Jacobs: ACC’s Swofford hits a milestone

September 26, 2013 

The milestone was reached so quietly, even John Swofford didn’t notice until it was brought to his attention. On Sept. 12, with a lack of fanfare appropriate to a less hyperkinetic era, Swofford achieved the longest tenure of any of the five commissioners in the 61-year history of the ACC.

He has now been on the job for 16 years, two months, and two weeks.

“Well, I hadn’t thought about it, so it surprises me,” Swofford, the ACC’s chief executive since July 1, 1997, said in his newly renovated office at the league headquarters in Greensboro. “My reaction is really one of feeling privileged to have had the opportunity to sit in this chair for that long and to sit in a chair that’s been shared by such quality predecessors.”

Swofford is the third commissioner to serve at least 16 years, after Jim Weaver (July 1, 1954 to July 11, 1970) and Bob James (March 1, 1971 to May 12, 1987). Both Weaver and James died in office. Gene Corrigan, Swofford’s immediate predecessor, served from Sept.1, 1987 to June 30, 1997. There was a fifth commissioner too, who served barely a year, his tenure somehow ignored by most historians.

“I think John did a great job of holding things together,” said Corrigan, surveying the shifting allegiances, contracts, and championship alliances in contemporary college sports. “This expansion thing, he’s done well. Kind of across the board, he’s kept the ACC as a major player. That’s not easy in today’s world. He’s like me in the sense he cares about the football and wants to strengthen that as much as he can.”

Corrigan got his start with the ACC under his “model,” Jim Weaver, the former athletic director at Wake Forest. “He made it respected from the beginning,” Corrigan, 85, said in a telephone interview. “When you look back on the conference, Jim’s thing was that he wanted the ACC to be honored as a group of people who stood for the principles of athletics.”

The ACC was formed by seven breakaway members of the Southern Conference, a sprawling amalgamation of 17 colleges and universities with differing missions, resources, and aspirations. The new league emphasized a commitment to high academic standards and a level playing field – schools faced each other annually in football and home and home in basketball.

Virginia became the first expansion team in December 1953, joining Clemson, Duke, Maryland, North Carolina, N.C. State, South Carolina, and Wake Forest. The independent Cavaliers joined under the watch of Wallace Wade, the ACC’s first, forgotten commissioner.

The former Duke football coach and athletic director was Southern commissioner when the ACC was formed. Wade complained in a subsequent interview with Bruce A. Corrie, author of a 1978 history of the ACC, that he was not as powerful as other commissioners due to enduring regional prejudices.

“He realized that it was the old philosophy of states’ rights in the South, insisting they didn’t want to surrender too much authority to a central authority,” said Corrie, a resident of Southport.“Some things never change.”

Most modern sources, including the wall display in the lobby of the league office at Greensboro’s Grandover Corporate Park, ignore Wade’s tenure running the ACC. Yet, according to conference minutes cited by Corrie in his book, “The Atlantic Coast Conference, 1953-78,” Wade served as dual commissioner of both the Southern and ACC from the new league’s inception in May 1953 through Weaver’s election more than a year later.

Try picturing that trusting arrangement in today’s cutthroat collegiate environment.

Weaver’s successor, Bob James, was the first full-time commissioner. He saw South Carolina leave four months after he took office but got the roster of schools back to eight by adding Georgia Tech in the late 1970s.

Corrigan described James as “kind of a party guy” and a “good unifier.” He also recalled his predecessor’s advice that “the membership will tell us what do, what they want us to,” an outlook consistent with the modern pretense that university presidents and faculty advisers are in charge.

But Corrigan wasn’t buying it. “I paid attention to that for the first couple of months and then I thought, “. . . We’re never going to do anything,” he said. “That’s when we started on the expansion, all the other things we got ourselves involved in.” Those other things included revenue sharing, the BCS system with a guaranteed ACC foothold, and the ACC-Big East Challenge in basketball.

First and foremost in Corrigan’s mind, though, was the admittedly “forced” 1991 addition of Florida State soon after the Big 10 grabbed Penn State. Florida State’s inclusion doubled the TV households within the ACC’s reach and increased football revenue from about $3million a year to about $30million, according to Corrigan. Until then, basketball accounted for about 80 percent of the league’s income.

Corrigan retired a year after the ACC moved into a new, 15,000-square-foot building hard beside the Grandover golf course. Since then the office, like the league, has expanded twice, to 19,000 square feet in 2006 and 22,500 this year.

Corrigan demanded the highest compensation of any league commissioner when he signed on; now he said of his $200,000 starting salary, “You pay that to the elevator operator.”

Since Corrigan left, the ACC increased its staff from 17 and one intern to 42 with one consultant and five interns, according to listings in its media guides. USA Today reported Swofford made $1.7million in the 2011 calendar year, up from $1.2million in 2009. His salary ranks third among conference commissioners, after the Pac-12’s Larry Scott ($3.1million) and Jim Delany of the Big 10 ($2.8million).

Meanwhile ACC revenues reached an estimated $223.3million in fiscal year 2012. On Swofford’s watch the conference added six schools, all from the Big East. League contracts for media rights burgeoned. Maryland withdrew to join the Big 10. The remaining ACC programs voluntarily locked into an agreement to assign TV rights to the league.

One admiring writer called Swofford a “ninja” due to his quick, stealthy moves to whisk teams into the ACC fold. Former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese had a less charitable take, telling the New York Daily News in 2003 the ACC was “a bunch of hypocrites. They operate in the dark. They’ll never acknowledge this, but I'm aware the ACC for the last couple of years, without ever picking up the phone or calling me, has basically gone out and tried to convince our teams to enter their league.”

Soon after, Boston College, Miami, and Virginia Tech announced they were joining the ACC. A dozen members meant an end to some longstanding annual rivalries and killed round-robin play in basketball.

Public backlash was fierce, but unavailing. Amid rumors of further ACC defections, it was the Big East that unraveled after Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse jumped to the ACC this year. Louisville replaces Maryland in 2014-15.

Swofford, by all accounts an unflappable sort, took the criticism in stride, convinced he did what was necessary to ensure the ACC’s viability. He’ll turn 65 in December, and has no plans to retire soon.

“In spite of the turbulence, it’s gone quickly, really,” Swofford said of a tenure that matches his stay as athletics director at North Carolina, his alma mater. “There haven’t been any dull moments along the way. It was much quieter the first few years than it has been since then.”

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