John Swofford, the commissioner of the ACC since 1997, has taken the league into places that would have been hard to imagine when he was playing quarterback for North Carolina in 1970.
Swofford’s league brings its showpiece event to Charlotte this week, as the ACC men’s basketball tournament is played in the Queen City for the first time since 2008. Swofford and I spoke on the phone recently, talking about everything from sports gambling to Charlotte’s role in future big ACC events to his thoughts on UNC’s “back to the future” hiring of football coach Mack Brown.
As for his own retirement, Swofford, 70, said he’s “not there yet, but we’ll see down the road.”
Here are highlights from our conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.
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Q: If a fan hadn’t watched the ACC tournament between 2008 when it was last in Charlotte and then watched this one, what would be the differences?
A: It’s a little bigger and a little longer from the last time we were there. But it’s the same great basketball that we’re fortunate enough to see on pretty much an annual basis. Several teams this year have a legitimate chance of winning a national championship.
It should be a fun week for Charlotte. In one of our recent ACC meetings it dawned on me, looking around the table, that I think we have about three athletic directors in the league that were around when the last tournament was held in Charlotte.
Q: You’ve announced your ACC men’s basketball tournament schedule through 2022. Will Charlotte be in the mix again beyond that?
A: Charlotte and the ACC have had a great history over the years. We’re glad to be back this year. We’ll look forward to, in all probability, being back in the future.
We’re in a rotation now where we’re going to be North Carolina first in Charlotte (in 2019) and then in Greensboro (2020), then to Washington (2021) and then to New York (2022). And replicating that rotation, or something similar to it, may well be the future.
Q: On the other hand, you don’t rotate the ACC football championship at all – it will be played in Charlotte through at least the 2030 season. Why the difference?
A: We were looking for a home for the football championship game from the very beginning. We started out in Florida and had some success, and we had other years that it wasn’t as successful.
What we learned from that is when you can’t predict what teams are going to be in it and you’re at one extreme geographically — in this case the southern tip of our footprint — it impacts fans’ ability to travel to the game.
There are so many good things about Charlotte. One is the airport, which allows all of our schools to fly directly into Charlotte. That’s a huge plus. And it’s in the center of our footprint, with great hotels and restaurants, an excellent stadium and a lot of cooperation from the leadership of the Panthers, both previous and current.
I will say the ACC football championship is different because that’s two schools, whereas the basketball tournament is 15. And eight of our schools are within 300 miles of Charlotte, which makes it easy to drive for fans. So your chances of having a team that’s in the championship football game that’s one of those eight schools is fairly good.
Q: More and more states have legalized sports gambling now on college sports, and there’s a lot more of that to come. What impact will that have on the ACC?
A: We’re trying to figure that out. We’re taking various steps to educate ourselves with what’s happening, particularly within the 10 states where our schools fall, and also trying to figure out how is this different, being legal, than the betting that goes on now — and that we all know goes on — in an illegal sense. And how does it potentially affect our athletes and our coaches and people around our programs, and what do we need to do about it to protect them as best we can and to educate them about what this new world brings?
Personally, I would prefer that college athletics be carved out and not legal to bet on, but that day has probably passed. So you need to accept that reality. You can’t have your collective heads stuck in the sand on this. I get a little bit concerned about having 10 different sets of circumstances in 10 different states. So I’d like to see some consistency maybe coming out of Congress, from state to state, in terms of some regulatory features.
Q: You hired Mack Brown as North Carolina’s football coach when you were the athletic director at UNC. Now he’s been rehired there again, at age 67. Do you think he can succeed again?
A: I do. I think he’s a great fit for that university. I felt that way at the time in the late ‘80s when I hired him and I still feel that way.
Mack and I have stayed in touch over the years. There were a few schools he talked with me about in previous years. Each year he was out of it after leaving Texas, I think the number of schools diminished tremendously (that contacted Brown about a possible return to coaching).
I’m not sure he would have gotten back in anywhere other than Carolina. I think he has the energy, he knows how to win and he knows that university. He’s a very positive individual. I think he’ll do well.
Q: The ACC Network is close to launching. How will that impact fans?
A: In a positive way. We launch Aug. 22, and the first football game on the channel will be Aug. 29th – Georgia Tech at Clemson. It will be great for ACC fans – it’s 24/7 ACC in one way or the other. The beauty of it is you’ll know so much more about the league and the people in the league in various sports.
We’ll have less syndication on over-the-air channels and a lot more on the ACC Network and its own channel. As far as comparing it to the SEC Network, the fundamental business plan is the same, but it will have its own distinctive look.