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When the ACC announced it was signing a grant of rights agreement last month, the various schools that form the prestigious conference could all finally breathe a collective sigh of relief. After the announcement was made, many sports analysts were beginning to take notice and instantly began to plug in their own two cents on the various ways it all went down. However, there was one vital question that remained unanswered: In the end, how exactly did the ACC survive? According to SI.com’s Andy Staples, John Swofford worked very quietly behind the scenes to help stabilize the conference and keep it from becoming the next set of building blocks for the Big Ten and SEC. In recent weeks the mood in ACC country has shifted to a positive direction and it’s great to see everyone on the same page, something the conference did not have at this time last year. Again, some of this has already been reported, but it’s a great read nonetheless with plenty of new twists and turns.
But Swofford didn’t stash his worries in a to-do tray on his desk in Greensboro, N.C., before he headed south for his league’s spring meetings. Instead, he did what he has done for the past 10 years. He very quietly took decisive action to strengthen — and possibly save — his conference. Swofford may look like he stepped out of a Brooks Brothers ad and into a PGA tournament pro-am. He may talk with the aristocratic drawl of the lawyer you’d call before you closed on your beach house in the Outer Banks. He may seem the personification of the Old Boy Network in an era when the Old Boy Network has watched its power erode. But make no mistake, John Swofford is a ninja. He moves quickly and quietly, and by the time his enemies — or, in his case, business rivals — realize he’s struck, it’s already too late.
Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich, a veteran of the realignment tilt-a-whirl who has taken his school from Conference USA to the Big East to the ACC, has another word for Swofford. “He’s a magician,” Jurich said.
The ACC probably shouldn’t be here right now celebrating newfound security and potential prosperity. Under different leadership, it probably would look more the league that will meet later this month two counties south in Ponte Vedra Beach. That league used to be called The Big East. Now, it is called the American Athletic Conference — an alliance of misfit toys that more closely resembles the roster of Conference USA, circa 2003. About 10 years ago, both leagues were peers. Now the schools of the American occupy college sports’ middle class. The ACC? It’s one of the five conferences remaining at the big table. When the wealthiest schools inevitably form their own NCAA division, the schools of the ACC will be part of that group. While the SEC’s Mike Slive and the Big Ten’s Jim Delany usually make all the lists of the smartest, most powerful people in college sports, Swofford has quietly proven himself to be one of the most capable leaders in the business. He has had to be the wolf. He has had to be the sheep. And when things looked bleakest, he completed a Hail Mary that kept his league in the upper echelon.
Six months ago, the idea of the ACC surviving this round of realignment seemed a 50/50 proposition — even though ACC presidents kept swearing their fealty to the league. Charter member Maryland had bolted for the Big Ten, and given the dollar figures the Big Ten dangled before the Terrapins, the school’s move was understandable. The ACC had a media rights deal in place with ESPN that would produce an average annual payout in the neighborhood of $17 million a year per school. The Big Ten had its own cable network and an upcoming rights negotiation that could produce the richest payout in the history of college sports. If all goes according to plan, the Big Ten might be paying out nearly double in five years what the ACC deal in place at the time would have. Cash-strapped Maryland jumped at the offer. Because cable television is the Big Ten’s biggest revenue driver, the notion of expanding into southern markets with schools that already fit the Big Ten’s academic brand (North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia Tech) seemed a tantalizing possibility — especially if a court in North Carolina struck down or reduced the $52 million exit fee Maryland owes the league. “I wasn’t terribly worried about it,” Swofford said. “I generally take my cue from our presidents. I believe our presidents until I have reason not to.”