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DeCock: ACC’s Swofford exhales at end of long, pivotal year

By Luke DeCock - staff columnist
ldecock@newsobserver.com
Luke has worked for The News & Observer since 2000. He covered the Carolina Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a sports columnist in August 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.
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Louisville ACC Transition
Alton Strupp/The Courier-Journal - AP
ACC Commissioner John Swofford, from left, Louisville President Frank Ramsey and athletic director Tom Jurich unveil a plaque on July 1 welcoming Louisville to the ACC in Louisville, Ky.

GREENSBORO John Swofford is not the kind of man to let the world know how he’s feeling. In good years and bad, the ACC’s longtime commissioner always roams the hallways of the Grandover Resort during the ACC Kickoff with the same calm smile on his face.

Last weekend was a little different. Whether sitting in the back of the crowd during a presentation on the new College Football Playoff – a move championed in large part by Swofford and his SEC counterpart, Mike Slive – or holding court in a small second-floor conference room with easy access to Diet Coke, the 65-year-old from North Wilkesboro couldn’t help letting on he had more than usual to smile about.

After securing the future of the league in the wake of Maryland’s departure by locking down media rights and preventing further realignment, successfully maneuvering Louisville and Notre Dame (sort of) into the fold – to give the ACC more population and television households in its geographic footprint than any other conference – and watching an ACC team win the national championship in football, Swofford can look back at a long and at times trying year with some pride, both personally and for the conference.

“It’s been busy, but it’s been good busy,” Swofford said. “The last year has been really good for us, from a league standpoint, for all the reasons you know.”

Which isn’t to say life is perfect for Swofford. There’s still the lawsuit seeking $52 million in exit fees from Maryland to be litigated, and the ACC has to wait on the SEC’s new television network to see whether a dedicated channel of its own is feasible. And the NCAA’s return to Chapel Hill, where Swofford played football and served as athletics director in 1980-97, continues to tear at him.

“This thing’s like the Energizer bunny,” Swofford said. “It just seems to go on and on.”

But there’s no question there’s a sense of closure for Swofford and the ACC at this point. The threat of realignment poaching, if not outright dissolution, is gone. The new television deal with ESPN runs through 2027 and is insanely lucrative for the ACC and its schools.

The basketball tournament is headed to Brooklyn and, in a sly jab at Maryland, back to Washington in the future as the league tries to cement its growing foothold in the Northeast.

With his own house secure, Swofford’s attention now turns to NCAA reform, where the five power conferences are expected to establish new rules and procedures in the name of reform. While that has been forced upon the NCAA and the conferences externally, by lawsuits and the threat of unionization, it’s no less overdue and no less welcome.

Swofford, still an athletics director at heart in many ways, is looking forward to it.

“That’s meaningful work,” he said. “Because it can impact college athletics significantly for a long time to come, and most importantly, the student-athletes that are playing the sports. Sometimes, in a commissioner’s job, particularly in recent years, you feel like you’re spending a lot of time on business-related matters and marketplace issues and membership issues and television issues.

“Having been an AD as long as I was, I always like to get back to why we’re really here. As important as those things are, and they’re critically important, we seem to be getting back to things now that impact the players and the students, which is really why most of us got into this in the first place.”

As for getting out of it, while Swofford has reached retirement age, he said he fully intends to finish out the six years remaining on his contract with the ACC.

“I hadn’t really thought a whole lot about that yet, which tells me something,” he said. “I suspect it will be a while”

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947
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