A Navy veteran and design engineer, John Phillips was a loving yet reticent father. But after moving the youngest of his 10 children into a freshman dorm at the University of Illinois, he lingered at the door, paused, and offered a few words of guidance.
“If you don’t do anything else with your life, try and do some good for others.”
And with that single sentence, John strolled away, leaving Jim Phillips to ponder how best to follow his dad’s counsel. It didn’t take long.
During his final two years at Illinois, 1988-90, Phillips toiled as a student assistant in the athletics department and a basketball team manager, experience that included the Illini’s run to the 1989 Final Four. A harrowing accident as a 13-year-old had limited his sports pursuits, but here was a way to reconnect with that passion — and serve others.
His time at Illinois hooked Phillips on college athletics, commencing a professional journey that today finds him three-plus months into his tenure as commissioner of the ACC.
During those nearly 100 days, Phillips has embarked upon a listening tour of the conference’s 15 campuses. He has met with presidents, chancellors, coaches, administrators and, most important to him, athletes, engaging in unvarnished discussions about the league, NCAA legislation and social justice.
His stops this past week at Virginia Tech and Virginia — The Times-Dispatch had exclusive access for both — offered insight into Phillips’ priorities, leadership style and vision.
“He knows how to bring everybody into the room,” said Vic Cegles, who more than 20 years ago steered Phillips from basketball coaching to fundraising and administration.
Indeed, Phillips eagerly engaged with all he encountered in Blacksburg and Charlottesville.
He complimented Matt Althoff, Virginia’s director of equipment room operations, on the immaculate condition of the John Paul Jones Arena locker rooms. He applauded John Turner, the chef at Virginia Tech’s Student-Athlete Performance Center, for a decadent lunch of filet mignon, asparagus tips and German chocolate cake.
He talked Philadelphia 76ers basketball with Dave Whitfield, a Hokies track athlete from suburban Philly, and quizzed tennis player Carson Branstine and football linebacker Chico Bennett as they rehabbed in the Cavaliers’ training room.
That personal touch extends to Phillips’ daily routine. He emails ACC athletes of the week in every sport and texts/calls coaches after notable wins.
“There’s no ego,” said Notre Dame basketball coach Mike Brey, a longtime friend of Phillips’. “The guy is what you see is what you get.”
Any pretension tends to vanish when you share a room with three older brothers in a middle-class home, six older sisters are across the hall and you’re schooled by the nuns at the community parish. Such was Phillips’ youth in the Portage Park neighborhood on Chicago’s northwest side, where John and Anita Phillips and their brood attended and revered Our Lady of Victory Church.
Their faith was central when 13-year-old Jimmy, riding his bicycle in a West Montrose Avenue crosswalk, was hit by a drunk driver. Both femurs broken, he didn’t walk for nine months, enduring multiple body casts and completing the eighth grade, plus confirmation classes, at home.
The realization that life is fleeting and the conviction that God guides all inform Phillips to this day. He starts work early and quits late, but finds time for gems such as flying home to Chicago in March from the ACC’s base in Greensboro, N.C., to surprise his son James on his 11th birthday.
“He’s so incredibly disciplined, both personally and professionally,” Old Dominion athletic director Wood Selig said.
Selig first met Phillips in 2007, when Phillips, then the athletic director at Northern Illinois, joined him on the NCAA Division I women’s basketball committee. Selig was struck by Phillips’ buttoned-down attire, exhaustive research — he used a briefcase-on-wheels to carry copious notes on every conference he was assigned to monitor — and early-morning workout regimen.
“There was no one on the committee who was more prepared than Jim Phillips,” Selig said. “He was exceptional.”
From Northern Illinois, Phillips went to Northwestern as AD, a position he held for 13 years before succeeding John Swofford at the ACC on Feb. 1. His preparedness is already renowned within the conference.
“It jumps off the page,” UVA president Jim Ryan said. “He does his homework — and yours.”
That homework was apparent at Virginia Tech and Virginia, where Phillips recited accomplishments not only on the field but also in the classroom. In small groups he congratulated the Hokies’ academic support staff, two of their track athletes and the Cavaliers’ Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.
Phillips took their pulse on athlete empowerment issues such as transfer policy and name, image and likeness (NIL) monetization and vowed to advocate for them on those matters. But as Phillips volunteered to the athletes, that advocacy has limits.
In 2014, Northwestern football players, frustrated by NCAA limits on benefits, attempted to unionize. It was the most contentious time in Phillips’ tenure as athletic director, as he and the university resisted the effort and exhaled after a favorable ruling from the National Labor Relations Board.
Phillips told UVA’s athletes that he “loved” the Northwestern players for raising their voices but vehemently disagreed with their aim of creating an employee-employer dynamic.
Huddling with Tech and UVA athletes, Phillips was especially interested in how they coped with the COVID-19 and social unrest strains of the past year-and-a-half.
At Tech, he listened intently as Whitfield and his track teammate Thierry Siewe described their inner conflicts on whether to opt out or compete during the pandemic — both chose the latter. The young Black men also shared how recent cases of racial injustice prompted meaningful and occasionally uncomfortable dialogue among athletes of diverse backgrounds.
Phillips then offered an example of his own enlightenment. Last month he joined more than 30 ACC co-workers for a unity walk from North Carolina A&T, an historically Black university in Greensboro, to the site of the Woolworth’s store where four A&T students sat at a whites-only lunch counter in 1960 and asked to be served.
A statue at A&T honors the Greensboro Four, and the store building is now the International Civil Rights Center & Museum.
“It’s important for us to carry on these conversations,” Phillips told Whitfield and Siewe. “This is the very beginning.”
Phillips had similar discussions at UVA with eloquent athletes such as volleyball’s Milla Ciprian and cross country’s Gabriella Karas. He also toured the university’s Memorial to Enslaved Laborers with Cavaliers athletic director Carla Williams.
Phillips’ genuine affection for college athletes and commitment to their academic, social and competitive wellness is rooted in career and family.
His professional track began as a graduate assistant basketball coach for Bill Frieder at Arizona State in the early 1990s.
He then ascended to a restricted-earnings position, making $16,000 a year and a few grand extra running Frieder’s summer youth camps.
Among the campers were Vic Cegles’ two sons. Cegles was a senior associate AD at Arizona State working for Kevin White, and he couldn’t help but notice Phillips.
“Jimmy was really good at connecting with people,” said Cegles, who later worked as Long Beach State’s athletic director before retiring two years ago from an associate’s post at Connecticut. “I saw it. I saw him with donors. I saw him with young [campers]. I saw him with student-athletes. I saw him with the coaches. So Jimmy knew how to connect, and that was what I always felt was most important in hiring a development person.”
Cegles recruited Phillips to a job in development and administration, launching Phillips into a world that took him to Tennessee and Notre Dame in associate roles, the latter under White, and to Northern Illinois and Northwestern as athletic director.
Phillips and his wife, Laura, a fellow Chicagoan he met at Illinois, have five children, the oldest of whom are college athletes. Luke runs track at Notre Dame, and Meredith plays soccer at Yale.
With his family so tethered to Chicago, Phillips, honored as the Sports Business Journal’s Athletic Director of the Year in 2018, was convinced Northwestern was his destination gig. But the opportunity to serve thousands, rather than hundreds, of college athletes drew him to the ACC.
“During our years together at Arizona State, it was abundantly obvious that Jimmy enjoyed immense talents and gifts,” said White, set to retire next month as Duke’s AD, “particularly as it related to straightforward communication, empathy for all others, adaptability, relationship acumen, utter intelligence, and well beyond that, unwavering integrity. …
“I am not sure that there is anyone more student-athlete centric, which may indeed be his strongest asset. Jimmy will be a supreme rock star as he leads the ACC into the next iteration of college athletics.”
The job is replete with pressing challenges.
Relaxed transfer rules for athletes in football, baseball, men’s and women’s basketball and men’s ice hockey have been simmering for more than a year. So, too, has pending NIL legislation from state legislatures, Congress and/or the NCAA.
Both topics surfaced during Phillips’ meetings with the head coaches at Virginia Tech (in-person) and UVA (Zoom). But the prevailing discussions were more local than global.
With evangelical zeal, Phillips told the coaches, plus the Hokies’ ACC Network staff, that the conference’s future hinges on football, the financial bell cow of major intercollegiate athletics.
“It’s not at the expense of other sports,” Phillips told UVA’s coaches. “... But who eats first? It’s football.”
Clemson’s six consecutive College Football Playoff appearances and two recent national championships notwithstanding, the league’s overall football product must improve.
Addressing that liability requires money, and ACC revenue lags far behind the Big Ten and the SEC, conferences in which Phillips has worked. The ACC Network can help close the gap, he said, with more football programming and wider distribution.
Phillips told his audiences in Blacksburg and Charlottesville that he believes ESPN/Disney, the conference’s partner in the ACC Network, likely will strike a carriage agreement by September with cable behemoth Xfinity/Comcast. Responding to pointed criticism from UVA rowing coach Kevin Sauer, he agreed that a plan to livestream the league’s upcoming rowing championship on ACC Network Extra without announcers was “unacceptable.”
“We’ve got to be better,” he said.
Phillips witnessed the power of television and football at Northwestern.
The Big Ten became the nation’s most prosperous conference on the backs of football and the Big Ten Network, driving annual per-school distributions beyond $50 million, nearly double the ACC’s. Moreover, Northwestern’s football success under coach Pat Fitzgerald ignited fundraising efforts for a $270-million lakefront athletic center that opened in 2018 and benefits all of the school’s 19 varsity programs.
UVA’s Williams and her Virginia Tech counterpart, Whit Babcock, understand the same and are in the midst of fundraising drives that, in large measure, are targeted for football. In fact, Williams was sure to carve time out for Phillips to see the Cavaliers’ woefully inadequate football offices, weight room and locker room.
Virginia Tech and Virginia were the 12th and 13th stops, respectively, of Phillips’ campus odyssey, followed immediately by Georgia Tech. Only Clemson, set for later this month, remains.
In the meantime, Phillips will preside over his first ACC spring meetings, scheduled for Monday-Thursday, an annual gathering of the conference’s CEOs, athletic directors, senior women’s administrators, faculty representatives, and football and basketball coaches. Spring meetings often entail intense policy debate, and this year figures to be no different.
Traditionally staged at the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island, Fla., the meetings will be remote for the second consecutive year.
Still, bank on Jim Phillips being impeccably dressed and prepared, trying to do some good for others.