For years, the presumptive power struggle in college sports was between Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. They were the key figures tussling over dollars, clout, athletic glory and the shape of things to come. Everyone else remained supporting actors as the two protagonists dueled.
But it's funny how things turn out. The 2013-14 athletic season has become the Year of the Ninja.
That's John Swofford, the low-key, low-visibility commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference. He earned the wry media nickname "Ninja Swofford" last year for his ability to stealthily make big things happen, covertly solidifying the ACC's membership and its place in the national hierarchy. Now he is reaping the benefits.
The ACC is home to the 2013 football national champion, Florida State, which dethroned the mighty SEC. It is home to the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner, Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston, who will be slinging it again for FSU in the fall of '14. It is home to America's most famous college baseball player, who also happens to be Winston, plus the No. 1 baseball team in the land, according to Baseball America, the Virginia Cavaliers.
And then there is the sport that built the ACC's identity and remains in its DNA: basketball. It is not the best league in America this season, but it has deftly commandeered the spotlight and become the must-watch conference in February. To date the ACC has been home to:
• The Game of the Year: Syracuse's overtime victory over Duke on Feb. 1 before an on-campus record crowd of 35,446 at the Carrier Dome.
• The Shot of the Year: Syracuse freshman Tyler Ennis' 35-footer as time expired to beat Pittsburgh on Feb. 12.
• The Freshman of the Year: In the so-called Year of the Freshman, it is Duke's Jabari Parker.
• The Upset of the Year: Boston College, which entered the game 6-19, shocked the No. 1-ranked Orange 62-59 in OT Wednesday night. That result might have taken some luster off the Syracuse-Duke rematch set for Saturday in Cameron Indoor Stadium, but it still had fans riveted to the TV over a game nobody was talking about when it started.
"We've landed in a really good place," Swofford told Yahoo Sports on Thursday.
Swofford's emergence at the top of the commissioner power rankings is not quite as surprising as BC beating Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. But it is unexpected.
It's easy to underestimate the guy with the North Carolina drawl – the only homegrown commissioner among the Big Five – who tends to be less out-front and less glib than his counterparts. Yet you get the feeling Swofford is fine with being underestimated. That makes it easier to perform the covert ops necessary in the past couple of years.
While nobody was paying much attention to him, Swofford and the league's presidents were able to acquire Syracuse and Pittsburgh as members, enhancing the ACC basketball brand; to lock in Notre Dame for five football games per year plus full membership in other sports; to bring in Louisville as a major competitive upgrade from Big Ten-bound Maryland come July; and most importantly to secure the Grant of Rights deal last spring that effectively stopped realignment before it completely ruined college sports.
That was the deal nobody saw coming, and the one that made the "Ninja Swofford" nickname stick. Locking the 15 ACC schools into a written agreement of loyalty tied to their media revenue rights through 2027 was a triumph of diplomacy and deal-making that ended speculation about the league being poached. Almost a year old, it has (for the time being) helped stabilize the entirety of Division I.
"I'm extremely pleased," Swofford said. "It's good to see what has, in a lot of ways, been a seamless transition. There has been a lot of work done on scheduling and integrating new members, but hopefully we got most of those things right.
"What's good to see is that it's gone so well competitively. It's laying an excellent foundation going forward."
Indeed, the emergence of the new ACC as a power player owes a lot to fortuitous timing.
If ever there were a good year for Florida State to break out of its football doldrums and re-establish itself as a championship program, this is it. If ever there were a year for Clemson to finally win a BCS bowl game, beating Ohio State in an exciting Orange Bowl, this is it. And if ever there were a year for Syracuse to become the most intriguing team in college basketball, its debut season as an ACC member is it.
The Orange weren't just undefeated until Wednesday; they were dramatically undefeated. Half of their 12 ACC wins were by six points or fewer, and the successive escapes in the final 10 seconds against Pitt and North Carolina State were the talk of the sport last week. It was captivating watching Syracuse get itself into these predicaments, then somehow find a way out.
"It's one thing being in close games," Orange coach Jim Boeheim said Monday. "It's another thing being in the kind of jeopardy we've gotten ourselves into lately. … I think this team really deserves a lot of credit for making those plays [to win the last-second games], but I'm sure you'd have to think this team is vulnerable like everyone else is."
Syracuse proved how vulnerable it was Wednesday night. After wearing a flashing neon sign that read "Beat us" for a week, BC finally took the Orange up on it.
While the players might have been looking ahead to Duke, the coaches were not. Boeheim was asked Monday on the ACC teleconference about playing in Cameron Indoor on Saturday, and his answer was polite but firm: "We're playing Boston College."
With the school's record unbeaten run to start a season now over, the Orange can regroup for Duke. But the Blue Devils cannot look ahead either – they have to play archrival North Carolina in a rescheduled game Thursday night.
And that tells you about this year's ACC: Duke-Carolina is a warm-up act for a bigger game.
"It's good to be back to where we have multiple national rivalries," said Swofford, who remembers the Ralph Sampson days at Virginia and the glory years at North Carolina State and Maryland as well.
For No. 5 Duke, dropping the red-hot Tar Heels (winners of seven straight) into the schedule two days before Syracuse presents a unique challenge. The spacing between games and quality of opponents reminded Mike Krzyzewski of a similar dynamic.
"The last two games this week are really like a Final Four," the Duke coach said. "You're playing two teams that might be in the Final Four. Carolina's playing great, and obviously Syracuse is the No. 1 team in the country."
It's just another week of drama in the unexpectedly ascendant ACC. The Year of the Ninja rolls on.