ACC Commissioner John Swofford made a recent appearance on the David Glenn Show to discuss the league’s tremendous success in this year’s NCAA men’s basketball championship.
Duke, of course, went all the way in winning its fifth national championship, while four other schools — Louisville, Notre Dame, NC State, and North Carolina – advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. Combined, the schools helped generate over $30 million for the ACC in the coming years, which will be distributed evenly amongs the member schools.
I remember you actually took some criticism a while back, just for saying this new ACC in basketball has more Hall of Fame coaches than anybody’s ever had, and has a better collection of programs than anybody’s ever had. And it was like people interpreted that as you predicting that they would every game somehow. Do you feel any vindication now that the ACC has sort of the king of the hill, at least temporarily, once again?
I think the way our teams have performed throughout the season, and certainly in the postseason, says a lot about the quality of play in the league, and the kind of coaches we have in the league. My comments were with the new schools that have joined us, based on history and tradition and sheer numbers of wins and NCAA championships and NCAA Tournament appearances and so forth. I think our league is unmatched from that standpoint.
But with that said, the emphasis is on the present and the future. The great thing about the history and tradition that so many of our schools have, is that it’s a tremendous foundation to build on. I think we all understand that these things can change quickly, but we’re certainly very, very pleased with where we are now.
I don’t want to make you feel old here, but I do want to get your perspective on something. Because you grew up in North Carolina, and if I have my years right, your early youth picture of the NCAA Tournament must have been some combination of UCLA seems to win all the time, and why aren’t more even games on television? Can you tell us, growing up here in North Carolina, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, what was your early picture of this event that we celebrate in 2015?
I was nine years old when Carolina won the 1957 national championship, and that’s when I can remember sort of being really conscious of ACC basketball. And television was just beginning with ACC basketball at that point in time. Initially on public television, believe it or not. And then the first ACC basketball game that I ever saw was at Wake Forest. Wake Forest is about an hour from North Wilkesboro, where I grew up. I saw a Wake Forest-Duke game probably in about ’63 or ’64, somewhere in there. And that made quite an impression, both in terms of players and in terms of walking into the old coliseum in Winston-Salem.
One of the things I’ll never forget is there was so much cigarette smoking in the arena, hanging up in the bannisters in the ceiling. It was startling. And so it was a very different day in a lot of ways. During that period was when the ACC really took off from a basketball standpoint, with Everett Case getting it started, and then Frank McGuire coming in to compete with him. And it’s been terrific to watch ever since then.
You know that even as the nation’s sports fans really celebrate March Madness, it’s also a time that folks talk about money and talk about fairness. Help us understand the finances in play here. Obviously, we talk about it on the air, the more teams you send as a league to the NCAA Tournament – the more games they win — the more money eventually makes its way back into the league’s coffers, and then back to the school’s coffers. On the one hand, we hear $770 million per year for the TV rights. But eventually, it feels like only $2 or $3 million per year makes it back to the schools themselves. That’s a big gap — $770 million to $2 million or $3 million per school. How does this stuff work? And how much of this criticism of the players who create the money don’t get enough of the share of the pie. How much of that do you think is valid, in your eyes?
I think we needed to adjust the scholarships, and we’ve taken a significant step in doing that, going to the full cost of attendance. I think that’s very, very appropriate, and will serve our programs and our athletes well into the future. I think sometimes the sheer education of athletes — if you can go to a school and play the sport you love, and if your’e going to be a pro, have the opportunity to develop your name and your personal brand, and market yourself, if you are going to go the NBA or the NFL. And you receive a free education, particularly at full cost of attendance, which I think really needed to happen. That’s a pretty good deal.
I think that we’ve got something very unique in the United States in terms of combining the highest level of athletic competition with education. And when it’s done right, it’s a beautiful thing. I think it’s a huge part of the culture of this country, and something that sports fans across the country love. We need to treat it respectfully, and keep it connected to education and move on. And I think that’s what we’re doing. And at the same time, in terms of the dollars generated from the NCAA basketball tournament, it gets spread through all of Division I. And I think that’s as it should be.
With all of the talk about autonomy and the five major conferences having autonomy, and the changes that we, the five conferences, have wanted to see, we haven’t brought up at all changing the very broad distribution of monies to Division I basketball, or changing the NCAA Tournament in any way at this point in time. And I don’t think we should have. I think there are other issues that need to be dealt with, and I think it’s appropriate that all of Division I has an opportunity to play in this tournament, and shares the revenue. Though realistically, from a marketplace standpoint, the schools in the major five conferences probably drive most of the value there. But at the same time, some of the other conferences that don’t play football certainly have a stake in this, in adding to the market value.
I think it’s healthy, and I think people love to see (it). It’s not the 68 best teams in the country, necessarily. And we need to remember that — it’s not structured to be that. If it were, everything would be an at-large, almost. But I think it’s a great tournament that obviously captures the country for a full month every year.
Can you remind us — is there a role for a conference, or do you just stay out of the way basically? Louisville had a high-profile dismissal in basketball. Duke had a high-profile dismissal in basketball. North Carolina is continuing to work with the NCAA on its scandal. Syracuse recently got its verdict on its scandal. Do you, or the ACC, have a role as an intermediary in any way? Or is it mostly stay out of the way and let those schools handle their business?
Most of those issues are institutional issues, particularly in terms of individual player situations, and how those are handled. We’re here if asked by an athletic director or president or chancellor to counsel. But our schools generally, in my opinion, handle those things very well.
From an NCAA standpoint, we’re not an investigative agency. The NCAA might ask us to assist in giving them a perspective of certain situations. They don’t do that very often. The institution is more likely to ask us to give some assistance in determining responses to the NCAA, or how to deal with the process. It’s more about the process from our standpoint. But conferences don’t play a big role in NCAA issues and investigations once those are opened up, other than trying to be helpful to the institution, or to the NCAA if asked.
We recently learned that former UNC big man Brad Daugherty, who runs a racing team, they have bracket pools in his garage. And his rule is, anybody who doesn’t pick the Tar Heels to win the national championship gets fired. Do they have brackets at the ACC headquarters? And if you didn’t pick the Fighting Irish, and Duke, and the Tar Heels. I don’t know what you do with Louisville and NC State. Are you even allowed to have ‘just for fun’ brackets, given the sensitivity about pools and gambling and everything? Can you have them just for fun? And are there rules laid down by the commissioner that you better pick the ACC teams to go a long way?
Well, we don’t. We just stay away from that. But if we did, there probably would be a commissioner’s rule that you had to pick an ACC team to win it.
Looking back quickly on the ACC Tournament — it was a new format. People arrived earlier. They went home earlier. The coaches talked about liking the extra day that they had to figure out their next destination in the NCAA Tournament, or otherwise. When you look back at the last, at least in a while, ACC Tournament in Greensboro, what’s your best assessment of all of the upsides and downsides?
I think it was extremely well-received, as best as we can tell. Almost all the feedback we received was very positive in terms of the Friday night semifinals and Saturday night championship game. Certainly our coaches expected to like it going in, and definitely found that having that Sunday (beneficial), to sort of regroup — particularly the two teams that played in the championship game. But all of them, it gives them an additional day. And that’s beneficial from a competitive standpoint in the NCAA Tournament.
The fan response that we have gotten has been extraordinarily good. The TV ratings were up somewhat over the previous year, and quite a bit over two years ago. So I’d give it an A-plus at this point, based on the feedback we received, how we felt about it internally, and how our coaches and our schools seem to feel about it.