It was a startling counter-attack for a conference that seemed to be on shaky ground after Maryland, one of the ACC’s charter members, announced last year that it was leaving for the Big Ten in a move orchestrated by Jim Delany, that conference’s brash commissioner.
Now, on his way to Pasadena, Calif., for meetings that would further finalize the upcoming College Football Playoff, Swofford was secure in the knowledge that he had, for now, warded off further defections.
During one of the most tenuous periods in college sports history, Swofford and Delany have traded jabs and teams, executing power moves and positioning their conferences for larger pieces of the big-money pies that now define college sports.
It has been a continual battle, Swofford with his conservative approach, Delany preferring to make a splash. But this is nothing new for two men whose pursuits – be they for power, stability or their own identities – date back four decades, when they each were athletes at the University of North Carolina.
“There was a sense that things were done well,” Delany said, “and I think we both benefited from that.”
They graduated a year apart in the early 1970s, though they rarely interacted. Swofford was a Southern academic and a football player; Delany was a cocky point guard living in the moment. But longtime friends and former teammates recall the seeds of authority – and of a future professional rivalry – taking root in Chapel Hill.
More than 40 years later, they’d meet again in Pasadena, Swofford with the latest power play to his name.
An opinionated student
The scene was common in those days: a Tau Epsilon Phi brother walking into the fraternity house, hearing Delany before seeing him. There he was, beer in hand, debating some other poor soul.
They talked basketball sometimes, but Delany preferred meatier discussions. Sometimes his housemates would give in, poking the New Jersey transplant with talk about Vietnam or race relations. And away he would go.
“There were three categories,” said Art Chansky, who lived in the fraternity house and would go on to write five books about North Carolina sports. “You were either in the debate with Delany, you were on the sidelines watching this, or you walked away shaking your head.”
Delany, the son of two educators, challenged opinions and rules. He arrived in Chapel Hill in 1968 during a new era for the Tar Heels basketball team — Coach Dean Smith began bringing in the nation’s best players, regardless of skin color or where they’d grown up — and for America. During Delany’s coming of age, the United States advanced deeper into Vietnam, saw schools desegregate, and watched the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. And he had an opinion on it all.