ACC commissioner John Swofford will retire after the 2020-21 season, the conference announced Thursday.
Swofford, 71, will have served 24 years leading the ACC, the longest-tenured commissioner in league history.
“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 statement. “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 [Swofford’s wife] 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.”
Athletic directors were told about the decision Thursday morning before the ACC made the announcement public.
When Swofford was hired in April 1997, the ACC was a nine-member league that was known predominantly as a basketball conference. Over the course of his career, Swofford transformed the conference through multiple expansion waves, first adding Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech in 2004-05.
In 2012, when expansion across the country threatened the ACC’s existence, Swofford went to work again to save the league. He made up for the loss of Maryland with the additions of Louisville, Pittsburgh and Syracuse and kept Florida State in the conference despite speculation it had interest in joining the Big 12. But more than that, Swofford got all league members to agree to a grant-of-rights deal to guarantee the conference’s future and keep potential suitors away. The ACC also added Notre Dame in all sports but football and arranged a scheduling partnership between league teams and the Fighting Irish that also allowed the league to improve its bowl lineup.
All of this allowed the ACC to secure a long-term television partnership with ESPN and create the ACC Network, which launched last year. As it stands, the ACC is a 15-member league and has the largest geographical footprint of any conference in the country.
“John Swofford, in his historic tenure, has come to embody the very best of the ACC,” Syracuse chancellor Kent Syverud said in a statement. “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.”
Swofford also was instrumental in the creation of the College Football Playoff as one of the early advocates for a playoff system. He and then-SEC commissioner Mike Slive proposed a plus-one model to expand the BCS in 2008, but the plan was met with little support. Swofford never gave up on it, even though he told ESPN in 2014 that it was hard sometimes to believe they would ever get to a playoff.
“There were some times in those discussions where you’d get worn down a bit and wonder, ‘I don’t know whether we can get this resolved or not,'” Swofford said. “But we’d step back away from it, and once we got reasonably deep into the conversations, there was a sense that, ‘Look, we’ve come too far. We’ve got to work this out. We’re letting down the entire college football community.’ And that’s what drove us.”
The ACC remains a basketball powerhouse, but Swofford understood football had to be amplified in a way it was not when he arrived as commissioner. He urged athletic directors to invest in football, and there have been plenty of highs in the sport over the past seven years.
But the league is more than just basketball and football. Over the past 23 years, the ACC has won 92 national team titles in 19 of the 27 sports the league sponsors.
Swofford’s commitment to not only reimagining the conference but championing all sports runs deep. He grew up in ACC country in North Carolina and played quarterback and defensive back for the Tar Heels, winning an ACC title in 1971. He served as the school’s athletic director for 17 years starting in 1980 before taking the ACC job.
He also worked for Virginia as his first job in college athletics. He never held a job outside the ACC footprint.