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Volume 21 No. 1
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Talent pool runs deep in the Swofford family

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
“By the time I came along, I felt like I had to be a good athlete or else I might be asked to leave the family,” said John, who more than lived up to the family standards by playing quarterback and defensive back at North Carolina as a Morehead scholar.

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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praised the ACC’s presidents for their vision, even though their vision largely came from their commissioner.

“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
store sold everything from tires to appliances. One of his dad’s steady customers was NASCAR legend Junior Johnson, who bought tires from the Swoffords for those late-night moonshine runs through the North Carolina mountains.

“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.”