On Thursday, John Swofford announced that he will retire as ACC commissioner after the 2020-21 athletic season. He’s held the position since 1997, and in the 17 years prior to that, he was athletic director at UNC.
In his time as commissioner, the league has expanded, created a television network, and generally become a model of stability as a conference. However long before all that and before his athletic director tenure at UNC, he also represented the university on the playing field.
A three-sport start at Wilkes Central High School, Swofford enrolled at UNC in 1968 as a part of coach Bill Dooley’s first recruiting class. He would then become the Tar Heels’ starting quarterback for the 1969 season.
In the ‘69 campaign, Swofford helped lead the team to a 5-5 record, which was the first time in Dooley’s three seasons that the Heels didn’t finish with a losing record. Despite being the starter and getting most of the time, the future commissioner did end up splitting time with. In 10 games, he finished with a line of 33-74 for 487 yards, four touchdowns and 10 interceptions. None of that is ideal, but it was 1969 and high powered passing offenses weren’t exactly common.
He still played the position some next year, although he ended up getting the third most reps of any quarterbacks in 1970. He completion percentage rose, but not much else changed. However, Swofford and UNC did return to a bowl for the first time since 1963.
Ahead of the 1971 season Swofford transitioned to defensive back. Dooley and the Tar Heels would fully complete their turnaround, going 9-3 and winning the ACC by going 6-0 in conference. I could not find out exactly how much Swofford played in that final season, but he was part of a very good Carolina defense. As a team, UNC allowed opponents to less than 13 points per game on average. In conference games, that average dropped to 9.5 per game.
Swofford and Dooley’s first recruiting class helped turn the program around, and the coach would lead UNC to two further ACC titles in his time in Chapel Hill. Dooley left the school as the all-time win’s leader, although he has been surpassed twice.
However, Swofford’s greatest contribution to UNC football didn’t come on the field. Nine years after finishing his playing career, he was hired as AD, as mentioned earlier. That meant he was at the helm of the athletic department and hired Mack Brown as Carolina coach the first time around. Without that, the excellent seasons in Brown’s first tenure might not ever come, and he might not have an affection for the school that leads him to take the job again the second time around. Brown is one of the coaches that has surpassed Dooley on the wins list.
Swofford’s impact on UNC and the ACC as a whole is pretty big. Before any of that, it all started with him putting up some less than stellar numbers as a quarterback. Sometimes, things work out for the best.