Up front: September 2012

Keeping score

After college I sold wheelchairs, then storage containers. I was a natural at neither, so I went to grad school to learn to be a sports writer. Getting paid to watch games sounded like a decent way to make a living. I soon fell under the spell of a professor preaching “narrative journalism.” Rather than focus only on facts, he extolled us, craft character, conflict and emotion — elements that engage readers — into our stories. I drank the Kool-Aid. When I began to ply my trade at the Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier, I did my best to carry narrative to its sports pages. Reader-engaging elements are important, but I soon learned what the good folks of Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee wanted most was the “dadgum” score.

I never lost my love for narrative storytelling. It’s what attracted me to Business North Carolina. This is a magazine that puts a human face on commerce and never lets numbers, vital as they are to what we write about, turn people into ciphers. After the Atlantic Coast Conference announced it will add Syracuse and Pittsburgh, we began examining why a once regional alliance of schools had ventured so far from its roots. It was evident the answer ran through John Swofford, the conference’s commissioner since 1997. He consented to an interview, and despite a phone that was leaping off the hook, he spoke at length about growing up in North Wilkesboro.

The death of his father, when Swofford was 13, is an unhealed wound. “I don’t have hardly any regrets in life,” he told me, “but one of the very, very few is I never had the opportunity to know my father as an adult. I’ve always been a little envious of men that have had their father.” In high school, Swofford was a much-coveted quarterback prospect. Every ACC school wanted him, as did Annapolis, West Point and many others. He narrowed it down to UNC Chapel Hill and Georgia Tech, an independent in 1967. The Yellow Jackets were far more successful, but their coach, Bobby Dodd, retired that year. Swofford picked Carolina, a decision that put him on the path to become the school’s athletic director, then ACC commissioner.

You won’t find those anecdotes in the article that begins on page 60. Swofford has been integral to the ACC’s growth, but money — primarily that from television contracts for football games — has driven the conference’s expansion. And so it became the lead character in the story. As we combined the role it has played with the profile, crucial elements of Swofford’s life, many of them fascinating, had to make way. For instance, his older brother Bill had been a popular singer. Under the name Oliver, he had two major hits — “Good Morning Starshine” and “Jean” — in as many months in 1969. Bill Swofford was diagnosed with lymphoma in the 1990s and, though his brother donated bone marrow, died in 2000.

That tells you a lot about the commissioner — but little about expansion. What is most relevant to our story is that during his tenure the league’s TV revenue from football has more than doubled. So we focused on how Swofford increased those numbers. Because sometimes the most appropriate storytelling element is the dadgum score.