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ACC Commissioner John Swofford commanded the podium with confidence a few weeks ago when he declared his conference as the most formidable collection of basketball schools ever assembled.
The university presidents in the ACC call him their “quiet leader,” but Swofford, nattily attired in a charcoal suit with his trademark handkerchief in the breast pocket, allowed himself a few uncharacteristic moments of bravado at the microphone during the ACC’s basketball media day.
Swofford speaks to the media during the ACC’s media day for basketball held in Charlotte.
Photo by:USA Today Sports
Michael Smith & Tom Stinson
discuss John Swofford and the ACC
They represented an impressive show of force for a conference that just months earlier was mired in realignment hell and unsure of its future.
“There have been times where we might have been perceived as vulnerable,” Swofford said after his news conference that day. “But our league had a vision and the presidents have had the courage to see it through to put the ACC in a position of strength for years to come.”
It was last fall, almost a year ago, that a position of strength seemed unattainable for the ACC. That’s when Maryland, one of the league’s charter members, announced that it would leave its home of 60 years for more handsome paydays in the Big Ten.
What happened in the next six months, with Swofford at the helm, would determine the ACC’s future. Would it retain a position among the five power conferences or would it go the way of the Big East, which ultimately was picked apart by other conferences?
Swofford’s leadership proved to be the hinge, conference presidents say. By adding Louisville and, most importantly, persuading the ACC’s presidents to sign a grant of rights, which conveyed the media rights for all 15 schools to the league through 2027, the ACC’s future was returned to solid ground.
And Swofford, whose stealthy leadership often is underestimated because of his desire to stay behind the scenes, cemented his position as one of the nation’s most influential commissioners for his ability to guide the league through uncertain days.
Swofford has been the ACC’s commissioner for 17 years, but his constituents say he was never better than during those six months when the league’s future swung in the balance.
“All of us were hurt and surprised when Maryland left,” Clemson President James Barker said. “John was equally taken by surprise. But the thing about him is that his leadership stayed the same. He was steady and he was informed, which had a calming effect on everyone. Now we’re in the strongest position we’ve ever been in, and John’s fingerprints are all over it.”
Realignment rumor mill
When Maryland left last November, all bets were off. A trust among the schools had been damaged. The rumors started flying — Florida State and Clemson to the Big 12, North Carolina and Duke to the Big Ten. Georgia Tech, Virginia, they were seemingly all in play.
Most unsettling of all, the rumors about further realignment weren’t just coming from outside the conference. They were coming from inside the league as well.
Athletic directors, trying to protect their own interests, called Swofford to sort out what was Twitter gossip versus
“I’d have ADs or presidents call and say, ‘Hey, you’re going to hear this’ or ‘This is being written and there’s absolutely nothing to it,’” Swofford said. “There also was some, ‘I’m hearing this about another school. Is this true?’ That’s what bothered people. They knew their own situation, but they weren’t always sure about another school.”
Swofford was determined not to be caught by surprise again. He worked the phones in the months afterward, staying in constant contact with university presidents and influential board members.
“During our most challenging times, that’s when he was strongest,” Duke Athletic Director Kevin White said. “John is the consummate leader’s leader. He’s humble and thoughtful and he’s never out of character. There’s not a bit of panic in his DNA.”
White and others identified two game-changing moments earlier this year that helped unify the conference.
The first was an AD-only gathering at the ACC winter meetings last February in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. That’s when Swofford first began building solidarity by espousing his vision for a future together, which included a more robust media contract with ESPN and the potential of an ACC channel.
By this time, Swofford was deep into talks with ESPN to renegotiate the ACC’s media contract, which ultimately rose to $4.2 billion over 14 years.
The next major moment came in March at the ACC tournament, where Swofford gathered ADs and presidents in Greensboro, N.C. That’s when he first presented the structure of a grant of rights and explained how it would work.
If all 15 ACC schools agreed to the grant of rights, it effectively would put an end to realignment rumors. Schools with no media rights theoretically have no value to other conferences. It’s the ultimate commitment to each other and the league.
“You knew that almost any version of conference expansion would involve the ACC, so the grant of rights was the only way to make all of those [realignment] scenarios go away,” Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick said.
With the rumors of further realignment swirling, Swofford’s toughest task clearly was keeping everyone on board and unified. His quiet style of leadership was being put to a stern test.
During his tenure as the ACC’s chief, Swofford, 64, has initiated his share of change. He spearheaded the addition of Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech 10 years ago on the front end of conference expansion. It was an uncharacteristically messy ordeal that heaped scorn on Swofford for plundering the Big East.
Maryland’s announcement that it was leaving the ACC was something the conference didn’t see coming.
Photo by:Getty Images
What Swofford never saw coming was one of his schools leaving to go somewhere else. Before Maryland said it would leave last November, an ACC school had never departed for another conference.
Some in the ACC were stunned that Jim Delany, the Big Ten’s commissioner and a North Carolina graduate, would engineer the Terps’ departure. Delany and Swofford overlapped at UNC for three years, Delany playing basketball and Swofford playing football.
Many experts in the industry saw the Maryland move as payback for the ACC’s successful pursuit of Notre Dame, a longtime Big Ten target.
For Delany’s part, he said earlier this year that it was a business transaction, nothing more. It simply moved the Big Ten into new markets, which would help the Big Ten Network generate more revenue. After all, Delany said, wouldn’t it be hypocritical of Swofford to be upset for the Maryland move when the ACC has taken six schools from the Big East?
After the ACC selected Louisville to replace Maryland, the league issued a news release from its presidents in December. The release contained a statement saying that all 15 schools were committed to the ACC.
The snickers could be heard across the land. Nobody bought the words coming from the ACC’s presidents. In a time of tectonic shifts in college sports, such proclamations meant nothing.
Maryland’s leaders had said they were committed to the ACC, too, until they weren’t.
The snarky reaction to what the presidents thought was a very strong statement frustrated them.
“I accepted it and I believed it, but it wasn’t shutting down the [realignment] rumors,” Swofford said. “It made a lot of the presidents mad. They were getting tired of it.”
So Swofford went to work, spending the next four months building consensus for the grant of rights, the only sure-fire way to solidify the ACC’s future.
A grant of solidarity
Swofford, with the aid of media consultant Dean Jordan from Wasserman Media Group and lead ACC counsel Erik Albright, mapped out a plan that would address the potential weak points of a grant of rights.
Swofford had brought up the grant of rights when the ACC raised its exit fee from $20 million to $50 million in September 2012, the same time the Big 12 schools signed their grant of rights. The Pac-12 and Big Ten have similar arrangements within their membership.
“Honestly, we never thought we needed it before,” Swofford said.
The pending arrival of Louisville will further bolster the ACC’s powerful basketball arsenal.
Photo by:Getty Images
But Swofford saw the way a grant of rights hushed the realignment rumors in the Big 12 and he was hoping it would have the same effect for the ACC.
First, the conference had to make sure the ACC presidents understood the grant of rights well enough legally to explain it to their boards. Swofford sent Albright to meet with attorneys from all 15 schools to show them the actual grant of rights contract and answer questions. The Big 12 shared its own documents so that the ACC could see how it was structured.
“People had to know that John supported this, and that meant a lot to the institutions because they believe in John personally,” Albright said. “They’re betting on John the individual as much as they are the initiative. Everyone knew the long-term benefits of the grant of rights, but we also had some in the conference who were not as far along in their thinking.”
If even one school declined, that would reveal weakness in the league. Florida State was the one that scared everyone. While FSU President Eric Barron had said he supported staying in the ACC, his board had sent mixed signals.
The Seminoles were one of only two schools to vote against the increased exit fees (Maryland was the other). And Andy Haggard, FSU’s board chairman at the time, had been outspoken in his criticism of the ACC’s television deal with ESPN.
After multiple conversations with Barron, Swofford arranged a two-day visit to Tallahassee on March 6-7 to meet with 11 of the 13 trustees on Florida State’s board, including Haggard, to sell them on the future of the once-vulnerable conference. Swofford, along with Wasserman’s Jordan, met with each trustee individually through the course of the two days. Some meetings lasted 30 minutes, others went close to an hour.
To keep the meetings secret, Swofford had to meet with them one by one to get around a state law that requires public notice for meetings with more than one trustee.
“Those visits have been positioned like a sales pitch, but that wasn’t the case,” Jordan said. “John wanted to answer questions about the ACC’s future, the TV deal, bowl deals, markets. There was so much misinformation out there. John was dialed in to how the league is actually very well-positioned for growth.”
Swofford and Jordan talked casually with each trustee. There wasn’t a PowerPoint or any other visuals, just Swofford’s calming Southern charm and demographic research from Wasserman that showed the assets of the ACC’s footprint, from population to TV households and the recruiting base.
They showed all of the revenue numbers from the rights deal with ESPN and projected what an ACC channel might do for the conference, in terms of both revenue and exposure.
The content of the meetings varied. Some trustees expressed anxiety that Florida State might miss out on the next round of superconference realignment. Others asked about officiating.
“You do what you have to do,” Swofford said. “It was really about sharing all of the opportunities we have in the ACC.”
A week after those March meetings with the FSU trustees, Swofford met with leaders of each school at the ACC basketball tournament and a formal proposal for a grant of rights was put before them on April 19.
Each of the 15 school presidents voted in favor of it, including Florida State.
“The most important part of the whole thing was John’s willingness to sit down with our trustees, even one-on-one, to make sure they understood our future,” Barron said. “As I went back to talk to each trustee, I had their full support to go forward.”
Swofford finally could exhale. The six-month period of uncertainty had run its course and the conference had the solidarity that once seemed so elusive.
A toast for a job well-done
This is the calm after the storm of conference realignment. In the days following the ACC’s grant of rights announcement, Swofford said most commissioners congratulated him for bringing an end to this round of expansion chaos.
Without the ability to cherry-pick schools from the ACC, the other power conferences aren’t as likely to grow into the 16- or 20-team superconferences that had been widely predicted.
The daily rumors of schools jumping from one conference to another have been replaced in the Twitter-sphere by issues like NCAA reform and athlete compensation. Realignment is hardly ever discussed.
“It’s effectively dead,” Swarbrick said.
“There’s been more change in the last five years than the previous 25, and John has managed to not only stabilize the ACC brand, but grow it,” said IMG College President Ben Sutton, a member of Wake Forest University’s board. “And he did it at a time when everyone was writing advance obits for the ACC.”
When the ACC’s highest-ranking constituents gathered for spring meetings in May at Amelia Island, Fla., they celebrated their newfound unity with a dinner in the hotel ballroom. Presidents, ADs, faculty athletic representatives, coaches, bowl representatives and media partners were all there.
As the evening came to a close, Wake Forest’s president unexpectedly went to the podium and asked everyone in the room to raise their glass in a toast to Swofford.
Nathan Hatch thanked the commissioner for his leadership, saying in part, “You’ve been a steady hand during turbulent times. And when the ACC was getting hammered, you stayed the course. We wouldn’t be here without you.”
The 300 or so in the room stood and applauded.
When asked to reminisce about the toast, Swofford smiled and searched for the right words. The normally stoic commissioner allowed his emotions to come to the surface, however briefly.
“It’s something I’ll never forget,” the ACC’s quiet leader said, appropriately, in few words.
Growing up in the Swofford house in the hills of North Wilkesboro, N.C., meant two things — you played sports and you played an instrument.
The youngest of four boys, John Swofford capably picked up the sports requirement. The music gene somehow escaped him.
His older brothers, Carl, Jim and Bill, were awash in talent. Bill, also known as Oliver, recorded “Good Morning, Starshine” in 1969, and the song rose to No. 3 on the pop charts. Later, his single “Jean” climbed to No. 2, giving Oliver two gold records in the same year.
Jim played the trombone and starred on the football field at Duke. Carl played the trumpet when he wasn’t playing golf for Davidson.
John Swofford played quarterback and defensive back at the University of North Carolina as a Morehead scholar.
Photo by:UNC Athletics
The youngest Swofford, however, turned out to be more of a conductor than a musician, happy to let others take the stage. His professional style evolved the same way.
“John is a selfless leader,” Duke Athletic Director Kevin White said. “People trust him. The thing about John is that it’s never about him. It’s always about the conference and the member institutions.”
That was clearly the case over the past year, as Swofford deftly guided the ACC through choppy realignment waters to its current 15-school membership. Along the way, Swofford consistently
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discuss John Swofford and the ACC
“When you don’t worry about who gets the credit, that’s when you make the most progress,” said Virginia Tech President Charles Steger, who chaired the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee the past two years and saw Swofford at work with the other commissioners. “That’s always been John’s style.”
Swofford’s father died when he was 13 years old, so he took his cues from his older brothers as he advanced through high school. When asked about his reputation as a quiet leader and Southern gentleman, Swofford simply said, “It all starts with family. I had great role models in my brothers.”
Swofford grew up working in his family’s store in North Wilkesboro, a town in the North Carolina foothills. The
Swofford’s brother Bill sang under the name Oliver and had two gold records, including “Good Morning, Starshine.”
Photo by:Getty Images
“Those guys were good for business. They always paid cash,” Swofford said with a laugh.
When he graduated from UNC and was faced with the prospects of working in the family business, Swofford instead chose to go to work in the University of Virginia’s athletic department for then-Athletic Director Gene Corrigan.
In fewer than 10 years in administration, Swofford was named athletic director at his alma mater, making him at 31 the nation’s youngest athletic director at a major university. He became ACC commissioner in 1997.
Swofford’s understated, soft-spoken ways were learned through years of watching his mentors, especially former UNC Athletic Director Homer Rice. The gentlemanly Rice was the AD at North Carolina while Swofford played football there.
“Among the commissioners, John’s style is different than anybody else’s in the room,” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. “He generally listens more than he speaks, but when he does, it’s typically insightful.”
But there have been times, when the ACC was hearing rumors of its demise, that Swofford had to serve as the rallying point. As the wheel of realignment spun faster and faster the last few years, some of Swofford’s friends asked him to open up a bit more, develop key relationships with members of the national media, and be a little louder in his advocacy of the ACC.
“The thing about John is that he’s as smart or smarter than anybody else in the room,” said Dean Jordan, the ACC’s media consultant from Wasserman Media Group. “But he isn’t worried about trying to impress you. That’s part of what makes him who he is.”
That’s been his approach at the negotiating table, too, as Raycom Sports President and CEO Ken Haines, a friend of 30-plus years, knows all too well. During the last round of talks about the ACC’s media deal, Haines sought to increase Raycom’s bundle of rights.
“He listens more than he talks,” Haines said. “He measures what he’s being told and he takes it all in, but you’re not sure exactly where he stands until a few days later. He’s not one to say, ‘OK’ or ‘That will never happen.’ He takes everything into consideration. And while people might underestimate his aptitude for out-of-the-box thinking, he’s always ahead of the curve more than people give him credit for.”
■ ACC university presidents vote 7-2 in favor of adding schools to the nine-member conference.
■ The conference expands to 11 members with the addition of Miami and Virginia Tech.
Virginia Tech plays Miami during their first season as ACC members.
Photo by:Getty Images
■ ABC/ESPN and the ACC agree to a new seven-year deal for football rights, worth $258 million.
■ The ACC, Jefferson-Pilot Sports and Raycom Sports enter into a seven-year deal giving syndication rights for ACC football to Raycom and JP Sports through the 2010 season. Raycom and JP Sports also increase their financial commitment to the ACC men’s basketball television package, which runs through the 2010-11 season.
■ Boston College becomes the ACC’s 12th member.
■ Florida State defeats Virginia Tech in the inaugural ACC football championship game in Jacksonville.
■ The ACC and the Orange Bowl Committee reach a four-year deal for the winner of the ACC championship game to play in the FedEx Orange Bowl if the team does not qualify for the BCS title game.
■ The conference football title game is awarded to Tampa for the 2008 and 2009 seasons and to Charlotte for the 2010 and 2011 seasons.
■ ESPN and the ACC announce a 12-year agreement through the 2022-23 season, worth $1.86 billion. The deal is to begin in July 2011.
■ The ACC extends formal invitations to Pittsburgh and Syracuse to join the conference. The schools would
The ACC Digital Network went live in 2011.
■ The ACC, Raycom Sports and Silver Chalice launch an ad-supported digital network, the ACC Digital Network.
■ The conference votes to keep its championship football game in Charlotte for 2013 and 2014; Commissioner John Swofford hints that he would like to see Charlotte be the game’s permanent host.
■ ESPN and the ACC restructure their television rights deal to run through the 2026-27 season. The agreement boosts the deal’s value to $3.6 billion ($240 million per year.)
■ The ACC and the Orange Bowl Committee announce a new 12-year tie-in that places the ACC football champion in the Discover Orange Bowl. If the ACC winner makes it into the future four-team playoff, a replacement ACC team will play in the Orange Bowl.
■ Notre Dame announces that it will join the ACC in all sports but football, making the Fighting Irish the first ACC member that doesn’t participate in all sports. As a concession, Notre Dame agrees to play five ACC schools per season in football, while retaining its TV rights deal with NBC for home games in South Bend, Ind. The ACC secures a commitment from Notre Dame that should the Irish ever decide to join a conference in football, it will be the ACC.
■ The University of Maryland’s Board of Regents votes to withdraw from the ACC and join the Big Ten Conference, effective in 2014. The ACC files a lawsuit against Maryland in regard to the payment of a $52 million exit fee to leave the conference.
■ The conference announces that the University of Louisville will join on July 1, 2014. The addition of the defending national champions, as well as Notre Dame and earlier additions Syracuse and Pittsburgh, firmly puts the ACC back in the position of being the most powerful college basketball brand in the nation.
ESPN and the ACC revised their television rights deal for $4.2 billion through 2026-27.
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■ The ACC forms a committee of athletic directors and hires Wasserman Media Group to explore the possible financial benefits of launching its own conference network.
■ All 15 ACC institutions sign over their media rights to the conference through 2026-27, the same year the ACC’s deal with ESPN expires. The assignment of rights effectively ends speculation that the Big Ten, Big 12 or the SEC might expand by poaching one or more ACC schools. Not only did the rights transfer stabilize the ACC and secure its future, it brought an end, at least temporarily, to the rampant speculation associated with conference realignment.
■ ESPN and the ACC revise their television rights deal for $4.2 billion ($300 million per year) through the 2026-27 season.
— Compiled by Brandon McClung
College athletic programs aren’t stopping at uniform do-overs to draw attention to their programs. Basketball courts provide a creative palette for rebranding efforts, and some schools have thrown out the rule book in coming up with new designs. Here’s a sampling:
George Washington University unveiled a court design for the Charles E. Smith Center that features images of the White House flanked by the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument, with the school’s logo at center court.
Photo by:GWU Athletics
Gone to the Dogs
James Madison University asked fans via Facebook to come up with a new court for the Convocation Center. JMU narrowed the 65 original submissions to a second-round list of 10. The winning design incorporates JMU’s Duke Dog logo and the signature of former U.S. President James Madison.
Photo by:JMU Athletics
The University of Central Florida went with a “blacktop” court for CFE Arena, giving a nod to the roots of the game and the neighborhood playgrounds or streets where many players first learn to play the game.
Photo by:UCF Athletics
Life’s a beach
Players at Florida International University can look for open shots and seashells on a shore design, complete with pond fronds and crashing waves.
Photo by:FIU Athletics
Can you dig it?
The University of Texas at El Paso incorporated an element easily identifiable with the school. The Miners added a giant pair of mining picks like the one that makes up the “T” in UTEP’s logo.
Photo by:UTEP Athletics
Source: SportsBusiness Daily archives