10 Questions with John Swofford

10 Questions with John Swofford

Published Jul. 7, 2009 11:11 a.m. ET

RealClearSports.com recently interviewed John Swofford, the Commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference. He is also currently serving a two-year term as the BCS Coordinator.

RCS: You are the Commissioner of the ACC, and you're currently serving a two-year term as BCS Coordinator. We think it's fair to say, in maintaining and defending the BCS, you have a difficult job. A lot of people don't know a lot about the BCS, but hate it anyway. Defending the BCS is complicated and requires more than a few words. Whereas, criticizing the BCS can usually be done with a single word: playoff.

So we'd like to give you the opportunity to address a simple question: what is the purpose of the BCS and how do you approach defending it?

Commissioner John Swofford: The purpose is pretty simple, and that is to provide the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked teams the opportunity to play each other in a national championship game, while at the same time preserving the bowl system that has been a great tradition in college football for many years. This is a system that the schools and conferences have been able to agree upon to meet those two goals. During its first 11 years it has met those two goals very successfully.

RCS: This Tuesday, Senator Orrin Hatch from Utah is holding hearings in the Senate Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee to consider whether the BCS violates antitrust laws. We recently interviewed Senator Hatch about this topic, to which San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist Ray Ratto responded by calling Hatch "the senior senator from the University of Utah athletic department."

How much do you think political pandering is a factor in calling these hearings?

Commissioner Swofford: Well it's hard to say. These will be the fourth set of hearings since the BCS's inception 11 years ago. Much of the time, the criticism of the BCS heats up when there's a particular school that feels it deserves the chance to play in the championship game and does not receive that opportunity. If you look back historically you will see that. And there appears to be that direct relationship again with these hearings, to a degree.

From the beginning, the group has been very diligent through its legal counsel in making sure the BCS arrangement is in compliance with the anti-trust laws. Obviously when you have this many conferences and individual institutions committed to the BCS system; each of them is going to make every effort at compliance with the law. We've been assured by our legal counsel that the BCS is in compliance.

RCS: As you mentioned before there have been previous Congressional hearings about the BCS. In fact a couple months ago, you testified in similar hearings held in the House of Representatives' Energy and Commerce Committee and said that you welcomed Congressional input.

In this discussion about the future of the BCS, in what ways can Congressional input be helpful?

Commissioner Swofford: We'll have to see whether it's helpful or not. The commissioners have traditionally been open to input in terms of improving the system. You're talking about institutions that have a great deal invested in college football. Ultimately they want what is best for football within an educational framework.

As I pointed out earlier, the current system has provided the opportunity for match-ups that far exceeds the opportunities that existed before the BCS came into play. If you asked any of the people involved in the BCS from the beginning, we would probably all say that the BCS brand has developed into something bigger than any of us would have imagined.

It has met its objectives. It has not always been about controversy. During the 11-year period, college football has flourished. The sport has always been very popular, and now it's more popular than ever. The presidents, the athletic directors and the commissioners decided to stay with the BCS for the next four years because it serves the game overall. The regular season has been enhanced to the point that it's the best regular season in all of sports.

RCS: Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated criticized your testimony in the House hearings, writing, "Swofford couldn't decide whether the BCS exists for financial or competitive reasons."

How much should financial reasons be considered, if at all, when discussing the BCS?

Commissioner Swofford: Financial reasons are a factor to a degree — probably more of a factor to some than to others.

In and of itself, a playoff of some type would generate more money than the current BCS. But what would be the effect on the regular season? What about the effect on the other bowls? But the BCS is certainly healthy financially and has been from the beginning.

At the same time, we have been able to maintain the bowl system, while matching the top two teams, which prior to the BCS was often not possible because of the conferences' bowl agreements.

So it's a hybrid. It's a hybrid of competition, the marketplace and the bowl system.

RCS: There's been a lot of discussion about whether, during an economic crisis, Congress and the federal government should be using time and resources to regulate college sports. But in a Sports Illustrated Op/Ed published this week, Senator Hatch argued, "There's no denying that college football is a business. Most schools advertise and market their teams as they would a commercial product. There are also television networks, advertisers and the corporate sponsors that invest in and profit from these bowl games. All told, the BCS games generate hundreds of millions of dollars every year. If the government were to ignore a similar business arrangement of this magnitude in any other industry, it would be condemned for shirking its responsibility."

Should Congress and the federal government investigate potential antitrust concerns with the BCS or are these hearings a poor allocation of resources?

Commissioner Swofford: Each citizen can evaluate that. Personally, I believe that these kinds of decisions should be made in the context of higher education. The business aspects of college football are not new; they have been a factor in the regular season and postseason for over a half-century.

RCS: At the Collegiate Commissioners Association meeting in Colorado Springs, Mountain West Conference Commissioner Craig Thompson proposed a BCS restructuring plan that included new conference qualification requirements and a special committee to determine end-of-season rankings.

Why was this proposal rejected by the other conference commissioners?

Commissioner Swofford: The proposal was evaluated by the presidents, athletic directors, faculty members and coaches in every conference. The commissioners are the coordinating board of the BCS, but they represent their member institutions and they took the Mountain West proposal to their conference meetings in the spring after having received it in March.

A number of aspects of the Mountain West proposal had been discussed and not advanced before that. But it was fully discussed by the commissioners in April, and then they took it back to the members.

The 10 conferences, plus the University of Notre Dame, all reported that they were not supportive of the proposal. Without dissension, they committed to the contract with ESPN and the commitments to the bowls for the 2011-14 BCS cycle.

There was a willingness to hear other proposals for whatever might take place after that.

The next week, each commissioner gave a similar report to the Presidential Oversight Committee. The presidents also agreed to move forward with the contractual commitments. So that's where we are as we move forward to the next four-year cycle.

RCS: In the interview with RealClearSports, Senator Hatch stressed that he wanted to hold hearings soon. He said he wanted them to occur before the BCS television contact (that would maintain the BCS system through 2014) went final on July 9.

Considering that there are U.S. Senate hearings on July 7, is there any scenario in which you could envision the television contract being delayed?

Commissioner Swofford: The 10 conferences and Notre Dame committed to the ESPN contract back in December. An amendment was prepared later, primarily to cover a small number of changes proposed by the bowls. July 9 is the date when the conferences can sign the amendment.

The BCS is voluntary. If a conference decided it did not want to be a part of the BCS there is certainly no requirement that it do so. Obviously if certain conferences said they were not going to be a part of it, that could be a factor in its continuation — depending on which conferences, that is.

RCS: You are a particularly interesting person in the BCS debate because you haven't always supported the status quo. Last year, Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive proposed a Plus One model, which would have created a four-team playoff from the Bowl Championship Series standings. But, according to the New York Times, of the major conference commissioners, only you and Commissioner Slive supported the proposal.

In this BCS debate, is it difficult to reconcile differences in your personal feelings about the current BCS system with the responsibilities of your job?

Commissioner Swofford: I think the BCS isn't necessarily perfect in the eyes of any single commissioner, or the members of any conference for that matter. But we work on this together for the best for college football. When I say "we," I'm of course speaking of institutions within each conference, and then each of the conferences together through their commissioners and presidents.

While Mike Slive and I were supportive of the "Plus One" model, we accepted the fact that if the majority of the group didn't support it, then it was not going to go forward. The group has to settle on a system that is acceptable to the group and will accomplish the rather simple objectives of the BCS. When that model was fully vetted and discussed at all levels, there simply was not enough support for it.

Once it was obvious that that was the case, we (the ACC) made the decision, as did the SEC, that we would move forward fully supportive of the BCS and its format for the next four-year period. We don't all get exactly what we want all the time.

RCS: The last sentence of Senator Hatch's SI column is, "One thing is clear: No changes will take place if Congress does nothing." He has said if the BCS doesn't reform itself and if the Department of Justice antitrust division doesn't take on the case, he will introduce legislation. It is likely that this legislation will not only have bipartisan support, but the support of the President of the United States.

How have the major conferences and conference commissioners prepared for this scenario?

Commissioner Swofford: Well, we'll just have to see how that plays out. Ten of the 11 conferences that play at this level have signed a contract to go forward with this format for the next 5 years, including the upcoming season. That's a very strong commitment by the institutions that play the game.

Dating back to the Bowl Alliance and the Bowl Coalition, the arrangements that preceded the BCS, there has been an evolution, and it has given more opportunity to the conferences that did not previously have great access to the major bowls. There have been a lot of pluses to the BCS both competitively and from an access standpoint.

RCS: Are the conferences prepared to change if legislation is introduced and passed?

Commissioner Swofford: Well, I don't know. That would certainly put college football in a very different realm.

RCS: Alright, last question — and it's the same tough question we asked Senator Hatch. With the three finalists all returning this year, who's your pick to win the Heisman?

Commissioner Swofford: One thing you learn as a commissioner: Never make predictions.