It isn’t easy being an athletic director in today’s hyper-connected world where fans, bloggers and 24/7 sports media scrutinize every move of a college athletic program. In this high-pressure scene, achieving expectations of both academic and athletic excellence while complying with ever-increasing NCAA and Title IX rules across nearly two dozen sports means constant vigilance.
But Lynn Swann ’74 isn’t interested in what’s easy. USC’s incoming AD loves nothing more than a challenge.
“Yes, things have changed,” says the former Trojan wide receiver, whose halcyon college football days predate the NFL Combine and ESPN, let alone Twitter and the Pac-12 Networks. “Our society changes, technology changes, the way we communicate changes. But the one thing that doesn’t change is maturity. How do we help young people grow and mature to be able to handle this responsibility?
“I’ve always told my own kids that responsibility is freedom, and freedom is responsibility. You want more freedom, then you better show me that you can be responsible for that freedom. These are the value lessons we have to teach to Trojan athletes. I think I have an opportunity to be able to lead a program to make sure the kids who come here get the best out of themselves in a competitive program—that they have a great college experience, win championships and leave with their degree.”
It’s a job I feel like I’ve prepared for my entire career.Lynn Swann
In the search for an athletic director, USC President C. L. Max Nikias had said he was looking for “someone who is a leader, not a manager. Someone who can position Trojan athletics in the national scene to play a leadership role in the student-athlete reform movement.” Swann has a strong platform for tackling national conversations about college sports: USC’s leadership in the Pac-12, NCAA, College Football Playoff organization and Olympic Games.
At the April 16 press conference announcing Swann’s installation, Nikias described the incoming athletic director as a man of “integrity, exemplary character: a champion.”
But there’s much more to him. Charismatic, multi-faceted, a postmodern Renaissance man, Swann is not your typical athletic director.
Lynn Swann, USC Alum and Renaissance Man
These days, it’s hard to say what a typical athletic director looks like. Across the NCAA Division I landscape, the job increasingly attracts people from surprising backgrounds. Look at Notre Dame’s Jack Swarbrick Jr., who came out of 28 years’ worth of practice as a private sports attorney and team negotiator. Or Vanderbilt’s David Williams, a school-teacher-turned-law professor who previously had been that university’s general counsel and helmed student affairs.
Swann’s own background defies labels. After 30 years at ABC Sports, he is thoroughly versed in the world of broadcasting. He built on his public relations degree at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, making his living from 1976 to 2006 as host, analyst and sideline reporter for seemingly every sporting event under the sun—including the Olympics, horse racing’s Triple Crown contests, bowling tournaments, international diving and, of course, football. He weathered the frigid extremes of Alaska’s 1,000-mile Iditarod trail. He basked on fairways covering the sport that he now ranks among his three life passions: golf. (The other two, he says, are competition and family.)
Then there’s Swann the politician, who has marched the campaign trail and felt the heat of high-profile government service. Having chaired the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports from 2002 to 2005, he threw himself into a hard-fought race to become the first African-American governor in Pennsylvania history. Organizing that 2006 bid, Swann says, taught him important lessons about the right way to build a team of advisors—knowledge he’ll deploy in his new role at USC.
Swann also knows the world of business, having served on several Fortune 500 corporate boards, founded his own marketing and consulting firm, launched an Arena Football League team in Pittsburgh, earned licenses as a financial securities agent, and established himself as a successful motivational speaker. He’s no stranger to the nonprofit world, as well, through his 30 years’ involvement with Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America, including two years as the charity’s national president.
At the press conference announcing his athletic director appointment, Swann spoke of his willingness to take calculated risks, citing a gutsy decision in 1994 to put the Big Brothers and Big Sisters organization’s sterling reputation to the test by commissioning the first-ever impact study measuring its effect on the 250,000 children it serves. The study’s findings came back strongly positive, though Swann couldn’t have known that going in. Accountability comes first, Swann explained, “when you’re asking people for money.” He brings that philosophy to Heritage Hall, too.
Perhaps most surprising is that Swann, well-known in the Trojan Family for his football prowess, also brings to USC a background steeped in arts and culture, both as a trained dancer and high-profile fundraiser for the Pittsburgh Ballet.
“I am recommending that he be appointed as a professor at the USC Kaufman School of Dance,” Nikias joked at the press conference. There’s something poetic in the fact that the football Hall of Famer famously nicknamed “Baryshnikov in Cleats” is returning to his alma mater just as the Glorya Kaufman International Dance Center opens its doors.
The decision to become USC’s next athletic director was not one that Swann made easily. He had turned down two other AD job offers at NCAA Division I schools in recent years. When USC recruiter Nick Brill came calling, Swann and his wife, Charena, a clinical psychologist with a doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh, discussed it for hours.
Though he hadn’t sought it out, he realized, “It’s a job I feel like I’ve prepared for my entire career.” The timing was good for a life change: Their younger son, Braxton, was a senior in high school.
Still, Swann backpedaled during the early search process, waiting until Braxton, whose top college choice was USC, had heard back from the university’s admissions office.
“It was important to me that he understood he was getting in on his own merit,” Swann says. His other son, Shafer, is a cadet at West Point, but both boys had spent summers at USC football camps and experienced the Trojan Family at away games against Notre Dame, Syracuse and Illinois.
Happily, Braxton got the fat envelope from USC. He started freshman year in August as a business major.
“And now I’m going to college with him,” adds the proud Trojan parent, with a chuckle.
The decision to become USC’s next athletic director was not one that Swann made easily. He had turned down two other athletic director job offers at Division I schools.
Though Swann had put down deep roots in Pittsburgh, he has stayed connected with the Trojan Family. Asked who he’s still tight with after 45 years, he says, “half of my football team at USC. I could go on and on. All of them have stayed important in my life.”
The Trojan whom Swann has perhaps stayed closest to, however, was a swimmer: his freshman roommate and high school buddy Tom McBreen ’74, MD ’79. McBreen has keen insight into how Swann’s past shaped him and made him a strong fit for leadership at USC.
The two met the summer before eighth grade, introduced by McBreen’s older brother—Swann’s middle-school history teacher and basketball coach. The boys became best friends at Junipero Serra High in San Mateo, California, an all-boys Catholic prep school that Swann attended on academic scholarship. Both boys were star athletes, though they never played on the same team. An elite swimmer, McBreen made the U.S. national team as a high school senior and set a world record in the 800-meter freestyle relay in 1970. As for Swann, he excelled at many sports, earning national honors in basketball, track and football.
McBreen was among the very few in their tight-knit Bay Area town who knew that Swann was also a dancer, training in jazz, tap, modern dance and ballet.
“Lynn kept it a secret,” he recalls. “Now we talk about football players doing yoga and dance. But in those days, it was verboten to talk about it.”
Swann’s parents, Mildred and Willie, had settled in San Mateo in 1954, leaving their hometown of Alcoa, Tennessee, to seek a better life for their three young boys. Willie Swann became the school custodian at Meadow Heights Elementary, and his wife ran a dentist’s office for 17 years before becoming an administrator with the San Mateo School District. Education was important to the Swanns, and all three of their sons went on to college and professional achievements.
As seniors, McBreen and Swann were aggressively recruited by top schools and under intense pressure from family and friends. Both moms were pulling for Stanford. The boys made a pact to tell each other first. When decision day came, they retreated to the walk-in freezer of their high school cafeteria, where they worked as servers. They scribbled in silence on two slips of paper and solemnly exchanged notes.
“We thought we’d gotten our own note back,” says McBreen, laughing at the memory. Both had written down “USC.”
“Right at that moment, we decided we’re going to live together.”
Life at USC
The arrangement raised teammates’ eyebrows when they first arrived on campus in 1970. “We were a black athlete and a white athlete living together. That was unusual. And we were also a football player and swimmer living together. People couldn’t understand it,” McBreen says.
The level of athletic excellence at USC was daunting. At nights, they lay awake sharing their insecurities.
Who are those guys? became their inside joke—a reference to the relentless posse pursuing the hero-outlaws of the 1969 blockbuster film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Both young men went on to glory. McBreen was a silver medalist in the 1971 Pan American Games, won Olympic gold and bronze at the 1972 Munich games, and captained the Trojan swim team that took the 1974 NCAA championship. Swann played on two Rose Bowl teams and a national championship team in 1972. He was team captain, most valuable player and an All-American in 1973. And as an NFL pro, he would take home championship rings from four Super Bowls over his nine years with the Steelers, as well as the MVP title from Super Bowl X.
And Swann still remains a loyal friend.
“To me, he’s always been the same Lynn. He didn’t get a big head,” McBreen says. “I think it comes from his upbringing. His parents are just really good people—salt of the earth.”
Those values—along with a lifetime of leadership experience on the field, in the boardroom, in front of the cameras—places Swann in good stead as he takes the helm at Heritage Hall.