Forum: Swofford’s story swells with pride for North Carolina

John Swofford spoke from the heart to the dozens of industry leaders who gathered to honor the former ACC commissioner and his wife, Nora, last month at ACC Media Days in Charlotte.

One has to marvel at the journey of the western North Carolina native who never ventured far and stayed loyal to the state that taught him life lessons and provided the principles for his success. What a great run Swofford has had, and looking around the ballroom in Charlotte that night and seeing so many conference commissioners, athletic directors and other leaders in college sports who came from great distances for the two-hour reception, it was clear the deep well of respect they all have for Swofford.

Swofford’s story — featuring remarkable longevity and loyalty to one state in this era of executive free agency — may never come along again in sports business. Born in the small town of North Wilkesboro, N.C., he was a Morehead Scholar and standout football player at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, before becoming that school’s AD in 1980 at the young age of 31. After 17 years, he then became ACC commissioner at 49, and he ended his tenure at the league’s Greensboro office in June as the longest serving commissioner in the history of the conference.

The threads of Swofford’s success are detailed in the recently released ACC Network documentary, “John Swofford: Building a Legacy,” which is worth your time. The one-hour program tells the story of a young man greatly influenced by his parents and three older brothers, who followed his passion for sports with a laser-like focus to lead arguably the most important institution in his home state.

Swofford’s parents instilled the attributes of hard work, integrity, honesty and humility in their sons — traits Swofford continually displayed over his remarkable career.

“I couldn’t have asked for better parents,” he said, although he acknowledged that losing his dad, a local businessman, to cancer at the age of 51 when he was only 13 shook him greatly.

“That hit me hard,” he said, adding that a main regret in his life was “not having the opportunity to know my dad as an adult.”

Swofford followed his passion for sports to Chapel Hill, and the documentary includes tremendous footage of “Johnny” Swofford outrunning defenders as a Tar Heel quarterback.

“Sports really impacted me as to what I wanted my passion to be,” he said.

While still a Tar Heel athlete, Swofford began planning his career. At his reception in Charlotte, Swofford admitted there were too many people to mention for contributing to his success, but he did specifically thank one person, the man who got him started in sports business: Homer Rice, the AD at UNC while Swofford was in school. Rice, who is now 94 years old, recalled in the documentary how Swofford was the rare athlete who reached out to learn how to become a future athletic director, and he shared thoughts on how to get involved in the business side of sports.

One of Swofford’s first acts as UNC’s AD was to raise more than $36 million in private funding to build the Dean E. Smith Center, which opened in 1986 to house the school’s vaunted men’s basketball team. The saga caused him some sleepless nights. “If this doesn’t work out … ” he said in the documentary, his voice trailing off. “That’s what I would lie awake thinking about.”

When asked how he dealt with the challenges of the job, Swofford joked that he’d never say exactly what he was thinking. But then in his traditional, measured way, he added, “I’m relatively calm, at least on the outside. Because I think you almost have to be as a leader. There is certainly turmoil inside at times, but you have to set the emotions aside and get your thoughts in order, and think, ‘OK what do I do now? What are steps A, B, C and D?’”

That’s exactly the decision-making we have witnessed over the years with Swofford. He effectively led through choppy and challenging times, and he always showed great care about college sports.

Swofford won’t have to face the turbulence of further realignment or the challenges of name, image and likeness. Instead, he and Nora have built a home at the Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, just about 350 yards from the clubhouse where the ACC was founded in 1953.

“It seems kind of fitting,” he said of his home’s locale.

A relaxed and healthy looking 72, Swofford is eager for more time with Nora and their seven grandchildren.

“I feel really good about the next chapter of life, which will be a little different from some of the past chapters,” he said to close the show. “I am looking forward to taking a deep breath and relaxing some.”

Good for him. The journey of John Swofford isn’t nearly complete. It will continue — in the exact place it should — where he’s surrounded by memories.

Abraham Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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