GREENSBORO — John Swofford, the longest-tenured commissioner in the 67-year history of the Atlantic Coast Conference, announced last week that the 2020-21 athletic year will be the last of his 24 years of service. Swofford will continue in the commissioner’s chair until his successor is installed and will assist with the transition as needed.
As the fourth commissioner of the ACC, the Wilkes County native guided the league to unprecedented stability, success and growth, expanding from nine to 15 members beginning with Miami and Virginia Tech in 2004, quickly followed by Boston College and later joined by Pitt, Syracuse, Notre Dame and Louisville.
Today’s ACC spans the entire eastern seaboard, giving it the largest geographical footprint and population among all Autonomy 5 conferences. Expansion allowed the league to secure its future through the grant of media rights, creation of the ACC Football Championship Game, an invaluable partnership with the Orange Bowl, and joining with ESPN in August 2019 to establish the ACC Network, which provides fans exceptional access to live events via a comprehensive, multi-platform network.
“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,” said Swofford. “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 and I look forward to enjoying the remarkable friendships and memories I’ve been blessed with long after I leave this chair.”
Swofford’s impact has been felt far beyond the ACC footprint. He played a key role in the evolution of the College Football Playoff, as well as being a leading advocate for NCAA legislation that allows Autonomy 5 conferences to better address the needs of their institutions, athletic programs and student-athletes. He was instrumental in starting the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, now an early-season staple for both men’s and women’s college basketball, and oversaw the development of the ACC Football Championship Game.
During his tenure, he hired the league’s first full-time women’s basketball administrator, started the ACC Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and implemented the annual ACC Mental Health and Wellness Summit.
Over the last 23 years, the ACC has been at the forefront of college athletics, winning 92 national team titles in 19 of the league’s 27 sponsored sports. Beyond athletics, the league continues to set the standard academically by leading all conferences in nearly every comparison.
Kent Syverud, chancellor of Syracuse University and the chair of the ACC Board of Directors, praised Commissioner Swofford’s character and service.
“John Swofford, in his historic tenure, has come to embody the very best of the ACC,” Syverud said. “The conference has been dramatically enhanced in every way during the last quarter century, especially in its balance of academics and athletics. All 15 presidents of the conference, like their universities, are deeply grateful to John for his transformative leadership.”
Hailing from North Wilkesboro where he was a three-sport most valuable player and all-state quarterback, Swofford attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on a Morehead Scholarship as part of head coach Bill Dooley’s first football recruiting class.
In addition to earning a spot on the ACC Academic Honor Roll as a student-athlete, he started at quarterback as a sophomore and part of his junior year, and then finished his career as a defensive back for UNC’s 1971 ACC Championship team. He played in the Peach Bowl as a junior and the Gator Bowl as a senior.
Swofford received his master’s in athletics administration from Ohio University. His first job in college athletics came at the University of Virginia — where he worked under future ACC Commissioner Gene Corrigan — before returning to North Carolina.
In 1980, at the age of 31, Swofford was named the athletics director at his alma mater. He held that post for 17 years. As athletics director, Swofford’s teams won more ACC and NCAA championships than any other athletic director in ACC history, a record that still stands. In 1994, Carolina won the Sears Director’s Cup, awarded to the top overall athletics program in the nation, the only ACC program to ever win that award.
At the time he became athletics director, North Carolina had not won a national championship in any sport since 1957. The Tar Heels won at least one national title every year of Swofford’s tenure.
During his time in Chapel Hill, Carolina’s women’s sports programs soared to unprecedented heights, winning 65 ACC and 17 NCAA Championships. Swofford also hired six head coaches that went on to win national championships. In 1981, he hired the first Black head coach in the ACC.
Swofford is a member of five Halls of Fame — the NACDA hall of fame, the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, the North Carolina High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame, the Chick-fil-A Bowl Hall of Fame, and the Wilkes County Hall of Fame. He has been awarded the Corbett Award, which is the highest administrative honor given nationally to a collegiate athletics administrator.
Swofford has received the Homer Rice Award from the Division 1A Athletic Directors’ Association and is a recipient of the Ohio University Distinguished Alumnus Award. In 2011, he also received one of Greensboro’s Father of the Year awards.
Swofford and his wife, Nora, will continue to reside in Greensboro, North Carolina. Together, they have three children — Autumn and her husband, Sherman Wooden, who have three children, Maya, Lyla and Lincoln; Chad and his wife, Caitlyn, who have one child, Owen and another due in September; and Amie and her husband, Mike Caudle, who have two children, Emerson and Colson.
Comments from Swofford's peers
“Commissioner Swofford will leave a lasting impact on college athletics. He has enhanced the Atlantic Coast Conference in a multitude of ways, including his vision for ACC Network, during his two-decades long tenure as commissioner. He’s been a tremendous partner, and his progressive nature and leadership advanced not only the ACC but all of college athletics. His influence will be felt for years to come.” — ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro
“You cannot overstate John Swofford’s commitment to the ACC to intercollegiate athletics. He was a Morehead Scholar, football player and Director of Athletics at North Carolina, and the Commissioner of ACC for over 23 years. His dedication to balancing education, opportunities and competition over his career has been reflected in his leadership and advocacy for all student-athletes. As one of the creators of the Sports Management Institute, and an active member of NACDA and the Division I Athletics Directors Association, John has always valued professional development and growth. John’s professional legacy will always be his impact and inspiration to thousands of students and professionals he has mentored and led over the years. Congratulations and thank you for your contributions to intercollegiate athletics.” — UNC Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham
“So many have benefited from his outstanding leadership including our organization where he was the key force behind our longstanding and invaluable Capital One Orange Bowl partnership. We are eternally grateful to have had the opportunity to work closely with one of the industry’s consummate professionals and more importantly an even better person! Very best wishes for John and Nora as they enter the next chapter of their lives.” — Orange Bowl CEO Eric Poms
“John Swofford’s impact on the ACC has been unbelievable. For countless years and in so many different roles, John has been a guiding force for the league through his contributions at both the institutional and conference level. Sally and I were fortunate to get to know John and his wife Nora during my first tenure at North Carolina and you couldn’t find two better people. John cares deeply about college athletics and the student-athletes and that’s been shown repeatedly during his career. We are better off because John Swofford touched our university and our conference and we wish him nothing but the best as he moves on to the next chapter of his lift after this year.” — UNC Head Football Coach Mack Brown
“I would like to thank John for his undying love and commitment to the ACC over the past quarter of a century. He set the standards in college athletics. His dedication, knowledge, and experience will be missed not only at Wake Forest and the ACC, but throughout the entire collegiate sports landscape.” — Wake Forest Head Women’s Basketball Coach Jen Hoover
“John Swofford is the best commissioner I ever worked with in 32 years as a head coach. He truly has the best interests of student-athletes on his mind at every moment. He cares about people — whether they are players, coaches, administrators or student managers — he’s a people person. Wanda and I wish John and Nora a great retirement and hope they have a lot of fun from the very first day. I’ve known John since we were in college together, and worked with him when he began his administrative career in athletics as the business manager and I was an assistant with Coach Smith. He is genuinely a great individual and one I am very happy to call a close friend.” — UNC Head Men’s Basketball Coach Roy Williams
“Throughout his tenure at the helm of the ACC, Commissioner Swofford has consistently demonstrated a strong commitment to keeping the conference at the forefront of college athletics. What he has done to advance the ACC has been particularly impressive given the ever-changing landscape of college athletics. His foresight as a leader has positioned us to be successful well into the future.” — Florida State Head Men’s Basketball Coach Leonard Hamilton
“Commissioner Swofford has guided the ACC through many challenges including expansion and the launch of ACC Network, thus positioning the conference for continued success well into the future. Our entire league owes so much of its success to his steady hand and thoughtful leadership.” — N.C. State Chancellor Randy Woodson
“Certainly, John Swofford oversaw and successfully navigated the Atlantic Coast Conference through the most dramatic era of change in its storied history. Since 1997, John worked to represent the best interests of all ACC institutions, now up to 15 after the latest round of expansion, in pursuit of making the league the best version of itself. We wish both John and Nora the very best in retirement and thank him for more than two decades of dedicated service as commissioner of the ACC.” — Duke Head Men’s Basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski
“The class with which Commissioner Swofford led our conference was beyond reproach. As a member of the ACC, he made us all feel part of the ACC family. John dedicated his career to higher education in the ACC and positively impacted so many people’s lives, including mine. He made all our athletic departments better because of his thoughtful, authentic and servant leadership style.” — Pittsburgh Director of Athletics Heather Lyke
“John Swofford’s influence and guidance has allowed the ACC to be a leader on the college sports landscape. 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. It has been an honor to work with him, and to learn from him, during my time at UVA. I wish John and Nora the best as he finishes his tenure at the ACC and prepares for the next phase of his life.” — Virginia Athletics Director Carla Williams