I got a chance recently to speak one-on-one with ACC commissioner John Swofford about NCAA reform, NCAA allegations against Georgia Tech and North Carolina, and several other issues. Here are the highlights of our conversation:
You have touched on the idea of two- and four-year, multiyear scholarships, but what are some other specific things you think the NCAA could do to help the state of the state in college football?
John Swofford: The biggest focus on my mind is what I talked about [at the ACC football kickoff]. In terms of student-athlete welfare, I think we just need to take a step back, take a deep breath, evaluate what we’re doing and if there’s reason to change and enhance the student-athlete experience have the will to do that. In terms of specific aspects of that, the most fundamental is to start with the scholarship itself and consider the fact that it hasn’t changed since the 70s while the world around us has changed significantly. It’s probably time to take a fresh look at that. There have been adjuncts to the scholarship that have come about, the most prominent being the student-athlete assistance fund, which comes from the NCAA basketball tournament and is available for athletes that have need and the days of not being able to help an athlete go home for an emergency or a funeral, not to have a jacket to wear to an awards banquet, can now be addressed through that fund. That has been an improvement and the Pell Grant has been an improvement as well, although there are some concerns with future cutbacks from the federal government about the money available for Pell Grants for all students. The thing that’s foremost in my mind is taking a look at the full cost of attendance and that being the basis of the full athletic grant-in-aid. It’s academically sound, it already exists on a number of our campuses, it’s not introducing something that fights with anything educationally. It would cost some money. In its purest form there would be some differentials from campus to campus because it costs more to go to School A than School B. That’s where the practical devil in the detail aspects come into play that we would have to really address, but I think conceptually it’s sound and could be beneficial to the athlete. In terms of the number of years, I don’t feel nearly as strongly about going to multiple year grants, but I think we should at least look at it. I don’t think there are a significant number of wrongs that come from the annual grant-in-aid. It requires accountability which is generally a good thing, but if we’re going to look at the grant-in-aid in total, we should look at whether it should be multiple years. I’ve been around long enough I can remember when it was a four-year grant, not a one-year grant. I do see that as something we should look at as we look at the cost of attendance concept.
Knowing that you talk to a lot of the other BCS commissioners, do you sense just how realistic change is at this point?
JS: I think we’re in the early stages of that dialogue, but I would tell you that with that said, I sense from Mark Emmert, I sense from my colleagues that sit in commissioners chairs, and I sense from some of our athletic directors both within the ACC and outside of the ACC, more willingness to look at significant change than I have seen in a long, long time.
I want you to talk about North Carolina from a personal aspect because of your history there. Has it been hard for you to remove yourself from the personal aspect and watch what’s going on there and keep the commissioner’s hat on as opposed to former AD and alum?
JS: The short answer to that is no, it has not been hard. Anytime one of our schools, regardless of which one it is, has a significant NCAA issue, it’s of great concern to me. I’d much rather lose a whole lot of games league-wise than have substantial NCAA issues going on. That hits so much at the heart of what I think this league has been about for a long time and hopefully always will be in terms of the balance of competition, academics and compliance. That’s a large part of our heritage and who we are. I’ve been in this job for 15 years now. I’ve got 12 schools I care deeply about and equally about and particularly when it’s an issue such as this one. Anytime you have a program such as Carolina that has gone so long without having any significant NCAA implications you hate to see that even more.
Last question about the NCAA: Did you think taking away the championship from Georgia Tech was fair?
JS: I think based on the NCAA’s conclusion … the NCAA apparently based their decision on the fact it believes a couple of players played in that championship game who should have been ruled ineligible to play. The NCAA consistently vacates games in which from their perspective and their charge an ineligible player played. Their ruling is consistent with what they normally do in those kinds of cases.
Speaking of the ACC championship, when are you guys going to feel ready to say Charlotte is our home and end the speculation?
JS: Sometime around that game. It could be during that game, it could be shortly thereafter, and would need to be no later than shortly thereafter because you need a significant lead time into wherever you’re going to be, whether it’s remaining in Charlotte or doing something different. After the first year we were really encouraged. It was very successful in every respect in Charlotte. Charlotte has a lot going for it to begin with. It’s geographically centrally located to our footprint, eight schools are within 300 miles so your chances of having a team or two playing in that game where the fans can drive in relatively easily is heightened significantly. It’s an ACC town if you will. A lot of our alums live in and around Charlotte. The stadium is a terrific facility that is downtown close to hotels and restaurants. You can walk to the stadium so it creates an excellent atmosphere in and around the game itself. There are tremendous pluses there. The real key is Charlotte being able to continue to sell the tickets locally. Last year they sold about 30,000 tickets which was an excellent first year. We’d like to see that grow in the second year and I think it’s fair to say that if we had a second year that was similar to the first, we would be returning to Charlotte, and I think it’s fair to say it’s something we want to see happen in Charlotte. The city and the people there have been very supportive so far.
Every year it seems like we talk about somebody having national championship hopes for the ACC, and every year since I’ve been doing this it’s wait-til-next year. Do you think we’re finally getting to the point where the ACC will stop teasing its fans?
JS: I hope so. I don’t think we’re that far away. I don’t think we’ve been that far away. You take last year as an example and look at a couple of games early in the season, and you see just how much the entire season could have been different, not only for the ACC, but from the national perspective. The two games I’m talking about are Virginia Tech-Boise State, which Virginia Tech could have easily won, and had they won that game, I doubt they would have lost the next game. … And then you look at the Clemson/Auburn game in which I think most people would say Clemson outplayed Auburn, but in the end, with the field goal situation, Auburn came out on top in overtime. Had that game gone differently, it’s highly unlikely Auburn would have gone on to be the national champion. Who knows where Clemson would have gone from there? Who knows where Virginia Tech could have gone from a Boise State win. I think there’s a finer line between a national championship level and below it than the average fan realizes. I’ve said this a number of times -- We’ve got a lot of very good football teams in our league. What we have been lacking is our best team or teams getting over that threshold of winning those couple of high-profile games that take them to the national championship level, at least in recent years. You keep plugging away. You keep playing. You keep trying to get a little bit better to cross that threshold and get us back to where some of our teams have been before. Virginia Tech, Florida State and Miami have all played in BCS national championship games before.