John Swofford has spent his entire career in the ACC. Some might even say he saved the ACC.
With the hard work done to stabilize the conference and ensure its future strength, Swofford announced Thursday he will retire as ACC commissioner after the 2020-21 season.
Swofford, 71, will have served 24 years leading the ACC, the longest-tenured commissioner in league history.
"When I took this job in '97, I can't tell you I thought we would be 12 teams," Swofford said in a phone interview with ESPN. "I can't tell you I thought we would be 14 or 15, but that was what became necessary and the best path forward for our league, and it has worked out extraordinarily well because we've got 15 terrific institutions. We've got the largest footprint in college athletics with the most television sets within that footprint of any conference at the major college level, that's why I feel like we're positioned well going forward."
When Swofford was hired in April 1997, the ACC was a nine-member league that was known predominantly as a basketball conference. Over the course of his career, Swofford transformed the conference through multiple expansion waves, first adding Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech in 2004-05.
In 2012, when expansion across the country threatened the ACC's existence, Swofford went to work again to save the league. He made up for the loss of Maryland with the additions of Louisville, Pittsburgh and Syracuse and kept Florida State in the conference despite speculation it had interest in joining the Big 12. Swofford said there were moments he worried about the league's future, but, "I always felt like we would come out on the up side of it and fortunately we did."
More than the membership itself, Swofford got all league members to agree to a grant-of-rights deal to guarantee the conference's future and keep potential suitors away. The ACC also added Notre Dame in all sports but football and arranged a scheduling partnership between league teams and the Fighting Irish that also allowed the league to improve its bowl lineup.
When asked whether his decisions saved the conference, Swofford demurred.
"We've been through some periods in college athletics with the change in conference landscapes that were very challenging period, and had it gone the other direction it could look very, very different for a number of conferences -- including the ACC -- so that had to be the primary focus during that particular time in terms of continuing on a path that would keep this conference where it deserved to be," Swofford said.
All of these moves allowed the ACC to secure a long-term television partnership with ESPN and create the ACC Network, which launched last year. As it stands, the ACC has the largest geographical footprint of any conference in the country.
"John Swofford, in his historic tenure, has come to embody the very best of the ACC," Syracuse chancellor Kent Syverud said in a statement. "The Conference has been dramatically enhanced in every way during the last quarter century, especially in its balance of academics and athletics. All 15 Presidents of the Conference, like their universities, are deeply grateful to John for his transformative leadership."
Swofford also was instrumental in the creation of the College Football Playoff as one of the early advocates for a playoff system. He and then-SEC commissioner Mike Slive proposed a plus-one model to expand the BCS in 2008, but the plan was met with little support. Swofford never gave up on it, even though he told ESPN in 2014 that it was hard sometimes to believe they would ever get to a playoff.
"There were some times in those discussions where you'd get worn down a bit and wonder, 'I don't know whether we can get this resolved or not,'" Swofford said. "But we'd step back away from it, and once we got reasonably deep into the conversations, there was a sense that, 'Look, we've come too far. We've got to work this out. We're letting down the entire college football community.' And that's what drove us."
Since the playoff began in 2014, the ACC has had one team make the four-team playoff each year: Florida State in 2014 and Clemson every year since.
The ACC remains a basketball powerhouse, but Swofford understood football had to be amplified in a way it was not when he arrived as commissioner. He urged athletic directors to invest in football, and there have been plenty of highs in the sport over the past seven years.
But the league is more than just basketball and football. Over the past 23 years, the ACC has won 92 national team titles in 19 of the 27 sports the league sponsors.
Swofford's commitment to not only reimagining the conference but championing all sports runs deep. He grew up in ACC country in North Carolina and played quarterback and defensive back for the Tar Heels, winning an ACC title in 1971. He served as the school's athletic director for 17 years starting in 1980 before taking the ACC job.
He also worked for Virginia as his first job in college athletics. He never held a job outside the ACC footprint.
"As you're doing a job, I don't think you're thinking about your legacy, you're thinking about what's the right decision and what's the best way to get there and what's the best path forward to create a situation where your league is in a position to be the best that it can be," Swofford said.