A Conversation With ACC Commissioner John Swofford

(Photo by Sara D. Davis/theACC.com)

The Atlantic Coast Conference raced into the New Year riding the momentum of a 2013 fall season that was highlighted by two National Championships, a Heisman Trophy, widespread team success and individual accolades in virtually every sport. ACC Commissioner John Swofford discusses the remarkable run and looks ahead with the hope of continued success in the spring.

Q. The week of January 3 through 10 saw the ACC win the Discover Orange Bowl and the Vizio BCS National Championship, place five schools among the top nine in the NACDA Learfield Cup standings and claim the MAC Hermann Award in both men and women’s soccer. As Commissioner, could you think of a better start to the New Year, and what do you think that says about the conference as a whole moving forward?

A. It has been a tremendous year, and that week sort of puts in perspective how successful our schools and our student-athletes have been during the fall sports.  It shows the breadth of quality, athletically in our conference – collectively in terms of our teams and again, on an individual basis in terms of the quality of our athletes. When you have a national champion in football, a national champion in men’s soccer, the Heisman Trophy winner, the national players of the year in both men’s and women’s soccer, the success of our field hockey programs , as well as all of the individual awards in football – not only the Heisman Trophy, but multiple national player and coach of the year awards– it really has been an outstanding fall, and with the culmination of that, to the New Year.

Q. We had kind of a ‘perfect storm” in ACC Football with the National Championship, 11 teams posting winning season, the Heisman Trophy and almost every other major award. But where do you think the conference stands as we move from the BCS to the College Football Playoff next year?

A. I think we took a definite step forward with ACC football this year. We had 11 teams going to bowls, which had never happened. We had 11 teams with winning records, which is absolutely remarkable. In the course of a week, we had two BCS bowl wins – one, of course, for the national championship, and the other against a quality name-brand opponent in our partner going forward, the Orange Bowl. The winners of those games (Florida State and Clemson) both finished in the top 10 in the country. It really has given us a platform a national perspective that we need and desire, and an excellent platform on which to build for the future.

Q. The ACC is about halfway through its first academic year as a 15-member conference.  Were there any specific things that were learned when you added the 10th, 11th and 12th members a decade or so ago that helped make this a smoother transition?

A. Well, I know a lot of people in our league worked very hard to make it a seamless transition, and I think by and large it has been.  I think having the success we’ve had right out of the chute as a 15-member league is really healthy, moving forward, for the ACC.

Q. What has been the biggest challenge as a 15-member league? I would think scheduling – Any other issues?

A. One of the biggest challenges has been scheduling – across the board. That had to change in every sport we have to one degree or another. Our staff and our representatives at our member schools have worked very hard to come up with the right scheduling models that will work in the best interests of all of our sports and in the best interests of our athletes. I congratulate the people involved in helping to make that work, from football to men’s and women’s basketball, to all of the Olympic Sports.  It’s gone extraordinarily well.

Q. You knew what you were getting from an academic standpoint with the high quality schools among the newest membership, but you also expressed high confidence in what they would contribute athletically. And that seems to be just what you’ve found with Notre Dame winning the men’s NCAA soccer championship, what (senior defensive tackle) Aaron Donald has done at Pitt … a lot of team and individual success there.

A. Right, and those are two great examples – Notre Dame winning the National Championship and Aaron winning the Outland Trophy and numerous other major awards right off the bat, Pitt and Syracuse both winning bowl games at the end year, and both of those schools playing basketball the way they are playing right now. Next fall, we will start our football arrangement with Notre Dame (playing five ACC teams per season). Notre Dame won its bowl game this year as well in Yankee Stadium in the Pinstripe Bowl, and that will be one of our bowl partners going forward.

Q. Touching on the bowl partnerships that begin next season – it’s an interesting mix of some games that ACC fans have grown to know well and some new ones as well. How do you feel about the lineup that will be in place starting with the 2014 season?

A. I think that without question it is the best bowl lineup that we’ve ever had. You start with our continued and strengthened partnership with the Orange Bowl, and who will be (the opponent) on the other side on an annual basis: the SEC, the Big Ten or Notre Dame. The Orange Bowl will always be played now on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, and the ACC will always have a team in the game regardless of how many of our teams are in the four-team BCS Playoff.

We have the opportunity to continue in Orlando, and in some years possibly play in both games (the Russell Athletic and Capital One Bowls).  We still retain our ties with Nashville (the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl) and the Belk Bowl in Charlotte continues to get stronger and stronger with the SEC on the other side. That seems like a natural for a game in the Southeast.

Q. And you mentioned the Pinstripe Bowl earlier, and then there are some of your mainstays …

A. We are very excited about being in New York, as well as the continuation of the Sun Bowl out in El Paso. When you look at who we are playing in these games, there is a full mix of games with the Big Ten and the SEC. We’ve got the Big 12 in the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando, and we’ve got the Pac 12 in the Sun Bowl. And then we are continuing our relationships with (bowl games in) Washington and Shreveport.  I believe we will continue to have depth in the number of our teams that are in bowls. And I think the new postseason iteration of a college football playoff, so far, is setting up in a way that can be very beneficial to the ACC and to college football.

Q. Having to find a place for 11 teams in postseason games would be a nice problem to have every year, wouldn’t it?

A. It would be. I wouldn’t expect that to be an every year occurrence. It would be nice if it were. We had to work hard to find a place for all 11 this year, and it was gratifying that both Pitt and Syracuse found a place to play (as at-large teams in the Little Caesar’s Pizza and Texas Bowls) and won those games. They stepped in and represented themselves and our league very well.

Q. Since the announcement of Washington, D.C., as the site of the 2016 ACC Basketball Tournament, there has been a lot of speculation and anticipation about 2017 and the years that follow. Is there any timetable in your mind as to when you would like to see that finalized and announced?

A. I think that we’re close. We’ve had some really good discussions about the future of the tournament and where it needs to be, and I would expect that in the next couple of months we will have an announcement. We have two more years in Greensboro, which is comforting because they do a terrific job with our tournament. I think we will have an appropriate mix of our footprint in the location of the tournament, starting with these next two years, and then in Washington. We have been very successful with our tournament there previously.

Q. And with the calendar now having flipped over to 2014, Louisville is set to come on board as an ACC member on July 1. Is everything full-speed ahead as far as that goes?

A. Yes, and we are very excited about Louisville coming in, as they will be an excellent addition to the Atlantic Coast Conference. They bring a very strong, competitive program from top to bottom. They had a phenomenal year last year with a major bowl win, the NCAA title in men’s basketball, the Final Four in women’s basketball and the College World Series. That doesn’t happen very often, but I think that is indicative of the quality of athletic program they are going to bring to our conference. It is an exciting thing for the ACC and our fans.