John Swofford will step down as the commissioner of the ACC next year after guiding the conference for almost a quarter-century.
Swofford, 71, announced Thursday that he will retire at the end of the upcoming school year. He will remain in the role until his yet-to-be-named successor comes aboard.
“What a great leader,” former Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer said Thursday in a phone interview. “He always had the best interest of the ACC at heart.
“Some teams probably meant more than others, [got] more recognition than others, but I really felt like John Swofford was for all the teams in the ACC.”
Swofford is the longest serving commissioner in ACC history. He was hired as the ACC’s fourth commissioner in 1997, succeeding Gene Corrigan. Swofford stepped down as the athletic director at his alma mater, North Carolina, to take the ACC job.
“It has been a privilege to be a part of the ACC for over five decades and my respect and appreciation for those associated with the league throughout its history is immeasurable,” Swofford said in a news release. “Having been an ACC student-athlete, athletics director and commissioner has been an absolute honor.
“There are immediate challenges that face not only college athletics, but our entire country, and I will continue to do my very best to help guide the conference in these unprecedented times through the remainder of my tenure. Nora and I have been planning for this to be my last year for some time.”
The 2020-21 school year will be Swofford’s 24th school year as ACC commissioner.
“I never saw him not calm,” Beamer said. “I never saw him where you didn’t think he had things under control.”
“John Swofford’s influence and guidance has allowed the ACC to be a leader on the college sports landscape,” Virginia athletic director Carla Williams said in a UVa statement. “His compassion and care for this conference and its members has set an incredibly high standard and his forward thinking has helped to position the league for future growth and success.”
The ACC has grown from nine schools to 15 during Swofford’s reign.
“He very much saw what was taking place and [saw] strength in numbers,” Beamer said.
In 2003, the ACC voted to add Big East members Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College. Tech and Miami began ACC play in 2004, with BC coming aboard in 2005.
“The best thing ever for Virginia Tech was the day we went into the ACC,” Beamer said Thursday.
In mid-May 2003, the ACC rejected a pitch from Virginia Tech and chose Miami, BC and Syracuse as expansion candidates. But in mid-June of that year, ACC presidents still couldn’t reach a consensus on whether to vote in that trio. So then-UVa President John Casteen suggested that Tech be added to the mix. Six days later, the ACC voted in Tech and Miami. Four months later, BC was voted in as well.
The three additions gave the ACC 12 teams, enabling the league to split into two divisions for football and have a lucrative football championship game.
In the fall of 2011, the ACC voted to add Syracuse and Pittsburgh. The two schools made the move from the Big East in the summer of 2013.
“I don’t think we looked at it as a matter of survival on our part,” Swofford said in a 2011 teleconference about the vote. “We look at it, as we constantly do, in terms of ensuring our conference’s viability.”
The additions of Syracuse and Pitt gave the ACC three schools from the Northeast.
“The ACC will cover virtually the entire eastern seaboard of the United States,” Swofford said in the 2011 teleconference.
Notre Dame also left the Big East for the ACC in 2013, joining the ACC in all sports but football. While maintaining its football independence, Notre Dame agreed to play a handful of ACC football teams each season as part of the deal.
In the fall of 2012, the ACC voted to add Louisville as the replacement for Maryland, which was planning to leave for the Big Ten. Louisville made the switch from the American Athletic Conference to the ACC in the summer of 2014.
In the spring of 2013, Swofford helped protect the league from future membership raids by persuading the presidents of the ACC schools, including then-incoming members Syracuse, Pitt, Notre Dame and Louisville, to each sign over a grant of media rights. That meant the schools relinquished control of their TV rights for the duration of the ACC’s deal with ESPN. If a school leaves for another conference before the 2026-27 school year, it forfeits those earnings.
“This announcement further highlights the continued solidarity and commitment by our member institutions,” Swofford said at that time.
The latest milestone in Swofford’s reign was the debut last August of the ESPN-owned ACC Network, giving the league its own cable channel (although one that is still not available to Comcast subscribers).
The ACC and ESPN announced plans for the channel in 2016.
“These new agreements with ESPN competitively position the Atlantic Coast Conference for the long term, both from a financial perspective and from a programming, content and exposure perspective,” Swofford said at a 2016 news conference.
Not all the news has been good during Swofford’s tenure, though.
The league’s reputation suffered hits for sagas such as the escorts that were hired for Louisville men’s basketball recruits; the FBI investigation into the men’s basketball programs at Louisville and other, non-ACC schools; the NCAA investigation into academic fraud at North Carolina; the “WakeyLeaks” football scandal that resulted in the ACC fining Louisville and Virginia Tech; an investigation that resulted in the NCAA stripping wins from Syracuse men’s basketball coach Jim Boeheim; an NCAA investigation that found violations committed by the UNC football program; an investigation that resulted in the NCAA stripping Georgia Tech of its 2009 ACC football title; and an investigation that resulted in the NCAA stripping wins from then-Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden.