"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.