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Jim Phillips: A servant leader and listener, now ACC commissioner

Clayton Thorson was in serious pain, his knee a mess as he was carted off the field in the 2017 Music City Bowl. Thorson was carted off to the X-Ray room under the stadium, where the Northwestern quarterback was examined.

While doctors and trainers were examining Thorson, athletics director Jim Phillips knew Thorson’s parents and fiancé were on edge, gathering them and helping them to the X-Ray room to see him. As a doctor cuts off his pants, Phillips asks Thorson if he wants some clean clothes. Of course the quarterback says yes. 

Phillips leaves and goes to Thorson’s locker, returning a few minutes later with sweatpants, a sweatshirt, compression shorts, socks, shoes and a winter coat. Then Phillips took all of Thorson’s sweat-soaked clothing back to the locker room.

“I was in a lot of pain, but I could see what was going on there and I was like, ‘This guy is unbelievable,’ ” Thorson recalled. “We’re about to win our second bowl game in a row. And all the donors are there. And he is missing it all, because he’s helping me out. Literally taking my dirty clothes, getting the new clothes. It was the best form of servant leadership maybe I’ve ever seen. My family was like, ‘Who is this guy?’ ”

The guy is Jim Phillips and that is how he got his start in athletics, decades earlier as a student manager for the Illinois basketball team in the 1980s. But it’s also stunning he hadn’t lost a desire to be quite that hands on for others in a time of need. Phillips made sure Thorson’s mom and fiancé were on the team charter back to Chicago so they could attend to and drive him to doctor appointments, too.

Thorson recalled being impressed by Phillips when he met as a high school junior on a recruiting visit. A meeting with coach Pat Fitzgerald and the AD? 

“As a recruit, I’m like, ‘Holy cow. They must want me.’ ” Thorson recalled. “And as I talked to more people and heard more about Dr. Phillips. It was, ‘That’s who he is.’ He’s comes in, whether you’re the cook in the training table or, like me, the quarterback for four years. He’s going to treat you the same.”

In interviews with those who have known Phillips for decades — players, a coach, administrators and media — the same words pop up frequently. Genuine. Relationship-builder. Listener. Leader.

“Jim just has a unique and uncanny ability to build relationships, which is what all of this comes down to,” said Ryan Baker, whois now a broadcaster in Chicago and has known Phillips since their time at Illinois. “He’s excellent at it. He’s the same guy that I met 35 years ago.”

An athletics director at Northern Illinois and Northwestern, Phillips faces a daunting list of questions and decisions in the months and years ahead as he takes over from John Swofford as ACC commissioner on Feb. 1. As part of a hiring committee that spoke to candidates, Seminole Boosters CEO Michael Alford knew Phillips from his time as Central Michigan’s athletics director. Alford said Phillips is a visionary and strategic thinker, an administrator who is “very, very knowledgeable about the collegiate athletics space and all the business aspects of sports.”

The ACC’s member schools face revenues that lag competitors at SEC schools as well as those of the Big Ten. There’s the long-term impact the pandemic will have on athletics budgets. There’s the 18-month-old ACC Network, a showcase for the league’s football, basketball and Olympics sports teams but one that isn’t available on Comcast. There’s the ability for players to transfer once within a four-year window without being required to sit out a season. And there’s name, image and likeness legislation coming in Florida in July as well as other states and potentially in Washington.

Not just big topics but front-burner issues for the schools and ACC. And ones where there will be much debate and discussion among presidents, chancellors, athletics administrators and coaches. It will be quite the juggling act for Phillips but those who have known him for decades feel confident in his capabilities.

“He’s absolutely an outstanding leader and administrator,” said Dave Hart, FSU’s athletics director from 1995-2008 and is an advisor with Athletics Legacy Partners. “He’s even a better human. A great fit. And I’ve always been a believer in fit when hiring people.

“Jimmy realizes that how you treat people matters. He knows the value of making people feel valued. So he’ll be really, really good in every respect.”

Building connections and resume at Notre Dame

A native of Chicago, Phillips is known for his vision and relationship-building as an administrator. But his career began as a manager for coach Lou Henson and the Illinois basketball team, where he graduated in 1990. Phillips went on to Arizona State, taking on a graduate assistant job and later restricted-earnings basketball coach. But by 1997, he made the transition to athletics administration work at Arizona State and was hired at Notre Dame in 2000.

The Notre Dame athletics department was in transition, too. Kevin White landed the job as athletics director and brought in Phillips, Sandy Barbour and Bernard Muir. All of them would be athletics directors: Phillips at Northern Illinois and Northwestern, while Barbour is now Penn State’s athletics director, Muir is now Stanford’s athletics director while White is now at Duke.

Not long after the administrators arrived, basketball coach Matt Doherty left for North Carolina. White and the staff hired Mike Brey, a Duke assistant who had led Delaware to success. Phillips was associate athletics director and was a sport administrator focused on men’s basketball.

“I loved him to death because he’s a hoops guy,” Brey said. “You could speak the language. He was a manager at Illinois.”

Jordan Cornette played at Notre Dame from 2001-05 and quickly saw Phillips invested the time in relationships with coaches and players. “He’s sincere,” said Cornette, now an ACC Network analyst. “There’s a genuineness about him that really shines through. As an 18-year-old, it’s fascinating. It resonated with me.”

Cornette described Phillips as an integral piece of the program, wishing players luck as they went out on to the court or consoling in the locker room after a loss. They cheered from the stands but also knew the first names of family members.

“I am not sure that there is anyone more student-athlete centric, which may indeed be his strongest asset,” White said.

When colleagues and friends speak of Phillips, there are common themes. Energy. Relationship-building. Vision. There’s also another character trait that perhaps speaks to Phillips’ career.

“The man has no ego,” Brey said. “What you see is what you get. He still acts like the guy that ran Bill Frieder’s basketball camp.”

From his various stops, coaches benefitted from the support role Phillips offered. As much as it was about the countless hours he put in it was also his role as an advisor and confidante.

“He’s a great confidence-giver for a coach,” Brey said. “There’s days you think, ‘Oh, I’m not doing this right.’ Or ‘Am I good enough?’ Jim Phillips made you feel like you were James Naismith. Every day. Whether it was a great win or if it was a couple tough losses, he would pick you up. That’s why coaches loved him.”

Running departments at NIU, Northwestern

Jim and Laura Phillips invite Northwestern athletes to their home each year. (photo courtesy Northwestern)

Phillips earned his first chance to be an athletics director for four years at Northern Illinois, where he led marketing efforts and fundraising, before arriving at Northwestern in April 2008.

Northwestern achieved well-rounded athletics success in Olympics sports in Phillips’ tenure. Lacrosse, softball, golf, fencing, soccer, tennis, field hockey, swimming, diving and wrestling won Big Ten championships, while the football team clinched the Big Ten West Division title in 2018 and 2020.

He also hired a former Illinois Mr. Basketball, Chris Collins, who was a Duke assistant (and had played for the Blue Devils). Collins was coming home and was able to coach in a city where his dad, Doug, once coached Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, but it was still viewed as a big get for Northwestern in 2013. Collins has struggled in recent years but led Northwestern to a pair of 20-win seasons in 2015-16 and 2016-17.

Northwestern’s football season ticket base also jumped, from under 11,000 in 2009 to more than 25,000 on 2018. He spear-headed a fund-raising push that led to a $120 million renovation of Welsh-Ryan Arena for basketball, wrestling and volleyball. And he also pieced together the plans and raised funds for a sparkling Ryan Fieldhouse and Walter Athletics Center, a 94,000-square foot indoor practice facility that Yahoo Sports said in 2018 is unparalleled in college football.

“Without a shadow of a doubt, Northwestern athletics is in exponentially better shape than when he got here,” Baker said. “He’s changed the perception of the Wildcats.”

But beyond the money, wins and titles, it’s the personal connections with Phillips. He and his wife, Laura, have five children (Luke, Madeline, Meredith, John and James). With the exception of the last calendar year and the pandemic, Jim and Laura Phillips make it a point to host a gathering at their home with every Northwestern athlete as well as other donors and media.

“They truly care about the student-athlete,” Baker said. “It’s about not just keeping kids eligible, getting them on the field. It’s about being a positive influence in their lives to mold them to be not only the best student-athletes while they are competing but preparing them for the next level as adults, as professionals, as leaders, as parents. That’s Jim’s style. It’s not fake. It’s real.”

With Jim Phillips’ busy schedule, often traveling 200 or more nights per year, he praised Laura in a Chicago Tribune story in 2018 as the “most selfless individual” in supporting the academic needs and various sporting events of the family. While Jim has commented on his wife’s selflessness, the same has been said about his commitment to the men and women who play a sport at Northwestern as well as those who work in the athletics department.

His resume includes a lengthy list of committees, holding various posts since arriving at Northwestern: inaugural chair of the NCAA Division I Council, NCAA Board of Directors and Board of Governors, NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Selection Committee, NCAA Men’s Basketball Oversight Committee and LEAD1 Board of Directors.

His ACC salary is not known, but the AP reported he signed a five-year contract as commissioner.

Many athletics directors in the Big Ten thought Phillips would eventually be hired as their league’s next commissioner. Prior to the decision, the Chicago Tribune profiled Phillips, who opted not to discuss his thoughts on leading that conference. But Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald was blunt.

“I would absolutely hate to lose him,” Fitzgerald told the Tribune. “Because he has been such a catalyst for the dynamic improvements not only in the athletic department but across campus. I’m not sure how he could not be a top candidate because there’s no one better in the country.”

Big Ten presidents and chancellors raised some eyebrows when they opted for Minnesota Vikings executive Kevin Warren. The ACC and its member schools spent much of 2020 looking for the right candidate, picking Phillips in December.

“There’s a lot of people in the Big Ten that are really happy for Jim Phillips and there’s a lot of athletic directors who really wanted him to be the Big Ten commissioner, but the presidents went outside the box with Warren,” said Nicole Auerbach, who has covered college athletics for USA Today and is now with The Athletic. “He’s very widely respected by administrators in conferences far beyond the Big Ten. You need someone who really understands these issues and has a good grasp of them. And that’s him.”

Media who have covered Phillips often remark they will reach out by text to Phillips one afternoon and get a response the next morning — at 4 a.m. Is he still up working? Is he just waking up and catching up on texts and phone calls?

“The man never stops working,” Brey said.

Phillips joins ACC at challenging time

Phillips watches a Northwestern game from the end zone. He has remained active in Northwestern athletics as well as
ACC topics of interest in January. (photo courtesy Northwestern)

Phillips’ first day with the ACC will be in February and he has been involved in conversations and meetings via Zoom in January. There are plenty of pressing issues from revenue generation to television rights to NCAA legislation on transfers as well as name, image and likeness.

Among the most critical questions will be one of finances in college athletics, which like many businesses large and small across the nation have been rocked by the pandemic. While 2020 included the pain of layoffs and furloughs, there remain questions about what budgets will look like in the future.

“There’s going to have to be assessments in every conference and every campus, about how we come out of the pandemic from a financial perspective,” Hart said. “And I think that there’ll have to be a reset of sorts, in my mind, because of the financial hit that campuses have absorbed. What will that look like in the final analysis? Now that we have vaccines being distributed and we have hope again, that we can beat this and come out of it, those assessments are going to take time. … He is a very deliberate leader. He’s not going to knee-jerk something.”

There is also, of course, the elephant in the room. Notre Dame joined the ACC as a football member for one year as a mutual solution due to the pandemic. The ACC was able to build a full schedule of 10 games with Notre Dame, and the school was willing to share revenue from its NBC contract with the league’s other 14 schools. But Notre Dame values its football independence and, when the schedule is released later this month, it’s expected the Fighting Irish will again play just five ACC games.

This raises the question worth, potentially, tens of millions of dollars to the ACC’s 14 full member schools: Would Notre Dame ever choose to join the ACC?

“I don’t think that’s something he’s going to shy away from,” Cornette said. “I do believe that he’s going to be aggressive in his attempts to make Notre Dame a part of this conference. And we all know the benefit that can bring. If there is a guy to do it, it’s Jim Phillips. Is that the end all, be all for the ACC? No. I’m not going to sit here and say the ACC doesn’t survive or thrive without Notre Dame.”

The relationship between Notre Dame and other ACC schools is clearly beneficial. But ACC schools are looking for more money and the addition of Notre Dame would bring in a significant sum as part of a reworked TV contract with ABC/ESPN. How integral to the ACC’s future is Notre Dame?

“I go back and forth as to whether it’s important or not for the league,” Auerbach said. “His ties to Notre Dame will help with this. There’s such an identity that is built around independence there and the way they schedule and the way they have built themselves nationally. … I think this year you certainly saw how well that marriage work.”

Beyond the question of Notre Dame’s future, in conversations with various individuals, there is confidence Phillips has the ability to build relationships, mediate the varying demands of ACC schools and has the vision to tackle broad issues in 2021 and beyond. The job of commissioner in any league or sport is fair game for intense scrutiny and criticism from fans and media, not to mention perhaps quietly from presidents, chancellors and athletics departments. His ability to listen, weigh information and opinions and help schools reach consensus will be critical.

“Jimmy will be a supreme rock star as he leads the ACC into the next iteration of college athletics,” White said.

The ACC had stability in the commissioner chair for nearly 25 years with Swofford, who will help in the transition to Phillips. In hiring Phillips, there is optimism ACC schools have found a listener, relationship-builder and outside-the-box thinker for the coming decade. 

“He will really want to prove himself to the presidents, the ADs and the coaches in the league,” Brey said. “He will be an amazing listener. That will be great timing especially as we come out of the pandemic and have a somewhat normal year but yet the landscape of college athletics with name, image and likeness, the transfer rule (is changing). He’s really a key guy at a key time.”

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