Football Matters: John Swofford

I think it’s really important to protect the game, cherish the game, and change the game as it needs to change in areas, in terms of health and safety.

Over the next few months, LEAD1 and the National Football Foundation are teaming up to share stories of former players and support staff for original Football Matters ® content.

Football Matters: John Swofford
Commissioner, Atlantic Coast Conference

Hometown: North Wilkesboro, N.C.
Age: 70
Education: Bachelor’s in Industrial Relations, University of North Carolina; Master of Education in Athletics Administration, Ohio University

Commissioner John Swofford
📷: Sara D. Davis (the

John Swofford knows what it means to come full circle.

He has spent his entire professional career within the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), starting with a job at University of Virginia and then returning to North Carolina, his alma mater, before becoming commissioner of the ACC.

Born and raised in ACC country, John had early exposure to the culture of the conference, and the importance of hard work. He played football and basketball and ran track at Wilkes Central High School, was a three-sport MVP during his junior year and had a two-year run as an All-State quarterback.

“I had football around me for as long as I could remember because of my three older brothers,” Swofford said. “What really sparked my interest was my brother that played at Duke. Going to Duke and seeing him play is when I really fell in love with college football and the Atlantic Coast Conference, which ended up being a huge part of my life.”

John had the opportunity to go to several colleges in the ACC and the SEC and had it down to Georgia Tech or North Carolina.

“Coach (Bobby) Dodd unexpectedly retired and North Carolina hired Bill Dooley from Georgia,” Swofford said. “He came in with the charge of rebuilding the program so at that point, I decided to stay in-state and go to Carolina. It turned out to be a very good experience for me.”

John Swofford during his playing days at North Carolina

Seeing and experiencing from inside out the rebuilding of a football program from a player’s perspective was a tremendous experience for John. He joined UNC in a reconstruction phase and left with an ACC championship.

“I had the opportunity to see a lot of different angles of the sport,” Swofford said. “At the time, I didn’t know how beneficial that would be to me career wise because I wasn’t sure where my career was going.”

Nearly five decades later since his student-athlete experience at North Carolina, John has come full circle.

Despite his busy schedule (the ACC is preparing for the debut of the ACC Network, which is set to go live on Aug. 22, 2019), John still has time to think back to his first jobs and how they’ve influenced his leadership. As a ticket manager at Virginia, Swofford worked under legendary athletics director Gene Corrigan and learned the ins and outs of athletics administration.

John was at UVA for three years before returning to North Carolina as an assistant athletics director. He later became the AD at UNC at the ripe age of 31 and credits former athletics director Bill Cobey with bringing him back to North Carolina.

“Fortunately for me, Carolina was willing to give a 31-year-old the reigns of running a major college athletics program,” Swofford said. “I’m sure Bill had a lot to do with that.”

“All of my experiences on and off the field have been tremendously helpful to me, intuitively, considering the career path I ended up taking,” Swofford added.

What does football mean to you?

Football matters to me because of what it teaches and how it brings people together, both fans and the individuals playing the game. I think it’s the ultimate team sport because the success of any given play is tremendously dependent on each player doing their job. That reliance on the other guy is critically important and I think there is a tremendous lesson in that.

Who inspires you?

My family. I was very lucky being born into the family I was born into. I was the last of four boys and had terrific parents. Unfortunately I lost my father when I was 13. He passed away when I was 13. My three older brothers were excellent role models for me as the youngest.  Outside of my family, in addition to Gene Corrigan and Bill Cobey, Homer Rice was one of my most profound mentors. He’s someone that has meant an awful lot to me professionally and personally.

We’d be surprised to know that…

I played on both sides of the ball in high school and college as a quarterback, safety, and on all the special teams. From a personal standpoint, I got to see the highs and lows of quarterbacking a team and losing that position and going to the defensive side of the ball.