What will be John Swofford’s legacy as ACC Commissioner?


John Swofford, the ACC’s commissioner since 1997, is in the twilight of his career. At age 65, I believe he has 5 maybe 10 years left in his tenure. Is his legacy set? How will he be remembered? One thing that should be clear, is that Swofford doesn’t make any moves without with the ACC members’ approval. That said as the recognized head of the conference, all decisions good or bad will be credited to Swofford. Fair or not that’s just the way it goes…

Let’s grade Swofford on a 4.0 scale, just like in school, for each major move the ACC has made since 1997.

2004-2005 Additions of Miami, Boston College, Virginia Tech – 3.5

Swofford recognized early on only that football would be the driver in college athletics more than a decade ago. This was especially important for the Basketball centric ACC.

Miami was a perennial national football power. Virginia Tech was a strong football school and Boston College was an 8-9 win team. Since then Miami and BC haven’t lived up to expectations, but the logic and additions at the time were sound.

ACCCG in Florida 2005-2009 – 2.0

I understand the thinking here. Miami and Florida State were supposed to have epic conference championships games. That never materialized, as FSU and Miami went into extended years of mediocrity. Florida State has recovered, but Miami is still rebuilding.

Games in Florida were poorly attended and generated little national buzz. This was a short sighted decision to bank on 2 teams leading the conference. Had the game been in a more central location or a homesite it would have been far better. In particular Virginia Tech fielded solid teams during this time, and would have drew well closer to Blacksburg.

Current Divisional Alignment 2005 -2.5

This goes back to the previous move with Miami and Florida State. The conference wanted to separate the two schools in opposite divisions creating a non-geographical divisional alignment that some are struggling with still today. That said some nice rivalries like Georgia Tech/Virginia Tech and Clemson/Florida State were generated with the current alignment.

The current divisions may not perfect, but I never had a huge problem with them. Just a couple of tweaks namely switching Georgia Tech and Louisville would satisfy a lot of people.

Television Contract 2010 – 1.5

At the time this contract with ESPN was seen as groundbreaking, but it became quickly apparent after the other major conferences signed their deals that the ACC was the victim of bad timing, or bad negotiations or both. The other conferences pulled well ahead of the ACC here. In addition the ACC missed the opportunity to start their own network at the time due to concerns about the financial risk.

It would have been in a risk, but now the ACC is the only major conference along with the Big 12 to be without a network, and Big 12 schools like Oklahoma and Texas have their own network deals. The ACC whiffed on this on.

Moving ACC Title Game to Charlotte (2010) – 3.5

This game should have been in Charlotte all along. Attendance figures have been good, and the city embraces the event. Keep it there permanently…

ACC Orange Bowl Deal / Inclusion in Playoffs (2012) – 2.5

While the ACC made sure the conference had a contract bowl, it is inferior to the Pac 12/Big 10 Rose Bowl, and Big12/SEC Sugar Bowl Deals. In this case, Swofford was working against a 2-11 ACC BCS record, soon to be 2-13 later in 2012. I didn’t think there was almost any chance the ACC wouldn’t be included in the Power 5, but the ACC and Swofford did have some things to work out in preparation for the playoffs.

Maryland leaves the ACC (2012) – 0.5

When a founding conference member leaves, it’s never good. The ACC was completely blindsided by this move, and Swofford and the conference were left to scramble.

Pittsburgh/Syracuse/Notre Dame join the ACC (2012-2013)  – 3.5  

These three schools lifted the ACC’s basketball pedigree. Pitt and Syracuse have been decent in football including bowl wins in 2013. They also provided Boston College partners in the Northeast. The inclusion of Notre Dame as a partial member was a shrewd move by Swofford.

Notre Dame was college athletics last great free agent program, and joining the ACC even as a partial member kept any other conference from getting them. These teams increased the ACC’s television contract payout to be more inline with the other Power 5 conferences.

 Louisville joins the ACC/GOR is signed (2013) – 4.0

This was one of Swofford’s crowning moments. After some vulnerable looking moments after the Maryland departure, Swofford circled the wagons. The Louisville addition was universally accepted by nearly all ACC fans, and the Grant of Rights stunned critics of the ACC as it effectively ended realignment and expansion in one shot.

ACC Digital Network (2011-Present) – 3.5

This venture into online media has been a win in my opinion. The ACCDN is in millions of internet devices from phones to ROKUs. It’s the highest traffic collegiate digital network currently available. While it won’t achieve conference network profits, I think it’s only a matter of time before there is real revenue being produced here.

ACC Basketball Tournament in NYC (2013)- 3.25

I’m not nearly as big on this as some others, but I’ll give credit where it’s due. The ACC managed to get to New York City in 2017 and take advantage of the media capital of the world. It will help feature what should be the best basketball conference going.

ACC Network – Incomplete

Right now Swofford is sitting at 3.02 average with his conference management GPA. There have been some mistakes, but also some great moves. At the end of the day, the ACC is positioned as one of the Power 5 conferences. For at least the next 7-10 years conference membership will be stable, but there is a final exam. Everyone knows the final exam counts the most. The ACC Network is what will give us Swofford’s lasting legacy.

The ACC missed in a chance to start a network in 2010, but they have another opportunity. The Big Ten Network is a proven money maker. The Pac 12 Network will eventually be one, and the joint ESPN SEC Network start couldn’t have went better. The ACC is better positioned to start a network that at any other time in the last 10 years. There are elite nationally relevant teams in football, and overall football improvement across the board. Basketball will feature the greatest collection of coaches ever assembled, and the Olympic Sports are among the best in the nation.

Should an ACC Network or other major revenue producing venture not happen in the next few years I would consider it the biggest failure of Swofford’s tenure. Come the mid 2020s, if the ACC is without a network or another major revenue producer, then the ACC’s long term viability will be questioned.

That said I’m very much in the camp that the network will happen in 2016 or 2017, but if it somehow it falls apart… well I just gave my thoughts on Swofford and the ACC on that. It’s the final exam in Swofford’s career.

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