John Swofford could relax on Monday as he flew from North Carolina to California.
Over the previous weeks, the ACC commissioner had worked to finalize an agreement that gave the ACC control over its 15 schools’ television rights until 2027 and, more importantly, likely ended the threat of one of its schools leaving for another conference.
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.
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.
“A lot of campus turmoil going on; a lot of debate,” said David Chadwick, who played for the Tar Heels alongside Delany and often discussed deeper matters with him.
Once, Delany even challenged Smith on playing time. Smith, who had led the Tar Heels to two Final Fours with Delany as a role player, heard him out and would name him a captain.
“We were raised to speak up for ourselves,” Delany said. “Part of it was competitive, part of it was intellectual, I guess. It’s not out of my nature if, given an opportunity to talk about what I see, I’ll talk about it.”
Delany later approached Smith again, this time asking for guidance. He had no idea what his future held. Smith had noticed Delany’s fiery way, his willingness to argue a point and the tenacity to make certain it stuck. The coach encouraged Delany to apply to law school.
“He was searching and trying to get through college,” former basketball teammate Eddie Fogler said, “like we all were.”
John Bunting, a football captain, sat in the locker room after a particularly grueling practice, noticing the converted defensive back in the next stall.
“Are they trying to kill me?” Bunting remembered John Swofford saying.
Swofford had joined the Tar Heels in 1967 as a quarterback, but injuries and an illness his sophomore year forced Coach Bill Dooley to move him to defense during his senior season. In those days, Bunting said, coaches needn’t have mercy on a player who was unfamiliar with a new position. If he couldn’t do it, coaches would work him until he quit. Then they’d hand his spot to someone else.
“He became a tackling dummy for us,” Bunting said of Swofford.
But rather than quit, he kept practicing, usually saying little about the hand he’d been dealt. Complaining wouldn’t have fit Swofford’s profile, that clean-cut kid from small-town North Carolina.
Swofford began seeing his experience, difficult as it often was, as a way to learn.
“Not that I fully understood it at the time,” he said much later, “but I think it prepared me extremely well.”
In 1971, a football player named Billy Arnold was enduring another grueling practice. The team was performing wind sprints when Arnold collapsed, and he died later from complications of practicing in the heat.
“You had a lot of feelings,” Swofford said, “that the game isn’t worth somebody’s life.”
Former players tried to shut down the football program at UNC. Swofford, though, supported the program and, as always, saw an opportunity to learn. He saw that nothing in college sports is permanent. Arnold’s death changed the way practices were run at North Carolina, “changes that needed to be made,” Swofford said.
Swofford and Delany were moving toward the same destination using far different paths. That continued after graduation. Delany took a complicated route toward being a conference commissioner – law school, then a job as an attorney in the North Carolina justice department, then as an enforcement representative for the NCAA – but Swofford’s ascent was more direct. He became North Carolina’s athletic director in 1980, at age 31, and he held the job for 17 years.
“They’re different leaders,” said Dick Baddour, who succeeded Swofford as North Carolina’s athletic director and has worked with both commissioners. “But I do think the similarity is that they both are able to articulate vision.”
Swofford worked behind the scenes to grow the ACC, conducting backroom discussions before executing college sports’ first great realignment move a decade ago, when Boston College, Virginia Tech and Miami left the Big East to join the ACC. And, according to reports, he kept a similarly low profile while trying to keep the league intact, meeting quietly with Florida State officials in recent weeks to convince them of the conference’s financial viability.
Delany, though, relished the spotlight. As commissioner of the Ohio Valley Conference from 1979 to 1989, he promised to play games at midnight if television stations would broadcast them. Later, he drew Penn State to the Big Ten and oversaw the creation of the Big Ten Network, which turned the league into a financial behemoth. And even when his decisions fell flat — such as the conference’s soon-to-be-abandoned “Legends” and “Leaders” division names – he was glad people were talking about them.
“Jim’s been on the cutting edge,” said Eric Hyman, a former North Carolina classmate who’s now the athletic director at Texas A&M. “Sometimes he may say or do things that may create conversation.”
Still, Delany and Swofford never drifted far apart. And when they became commissioners, they’d sometimes talk business, collaborating in 1999 on the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, and other times speaking casually, laughing sometimes at how they each had reached this point.
“I don’t know that I’m any closer to Jim as I am to any other commissioners,” Swofford said. “But the difference is, there’s a common thread that draws us together.”
On Friday, as Swofford waited for his flight home to North Carolina, he said that his moves are never made in response to another conference’s actions, indicating that the grant of rights agreement was made with only the ACC’s well-being in mind.
Delany said his counterpart’s move was smart. “John’s tactic was a good one,” he said.
But others, including those who know both men, spent the following days speculating that, if the Big Ten hadn’t gotten involved with Maryland, Swofford never would have gone to such lengths to protect the ACC.
“People are competing hard, and people are doing the best for their team, and those guys – they don’t take that lightly,” said Charles Waddell, a former North Carolina football player who has worked for both men and now is the deputy athletic director at South Carolina. “They both play at a high level, and they’re both very, very smart. So you’re going to see some of the things, some of the innovative things coming out of both of those guys.
“People kind of expect it with Jim, because a lot of times he’s out in front of the parade. But John is, most of the time, where he wants to be.”
After so many years, their routes taking such twists and turns, Waddell said he doesn’t expect last week’s news to truly end realignment. It wouldn’t be in Delany’s nature to accept a loss without having something up his sleeve — especially when it was his former classmate who delivered it.
“He’s not going to stop thinking about it and how things can go,” Waddell said. “I would be surprised if this is the way things end up. I don’t know how it’s going to be done, but for some reason I don’t think this is the last move.”