Jim Phillips is the youngest of 10 children. His wife, Laura, has six siblings, and the couple has three boys and two girls of their own.
Good thing the ACC’s new commissioner considers himself “a people person.”
That affinity for others, that yearning to connect, is why Phillips found his interviews for the job so grueling.
“It was all Zoom, and it was intense,” Phillips said Monday. “No one felt safe, because that was during the fall when the pandemic was rearing its head. … But I would have loved to have been in a room and to see the dynamics of the [league’s] presidents, and to see how they operate with one another.
“I love people. It’s just hard. You see 15 boxes on a screen. I know it was difficult for them. I know it was difficult for the candidates as well, but really thankful with how it all kind of worked out and couldn’t be more excited, honored and humbled to be asked to join the ACC family.”
Phillips’ enthusiasm and affability were evident throughout our 70-minute phone conversation, his first extended interview since succeeding the retired John Swofford in February. We reviewed, briefly, last week’s COVID-disrupted ACC men’s basketball tournament, but the focus was the future.
How can the league bridge the revenue gap with the Big Ten and SEC? When might Comcast/Xfinity offer the ACC Network to its cable subscribers? How does he view name, image and likeness [NIL] and transfer policy? Does the College Football Playoff need to expand, and should the ACC overhaul its conference football schedule?
But first: Even as virus cases forced Virginia and Duke to withdraw from last week’s league basketball tournament, Phillips and conference leadership did not consider canceling the event at Greensboro Coliseum.
“Never did [the ACC Medical Advisory Group] feel, or did we feel, that the tournament was in jeopardy,” he said. “The medical protocols were really strict, [with] the seven days prior of continuous testing for the teams. Once they arrived, they were rested regularly at the Coliseum. … We prepared for if we had a positive [case] or two and what we would do. That was talked about prior to me coming on board.”
The pandemic has not only disrupted schedules but also ravaged businesses of every stripe, college athletics included. Virginia, Virginia Tech and their ACC colleagues have, in their athletic and academic departments alike, endured job cuts, furloughs and salary reductions.
As a former athletic director at Northern Illinois and Northwestern, Phillips understands that plight. Last spring, he and Northwestern's highest-paid coaches took voluntary 10% pay cuts, and he took over an ACC office that he said also has reduced salaries, limited staff travel and left open positions unfilled.
At Northwestern, Phillips worked in the nation’s richest conference, the Big Ten, where average annual distribution to schools exceeds $50 million. The ACC’s most recent tax filing reported an average distribution of $28.8 million.
“It instantly becomes something you start to think about,” Phillips said. “It’s still really early in my tenure, but it is something we have to address. It’s something that’s really important for us, if we’re going to continue to not only maintain but elevate our programs.
“In the end, football’s real important to the conference. We have a rich history and tradition in basketball — it’s like no other conference in the country. [But] football, and the success of football and the investment in football is going to have to be part of this strategy as we move forward. I think it’s fair to say those things equate to generating additional revenue, when you think about football and television and the network and distribution.”
The ACC Network’s distribution has been a topic since its August 2019 launch. Network partner ESPN and its parent, Disney, secured carriage agreements with most major television providers ahead of projections, but the Comcast/Xfinity exception has frustrated legions in Virginia and other ACC markets.
Conference officials have long pointed toward this September’s expiration of the current Disney-Comcast deal for potential resolution. But having experienced the Big Ten Network’s protracted negotiations with Comcast, Phillips appreciates fans’ aggravation.
“That just comes with a little bit of time,” he said of distribution contracts, “and I’m really optimistic that we’re going to make a dent into that.”
In his 24 years as commissioner, Swofford guided expansion of ACC membership from nine to 15, making the conference’s network viable. Further growth could enhance revenue, if the addition was right.
The most obvious candidate would be Notre Dame football’s international brand. ACC members for other sports, the Fighting Irish brought their perennially independent football program into the conference for 2020 only, affording them pandemic scheduling convenience and the ACC a share of Notre Dame’s NBC television money.
The Irish went undefeated during their ACC regular season, lost the league championship game to Clemson and earned their second College Football Playoff appearance.
“I want to assess that some,” Phillips, a former Notre Dame associate AD, said of potential ACC growth, “and … we want to do everything we can with our current inventory before looking ahead to what could be. … I think last year really gave, talking about the 2020 season, gave everybody an opportunity to see what Notre Dame would look like as a full-time member. But those are discussions that I just think will come with time.”
In welcoming the Irish into the league for football last season, the ACC disbanded its two seven-team divisions, a move some conference leaders would like to make permanent, regardless of Notre Dame’s presence.
Eliminating divisions and/or expanding the conference schedule from eight to nine games would translate to more frequent encounters between ACC rivals. So, too, would reconfiguring the divisions to render permanent crossover games unnecessary.
Darn near anything would improve the model in place since 2013.
Phillips is accustomed to nine conference games in the Big Ten, but again is not inclined to advocate change so early in his tenure.
“It’s a legitimate question for the new commissioner,” he said. “Why are we at eight? And why would we want to go to nine or why wouldn’t we want to go to nine? …
“That will be one of many important conversations for us to have, and in the end we’ll do what the membership wants. Having those kinds of open and candid conversations will be at the heart of everything we do moving forward.”
As ACC commissioner, Phillips joins the CFP management group, where the question of expanding the four-team field has hovered since the event’s 2014 debut. Phillips said he is open to those discussions, as long as they are sensitive to the bowl system he believes serves the sport well.
During our interview Monday, the ACC announced via email the elimination of its longstanding intraconference transfer restrictions, freeing athletes to transfer within the league and compete immediately for their new school. As a former assistant basketball coach, Phillips understands the roster-management headaches unfettered transfers can create, but said he feels “strongly” that athletes deserve that freedom.
He is also an ardent supporter of college athletes profiting from their names, images and likenesses. He wants to see group licensing agreements that would allow athletes and schools to share in video-game windfalls, these stances informed by his experiences in 2014 and ’15 when a group of Northwestern athletes attempted, unsuccessfully, to unionize.
Specifically, Phillips calls for a national NIL standard to avoid “a patchwork” of state laws that are “incompatible” with NCAA recruiting guidelines.
“We can’t sustain constant litigation to our enterprise,” he said. “It’s just not possible. So we need some help with that, federally. … Recruiting rules matter. Total scholarship limits matter. Our model of sharing revenue to fund [Olympic] sports matters, and that has to be kept in place. Anything that undermines that, it’s just not going to work. …
“This isn’t about a pay-for-play system. This is about an organized, really efficient national standard for name, image and likeness. … There needs to be urgency in this. We need to try and get this figured out this spring. With Florida [NIL legislation taking effect] in July, it’s really paramount for us to get to a place we all can kind of agree, and I’m optimistic we can.”
During Phillips’ 13 years as AD, Northwestern’s programs thrived, buoyed by marquee infrastructure upgrades approaching $500 million. Phillips is proud that his department “didn’t lose our compass academically” and encouraged athletes to engage in community service and social justice matters.