Fowler

If it's the ACC, John Swofford has seen it all

Staff WriterOctober 9, 2011 

When John Swofford was playing football at North Carolina, the ACC shrank from eight teams to seven between his junior and senior years.

That was 40 years ago, when South Carolina dropped out of the league. With the recent news that the ACC will add Pittsburgh and Syracuse to the conference, the ACC has doubled in size from that low point.

"As a player and an administrator, I've seen the ACC's number of teams at 8, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12 and, in the near future, 14," Swofford, the ACC's commissioner, said in a phone interview from the ACC office in Greensboro. "We've probably had a lot more conference transitions than most people realize."

Still, Swofford said these last few months have been unprecedented. "I've been doing this over 35 years now," he said, "and I've just never seen a period of time where there have been as many changes and potential changes."

Glib, powerful and eternally optimistic, Swofford is the man shepherding the ACC through one of the most fluid periods in league history. At age 62 and in his 15th year as the ACC's commissioner, he said retirement is "not even close to being on my radar."

Swofford's long-term contract should keep him in charge past the final dominoes falling into place during this latest surge of conference realignment. The ACC may expand to 16 teams before all is said and done.

A leap to 16 schools is not certain, although Swofford said he is "very confident" the ACC won't lose any schools to other conferences.

"At this point our focus is on 14, and we feel very settled with 14," Swofford said. "I would emphasize that. I think that just because we're not philosophically opposed to 16 doesn't at all mean that 16 is in our future."

Part of the issue, of course, is what schools are available. While the ACC has had more than 10 other schools contact it with the idea of joining (Swofford won't say whom), the biggest fish in the sea are Texas and Notre Dame.

"I don't know how appropriate it is to talk about schools not in our league and at the moment aren't coming," Swofford said. "Our focus is on adding Pittsburgh and Syracuse. Notre Dame and Texas are quality institutions that can bring a lot of value to any conference. Whether they would ever be in our mix or not remains to be seen. I think Texas is very committed to trying to keep the Big 12 together. Historically, Notre Dame's independence in football has been very important to Notre Dame."

That, of course, isn't really a "yes" or a "no." Swofford is great at talking like that. He doesn't paint himself into corners, and he can give a political answer with the best of them.

Asked about the significant NCAA compliance problems with conference members North Carolina, Miami and Georgia Tech, he replied: "The fact that we've had multiple NCAA issues in a short time frame is very unusual for our league, and very disappointing. That's the snapshot. I think what you have to do is look at the photo album, not the snapshot. And the photo album shows us that the commitment to compliance by ACC schools has generally been outstanding."

The ACC football championship will be played Dec. 3rd in Charlotte at Bank of America Stadium for the second season in a row. The contract expires after that, and Charlotte wants to host the game again. A decision on where the 2012 championship will be made "very soon" after the December game, Swofford said.

Swofford said Charlotte had an "excellent" first year hosting the game in 2010. "One of the things in particular we hope continues to improve, though, are the numbers of tickets sold prior to the teams being announced," Swofford said.

The 2010 game sold about 30,000 tickets prior to Florida State and Virginia Tech winning their way into it last year. Then it sold out. Swofford said ideally that "pre-team" number would approach 50,000 this year. (It's at slightly more than 20,000 right now, a source said).

While some observers feel that four 16-team "super-conferences" will eventually form, Swofford said he does not think that is "inevitable."

"I tend to think that is likely not to happen, but it certainly could," Swofford said. "Everything just keeps evolving."

The governor of Connecticut has said publicly that Connecticut wants to join the ACC and there has been speculation that Rutgers, among others, would be interested as well.

Certainly, there is more expansion talk to come. Once Pittsburgh and Syracuse officially join - the timing is still unclear - the men's basketball conference schedule may well go from 16 to 18 games. And playing a future ACC basketball tournament in Madison Square Garden - or in Brooklyn, N.Y. - is eventually a possibility.

First, though, the rest of the expansion dominoes must fall.

"I think in the next six months to a year, it will settle down," Swofford said. "But how long that settled period lasts, I don't know."

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; 704-358-5140.

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