John Swofford served 24 years as ACC commissioner, the lengthiest tenure in the conference’s history. His successor, Jim Phillips, has been on the job for about 24 months. But for how much longer?
The question went viral Thursday morning when the Chicago Bears announced the hiring of Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren as their team president.
Phillips has deep Big Ten roots. He’s a Chicago native and University of Illinois graduate. He had an accomplished, 10-year run as Northwestern’s athletic director before joining the ACC.
Indeed, Phillips was widely viewed as the heir apparent to Jim Delany, who led the Big Ten from 1989-2020. But the Big Ten opted for an unconventional hire in Warren, then a Minnesota Vikings executive.
Phillips pursued the Big Ten position then. The unknown is whether he will again.
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He has yet to relocate his family from Chicago, in part because of his youngest son’s schooling, in part because of uncertainty regarding the ACC’s headquarters. Capping more than a year of exploration, the league announced in September it will relocate from Greensboro, North Carolina, the city of its 1953 origin, to Charlotte.
State of residence aside, Phillips is a tireless advocate for the ACC’s brand, thousands of athletes and 15 institutions. His travels, to on-campus competitions plus conference and NCAA championships, are exhaustive.
Phillips has learned ACC history and conducted an in-person listening tour of conference schools. He represented the league on the NCAA’s Constitution and Transformation committees, a time commitment that shouldn’t be understated. He prioritized upgrading ACC football, shepherding a long-overdue makeover of the league schedule and increasing the sport’s presence on the ACC Network.
In short, he immersed himself in the job immediately and hasn’t slowed since. He has, in contrast to Warren, never appeared to be hunting his next gig.
But external forces have made the ACC job far more difficult than two years ago.
The SEC’s additions of Texas and Oklahoma, followed by the Big Ten’s of UCLA and Southern California, further distanced those conferences financially from the rest of college athletics. The expansions heightened anxiety among ACC schools and increased the burden on Phillips to generate additional revenue.
He has not shied away from that charge, even while adhering to his traditional view that college sports should operate within the realm of academia. He retained a business and revenue innovation consultant, FishBait Solutions, and believes moving the ACC’s operations to Charlotte will enhance corporate sponsorship opportunities.
The Big Ten presents challenges for its next leader, chiefly the integration of marquee brands but geographic misfits USC and UCLA into what will be a 16-member conference. But the league, based in suburban Chicago, does not have the economic concerns that have nagged the ACC for a decade-plus.
In July, the Big Ten embarks on seven-year television contracts with Fox, CBS and NBC reportedly worth more than $1 billion annually. The ACC’s most recent tax filing, for fiscal 2020-21, disclosed $397.4 million in TV revenue.
To be charitable, Warren’s leadership of the Big Ten was turbulent. The league’s responses to the pandemic were erratic, and after pledging an alliance with the ACC and Pac-12, he raided the latter for USC and UCLA.
Given that rocky tenure, might Big Ten presidents and chancellors opt for more conventional and stable candidates with Big Ten connections? If so, Phillips and Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith fit the bill.
Phillips knows the Big Ten and its ADs. He is close with Delany and employed the former Big Ten commissioner as an ACC consultant.
But 11 of the 14 Big Ten presidents and chancellors who will formally select the next commissioner were not on the job when Warren was appointed and Phillips departed Northwestern for the ACC. Plus, Nebraska’s chancellor, Ronnie Green, is set to retire in June.
Whether that turnover would assist a potential Phillips candidacy is among many unknowns.
Commissioner of a Power Five conference has generally been a destination, and each of the ACC’s previous four leaders — Jim Weaver, Bob James, Gene Corrigan and Swofford — served for at least 10 years. A poor match from the start, Warren bailed from the Big Ten after three.
Conversely, Phillips transitioned seamlessly to the ACC, as he almost certainly would back to the Big Ten.