPN are renegotiating their overarching media contract to reflect Notre Dame's addition.
Possible future initiatives include an ACC channel that would be available throughout league markets such as Boston, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Raleigh, Miami, Chicago and Virginia. There's also the unknown of whether Notre Dame ever will forgo football independence to become a full ACC member.
Swofford's history suggests he will embrace any challenges, knowing all too well that nothing is guaranteed.
When Bill Swofford was diagnosed with lymphoma, doctors recommended a bone marrow transplant. Carl and Jim were too old to donate. John was a perfect match and quick to volunteer.
Short-term, the transplant helped. But less than a year later, complications arose.
Oliver to his fans, Bill to his family, died in 2000 at age 54. John had lost his best friend.
Swofford still listens to his brother's three albums and recalls the college summer he hitched onto Oliver's concert tour. Though now traveling in the highest orbits of intercollegiate athletics, living on a golf course — he plays to an 18-handicap — and making north of $1.4 million a year, he's still a North Wilkesboro kid at heart, returning not nearly as often as he'd like to the barbecue joint that Jim and Carl founded.
"Johnny just draws people to him," Jim says. "He's a nice guy, and he's very unassuming. … Most of the times I fly, I'm a little leery of who sits next to me. But he'd be a great guy to sit beside on a long plane trip."
Unassuming, perhaps, but not nearly as vanilla as he appears.
MEET JOHN SWOFFORD
Born: Dec. 6, 1948, North Wilkesboro, N.C.
Education: University of North Carolina, 1971, industrial relations; master's in sports administration, Ohio University, 1973.
Experience: University of Virginia ticket manager, assistant to director of facilities and finance, 1973-76; University of North Carolina assistant athletic director and business manager, 1976-79; assistant executive vice president UNC Educational Foundation, 1979-80; UNC athletic director, 1980-97; ACC commissioner, 1997-present.
Accomplishments: Two-time all-state quarterback at Wilkes Central High; ACC Academic Honor Roll 1970-71; Homer Rice Award, presented by Division I-A Athletic Directors' Association in 2005; North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, class of 2009; Corbett Award, the highest honor presented by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA), in 2011.
Family: Wife, Nora. Three children, two grandchildren.
Copyright © 2015, Newport News, Va., Daily Press