The moment Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany announced his retirement last year, Northwestern athletics director Jim Phillips was the heir apparent. He’s among the nation’s most-respected and longest-tenured ADs, and his Big Ten roots extend to his youth in Illinois.
But the conference hired Minnesota Vikings executive Kevin Warren, a candidate no media were tracking.
When ACC commissioner John Swofford revealed his retirement plans in June, there was no presumptive successor. But even as reporters handicapped the search, Phillips dodged attention.
At 11:35 p.m., Sunday, Yahoo! Sports’ Pete Thamel broke the news that Phillips will become the ACC’s fifth commissioner, the hire as stealthy as the Big Ten’s and, at first blush, a better fit.
A 1990 graduate of Illinois, Phillips is the first ACC commissioner not to have attended a school in the conference. He worked in senior leadership at Notre Dame, before the Fighting Irish joined the ACC for sports other than football, and worked under Duke athletics director Kevin White at Arizona State and Notre Dame.
But while lacking the direct ACC ties of his predecessors — Swofford, for example, played football at North Carolina and served as the Tar Heels’ AD — Phillips has a deep understanding of the ACC’s uniquely diverse membership.
The ACC is the lone Power Five conference with more than two private institutions. Duke, Wake Forest, Miami, Boston College, Syracuse and Notre Dame give the ACC as many private schools, six, as the other Power Fives combined.
Since his 2008 appointment at Northwestern, Phillips has led the athletic department at the lone private institution among the Big Ten’s 14 members. Northwestern’s undergraduate of enrollment of approximately 8,300 pales to the Big Ten average of nearly 30,000, much like the ACC’s average enrollment of about 15,500 is smaller than all other Power Fives.
Within that framework, Phillips has steered the Wildcats’ 19 sports to new heights athletically and academically while engineering massive facility upgrades.
Northwestern on Saturday will play in its second Big Ten football championship game in three years, and in 2017 the Wildcats made their first NCAA men’s basketball tournament appearance. Their Olympic sports also thrive, most notably women’s lacrosse, a seven-time NCAA champion.
Northwestern teams are perennial leaders in the NCAA’s academic metrics, and the Wildcats’ football program has attained the Bowl Subdivision’s highest NCAA graduation success rate the past four years. Those things matter to university presidents, and according to the ACC bylaws, 75% of the league’s presidents must approve a new commissioner.
As the inaugural chairman of the NCAA Division I Council and the first sitting AD to serve on the NCAA Board of Directors, Phillips is also steeped in college sports’ governance structure, vital as the enterprise navigates complex issues such as name, image and likeness compensation for athletes.
While the athletic director at Northern Illinois, Phillips served on the NCAA women’s basketball committee, and in 2017 he was appointed to the men’s basketball committee. Phillips, who will begin work at the ACC in February, is scheduled to chair that panel during the 2021-22 season, an assignment he may have to relinquish.
NCAA rules prohibit multiple representatives of one conference sitting on a selection committee, and North Carolina AD Bubba Cunningham began a five-year term on the men’s basketball panel this September.
“Jim is well-respected throughout college athletics and knows the enterprise inside and out,” Swofford said in a statement. “As I’ve said many times before, having been an athletic director prior to sitting in this chair is a tremendous benefit, and that will serve him well.
“Jim will do an excellent job and I will be here to assist with the transition as much, or as little, as necessary. I’m thrilled for Jim, and thrilled for the ACC.”
Under Swofford’s understated yet firm guidance since 1997, the ACC expanded from nine to 15 schools, was a driving force in establishing the College Football Playoff and teamed with ESPN to create the ACC Network, which launched in August 2019.
But college sports’ leaders have never encountered more challenges.
The logistical and economic ripples from the COVID-19 pandemic will endure for years as Power Five athletic departments confront 2020-21 revenue shortfalls of $30 million-$100 million. Legal challenges to the enterprise’s amateurism model have peaked with NIL legislation percolating at the NCAA, state and federal levels.
At Northwestern, Phillips was accustomed to the Big Ten’s annual revenue distributions of more than $50 million to each school, the highest in intercollegiate athletics. With its new ESPN contract unveiled last week, the Southeastern Conference soon will join that stratosphere, leaving the ACC’s current annual distributions of approximately $29 million far behind.
The ACC’s rights deal with ESPN does not expire until 2036, making creation of new revenue a foremost and challenging task. Given Phillips’ connection to Notre Dame, and how the Fighting Irish have prospered as an ACC football member for this pandemic season only, many will wonder if Phillips can persuade the school to forgo its treasured football independence for the long term.
Nothing would enhance the ACC’s television value more than Notre Dame football’s full-time presence. But Irish athletics director Jack Swarbrick insisted last week that the national scheduling afforded by independence is essential.
“The reasons that we value independence and it continues to be a priority for us aren’t impacted by the positive experience of being in the ACC fully this year,” Swarbrick said during a news conference.
Phillips, who emerged from the ACC search after Clemson president Jim Clements withdrew, ranks eighth among the 65 Power Five athletics directors in tenure, just ahead of White and Swarbrick. He earned a master’s in education from Arizona State and doctorate from Tennessee in educational administration, and in 2018 was named the Sports Business Journal’s athletic director of the year.
Saturday at noon, Northwestern and Ohio State are scheduled to kick off in the Big Ten football championship game. Four hours later, Notre Dame and Clemson are set to clash in the most-anticipated ACC football title matchup ever.
The day will be a testament to what Jim Phillips helped to build at Northwestern and what he inherits at the ACC from John Swofford.