ACC commissioner John Swofford engineered the league's growth to include Notre Dame

The Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner John Swofford addresses the media during a press conference at the Blue Zone in Kenan Stadium, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2012, Chapel Hill, NC. The Atlantic Coast Conference Council of Presidents has unanimously voted to accept the University of Notre Dame as a new member. The Irish will compete as full members in all conference sponsored sports with the exception of football which will play five games annually against league programs. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/ (Sara D. Davis, Daily Press / September 12, 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.