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ACC commissioner John Swofford will retire in 2021

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Some major news for the conference, which will hire its first new commish since 1997.

ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament - Quarterfinals Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

For as much as the ACC’s membership has changed a ton over the last couple decades, one constant has been conference commissioner John Swofford. On Thursday, we learned that the long-time leader of the ACC will retire following the 2020-21 season (first via a News & Observer report, then an official announcement by the league itself).

Swofford was first named commish back in 1997, taking over a nine-team league that was decidedly basketball-first and largely lorded over by Florida State in football. In the years since, Swofford has led the ACC through two tectonic shifts in college sports and arguably no conference has improved itself more in that time.

Jokingly referred to as “Ninja Swoff” for his abilities to make major improvements to the ACC under the cover of night, Swofford added Miami, Virginia Tech, Boston College, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Louisville over the past two decades. He lost Maryland too, but that’s probably for the best. Swofford was obviously a key part of getting the ACC Network up and running, helped secure the ACC’s spot in the “Power Five” and fortified league membership through an extensive grant of rights, plus a lucrative broadcast deal with ESPN. It can certainly be argued that no conference commissioner’s ever had a larger (and more positive) impact on the league he ran.

For Syracuse (and other schools’) fans, the North Carolina grad may also seem like the figurehead for Tobacco Road bias. But I’d actually say that he’s managed to balance power in the ballooning league well. Despite membership up and down the eastern seaboard and disparate priorities among those 15 institutions, we’ve seen him balance football and men’s basketball interests and arguably lead the nation’s top all-sports conference as well.

Obviously Swofford wasn’t the only reason why Syracuse made it to the ACC, but he was clearly a fan for awhile given his interest prior to the first round of realignment back in 2003. Those positive vibes stuck around when there was a chance to expand again, and SU was the first call (along with Pitt) in 2011. If not for him and other ACC leaders prioritizing ‘Cuse, we could very well be UConn right now (/shudders).

Swofford will be in place through the end of the 2020-21 athletic year, and he picks a hell of a final season to go out on. Along with the usual challenges, he — and other conference commissioners around the country — will have to navigate how to actually hold sporting events with ongoing coronavirus concerns and a potential economic downturn on the horizon.

We’ll probably spend some time between now and next June discussing who could be the next commissioner and what the most important parts of the job are. But he does leave some big shoes to fill, and actually filling them won’t be an easy task.