- The Washington Times - Monday, March 7, 2016

John Swofford has been the ACC’s commissioner since 1997 and has twice overseen the conference’s growth. In Washington for the start of the ACC men’s basketball tournament on Tuesday, Swofford spoke with The Washington Times about returning to the area, postseason bans, expansion and more.

Question: What’s it like to come back and hold the ACC tournament in Washington once again?

Answer: Well, I think, at this point in time, with our current membership — the 15 schools we have in a league running from Boston to Miami and the entire Eastern seaboard, basically, and now Pitt and Syracuse and, even though Louisville won’t be here, Louisville and Notre Dame — it’s really more geographically-centric to our league now than it was even then [in 2005]. It’s the nation’s capital. We’ve got a new setup where we’re now playing the semifinals on Friday night and the championship game on Saturday night, which creates two days for fans to partake in all this city has to offer. Under our old format, it wasn’t that way.

Our schools have, obviously, a lot of political affiliations, governmental affiliations here. Each of our schools have lobbyists here in terms of higher education and alumni bases are very good here, and it’s a college basketball recruiting mecca — and it has been for years and years. There are obviously numerous reasons to come here periodically and play this tournament.

Q: Had you been talking with representatives from the area over the past years about bringing it back here?

A: Well, we’ve always stayed in touch, and we’re generally — I guess we’re in a six-year rotation right now, where we’ll go from here to Brooklyn for two years and then back to Charlotte and then back to Greensboro. Where we go beyond that, it has not yet been determined. In a couple of years, we’ll revisit that process and our schools will vote. We’re fortunate enough as a league to have geographic breadth and branded basketball programs and a long history and tradition of basketball success. So, you know, a number of people, a number of venues, a number of cities would very much like to have the tournament, and that’s a good position to be in because of our history and our tradition and the fact that this tournament really was the first college basketball tournament that really took flight in a real successful way. It’s never lost that, and we certainly don’t intend to ever lose that. New York, the next two years, all the reasons to go there are very obvious, I think, and now, getting back to the footprint, it makes sense for us to go there. I don’t know that it did 10 years ago, but it does in today’s world with our current membership.

Q: When the announcement was made that this tournament was coming back to this arena, it was just after Maryland had decided to leave for the Big Ten. How much was that decision made in the interest of fortifying local fan support for the conference?

A: You know, I don’t think Maryland’s leaving had anything, really, to do with the decision to come back here, quite candidly. Had they been in the league, I think we would have come back, and obviously, the fact that they’re not didn’t deter us from coming back, either. I think that’s really sort of a non-factor. It’s coincidental.

Q: Louisville isn’t here this year because of its self-imposed postseason ban, and Syracuse wasn’t here last year because of the same reason. How much do you look forward to the day when you can have a full, 15-team event?

A: With this [tournament], want everybody there, and when anybody’s missing, it — you know, I don’t think it has a huge impact because I think the other 14 are so strong and the tradition and history of the league in basketball is so strong and the tradition and history of the tournament itself is so strong. But, any time that you’re bringing the entire conference together, your preference is to have all 15 teams. Next year, hopefully, that will be the case when we’re in Brooklyn.

Q: On that topic — much has been made of the decisions by those two schools to remove themselves from postseason play for transgressions made in previous years. Do you believe those decisions are fair to the players?

A: I don’t think there’s a clean answer to that. I think that, you know, is it fair to the current players who had nothing to do with the situation that was created? No, that’s not fair. On the other hand, you have an institution in whatever circumstance like that has self-evaluated that situation and has a responsibility to do what’s best in the long-term … in dealing with whatever particular situation they’re dealing with, [and] to try to do so in an appropriate way that addresses the situation at hand and changes that situation. I think that’s what Syracuse was attempting to do last year. I think that’s what Louisville was attempting to do this year. I think it’s hard to judge that. I mean, there’s an easy answer as to whether it’s fair to the current players. The bigger-picture answer is a lot more complicated on what makes sense and what’s appropriate for that university and its value system to put the situation behind it and move on for the future.

Q: It seems like there’s no easy answer: Schools either are preventing their current players from taking part, or they’re harming their own futures by announcing that future players can’t take part.

A: You’re right. There is no perfect answer or easy answer to it. You have a lot of people throwing out ideas, and they’re all worthy and good ideas, but there’s not a simplistic answer that makes it fair to everybody.

Q: Should postseason bans even be allowed, then?

A: Well, I think it should be an institutional prerogative, yes, because I think institutions should — in questions of integrity or compliance — institutions should have the freedom to address those situations themselves if they choose to do so. I do think it should remain an institutional prerogative if the institution feels it’s the right thing to do.

Q: You’re at 15 teams right now, and everyone is still skittish about expansion. That’s an odd number. Would you like to add a 16th team?

A: No, not really. If Notre Dame — and I’m not suggesting that they will, because they were not brought [to the ACC] with the anticipation that football would join in full between now and through our current television agreements [ending in 2022] … but if Notre Dame joins a league in football, it would be the ACC. But, unless that were to happen, there’s no discussion going on in our league about adding another member right now. In football, it would throw our divisions out of kilter, for one reason.

Q: Do you monitor those things, though? The Big 12 gives off the impression it might be interested in adding schools. Does that possibility make you keep an eye on a potential shifting landscape?

A: Well, not really. I mean, we’ve come out as a league very, very well over the last decade. We’re very pleased with where we are and look forward to the future with these 15 schools. It gives us a lot of opportunities that, as a smaller conference, we didn’t have, and I think it’s strengthened us in every respect. But, you know, right now, I think my best guess is, in terms of the five major conferences, you’re not going to see any movement among those five.

I don’t know what the Big 12 will do. [Commissioner] Bob Bowlsby and I are good friends and talk often, and he’s a very thoughtful, bright guy that will bring excellent leadership to that decision with their schools, and of course, the schools will all make that decision, but I don’t think, if they expand, it would be anyone within the other four autonomy conferences. We’ll just have to see with that. But, I think that the landscape is well-settled right now, and that’s a good thing for college athletics.

Q: This is the first year that the cost of attendance has been offered to players. From athletic directors to presidents, how do you think that’s going?

A: The feedback I’ve gotten is that it’s going well. I think that any time you take a significant step like that, it makes people — even that are obviously supportive of it, you’re a bit nervous because there’s some unknowns there that you’re going to need to gauge and see if it’s what you thought it would be. I think it’s gone relatively smoothly. I think some people had some concerns about whether the differentials would impact recruiting a great deal, but I don’t think, generally speaking, that’s been the case.

But, it needs to be evaluated over a longer period of time. I think the initial feeling, generally speaking, is that it’s gone very well. I thought it was absolutely the right thing to do. We were probably slower in taking that step than we should have been, and now, we just have to gauge the realities of it and the mechanics of it and see if there are any real negative impacts, because I think for the student-athletes, it’s a very positive impact.

Q: There are two rules that are greatly shaping college basketball these days — the one-and-done rule that’s been in place for almost a decade, and the increased number of players graduating and then transferring for one last year. How have those two rules affected the quality of play and even the quality of education?

A: Well, first of all, the programs that lean [toward one-and-done players], I don’t really have a problem with that because it’s within the rules, and as long as the players that are there for however long are legitimately going to class and are in school, it is what it is. It’s their prerogative. I’m not a fan of that it can be done that way.

I was in New York in December and went over and spent some time with [NBA commissioner] Adam Silver, and a lot of our conversation was about this very subject. You know, from his perspective — he doesn’t like it either because from his perspective, it’s better for the NBA to bring in a more mature and polished player that has built a name before he got there. I know that he is working diligently with the players’ union to see if they can come to a better place on that. I hope that will be the case.

You know, it is America, and people should have free choice and the opportunity to take whatever course in life they choose to take, but the football model and maybe, specifically, the baseball model, seems to work really well, at least from a college athletics standpoint. If you have the opportunity to go out of high school — it’s a different sport, but you go then or wait three years, and with a three-year commitment, that’s a pretty strong commitment to education and academics and being a part of college life. I think that would be healthy for most individuals. The few that really have the capability to go right out of high school and aren’t interested in college at that point in their lives and have the opportunity to do it, I think it would be healthy for the NBA and college basketball. I’m not really confident that we can get there, but maybe we can get to two years. I think that would be healthier than what we have right now.

[As far as the transfers go], I think that’s something we need to take a look at. One side of the coin, you want to reward what we ask our student-athletes to do in the first place, which is to come in, get your degree and graduate. So, you certainly don’t want to discourage that. You want to reward that. But, I think you need to keep an eye on those graduate [students]. When you leave the institution where you are and you go to another program to play, [we want to ensure] that your academic experience there is legitimate. It’s just like you do with the one-and-done players when they’re in as freshmen. As long as that’s a legitimate curriculum that they’re in for that one year of eligibility, then I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

The trick is finding something that ensures that, and right now, you simply have to rely on the individual and the program that they’re in and the university that they’re a part of. In the case of football, they could — and some do — leave after one semester of that graduate program because their eligibility is up. If we could find some way to better guarantee the graduate academic experience and that it’s legitimate, it would be helpful. They’ve taken that first step, which is coming in and doing what they should do in leaving with their degree.

Q: Boston College became the first school in 40 years to lose all of its conference football games and all of its conference men’s basketball games. Do you have any concern about the direction of its athletic program or its effect on the ACC?

A: Well, I think any time a program goes through the period that they are going through, where both revenue-producing sports are going through a down cycle, that’s tough to go through. From a conference standpoint, all we will do is continue to support them in any way that we possibly can. I think BC is too good of a university and too good of an athletic program not to come out of this. You know, you can go back — athletics are very cyclical for most programs. There are a few specific sport programs that seem to avoid down cycles. We have a few of them here, but you know, the majority of programs, if you go back far enough, ebb and flow.

So, I think BC will be fine. I think it’s good a program, too good a university. I think the commitment is there. I think the leadership is there. They’ve had some things that just haven’t worked out well for them, and I think BC will be back. They’re an important part of this league and have been for a decade — more than a decade now. Their values and their overall program fit very well with our league and our philosophies. I know they’re looking for better days, and those days will come — there’s no question about that. They’ve had some tough luck in both sports, to end up winless in both sports this year. There were several games in both sports where they easily could have won but didn’t. So, they’ll get through it. I’m confident.

Q: Since it’s been a decade since the tournament was last held here, what do you think the ACC will look like 10 years from now?

A: Well, I think it will be in probably an even better place. I think the league, over the last decade, has positioned itself extraordinarily well to take advantage of the geographic footprint, to take advantage of the tradition and history of the athletic programs, the quality of the institutions involved. Looking ahead, we currently have a larger population and more television sets than any other conference in the country, and all our projections are that it will simply grow in the future — and that affects everything, from your television contracts down the road to recruiting to students at those institutions to promotional and marketing opportunities.

I think this league has set itself up in a way that, 10 years from now, we’ll be stronger than ever. I think we’re at least as strong, if not stronger, than we’ve ever been before at this given point in time, and I think 10 years from now, it’ll be even more so.

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