Delivering 'a better destination'
Jim Phillips was the youngest of 10 children in a family that didn’t assign seats at the dining room table. He learned at an early age that if he wanted one of the coveted chicken legs for dinner, the young scrapper better not be late.
It was during those days growing up in a middle-class Chicago neighborhood that Phillips, now the athletic director at Northwestern University, developed a knack for problem-solving and perseverance.
“When you’re one of 10 kids, you don’t sit around and wait for things to come to you,” Northwestern President Morton Schapiro said. “Jim’s relentless, just like I’m sure he was growing up.”
Those traits come in pretty handy when you’re the AD at a small, private institution and you’re being measured against the likes of Michigan and Ohio State in the Big Ten.
“We have to outwork people,” said Phillips, who has overseen Northwestern athletics since 2008. “We have the smallest staff in the Big Ten, and we have the smallest budget. But when we line up to play on Saturday afternoon, nobody cares about that.”
Athletic Director, Northwestern University
• AGE: 52
• EDUCATION: Undergraduate, Illinois; master’s, education, Arizona State; Ph.D., educational administration, Tennessee
• FAMILY: Wife, Laura; five children: Luke, Madeline, Meredith, John and James
Manager and student assistant, Illinois
Athletic development officer and assistant basketball coach, Arizona State
Assistant director of athletics for development, Tennessee
Senior associate director of athletics for external affairs, Notre Dame, 2000-04
Athletic director, Northern Illinois, 2004-08
Athletic director, Northwestern, 2008-present
Member, NCAA men’s basketball committee, 2017-present
Chair, NCAA Division I Council, 2015-17
President, NACDA, 2014-15
AD Chair, Big Ten Conference
That workmanlike attitude came from his father, Phillips said. John Phillips, a Navy veteran who settled in Chicago’s Portage Park about 10 miles from Northwestern’s campus, was out the door most mornings before the kids woke up. Without a college degree, the elder Phillips managed to craft a long career as a heating and air contractor at Kroeschell Engineering in Chicago.
“He was a self-made man,” said Phillips, 52. “I saw how hard my dad worked every day and that became my role model.”
So, when Phillips, SportsBusiness Journal’s 2018 AD of the Year, arrived at Northwestern a decade ago, he set the tone for athletics by telling his staff: “We’re a white-collar school with a blue-collar mentality.”
The saying perfectly captured the elite academic experience the school is known for, while also drawing from the working-class mentality that Phillips witnessed for much of his youth.
“This job is more than a good fit for Jim, it’s a calling,” said Mike Polisky, Northwestern’s deputy AD, who joined Phillips’ staff in 2010. “He has this unwavering commitment that tells you he was born to do exactly what he’s doing.”
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Phillips doesn’t remember exactly when he coined the phrase “a better destination,” but anyone in a Northwestern staff meeting or job interview with the AD has probably heard him say it.
As the lovable losers in the Big Ten years ago, the Wildcats had little evidence to prove that they were traveling to a better destination, but Phillips said it one day and repeated it until it became a mantra for the department. Staffers and coaches had just one option: believe it.
“I came from Michigan, and Northwestern back then was known for having the student, but not necessarily the athlete,” said Northwestern field hockey coach Tracey Fuchs, hired by Phillips nine years ago. “Now it’s completely a different set of expectations. Jim sends the message all the time that we can be great students and great athletes.”
It was Phillips’ enthusiasm that most impressed Duke AD Kevin White, who was Phillips’ boss at Notre Dame 15 years ago. During their tenure together at Notre Dame, White built a large house and designed it with hosting players, coaches and donors in mind. Phillips was the lead fundraiser for Irish athletics and he couldn’t wait for the house to be built because of the donor events they’d have there.
“Jimmy was so excited about that house,” White said. “He’d walk through the house almost every day when it was under construction. He could see all of the entertaining and development opportunities. That’s just how excitable he is. He was more excited than we were.”
Vic Cegles, the lead fundraiser for Arizona State in the 1990s and the one credited with discovering Phillips, was the first to suggest that Phillips consider a career in administration. At the time, Phillips was following his dream of being a basketball coach — he made $16,000 a year as an entry-level coach at ASU.
During the Sun Devils’ camp one summer, Cegles was struck by the way Phillips interacted with everyone from the kids to parents to administrators. Cegles believed that Phillips, with his contagious enthusiasm and drive, had a future in fundraising, so he offered the aspiring coach a job in ASU’s administration that forever changed Phillips’ career path.
“Jimmy just has this special way of connecting with people,” said Cegles, now the deputy AD at Connecticut. “He makes people feel like their conversation is the most important one of the day. I thought that would translate well to fundraising.”
The career shift to wearing a suit and tie, however, never compromised Phillips’ enthusiasm. Emily Fletcher, the women’s golf coach at Northwestern, can always tell when Phillips is in the gallery.
“He claps four or five more times after everyone else has stopped clapping,” Fletcher said with a laugh. “That’s just his passion. The girls always know it when he’s out there because of the lingering clap.”
• • • •
Phillips’ transformation of Northwestern athletics started with a message to coaches that athletics should live up to the same lofty standards as the academic side.
“This deal that Northwestern is this really great academic school that wins occasionally … that drove me crazy,” Phillips said. “Why can’t we win?”
“I saw his energy,” Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said, “but I couldn’t have predicted the 360 degrees of success they’ve had. He has fostered a belief that academic reputation can be an advantage.”
Delany wasn’t the only one who noticed. Phillips’ name has been linked to AD vacancies at Michigan, Penn State and Stanford, but none of those blue-chip programs could lure him out of Chicago.
Not only has Northwestern football become a force in the Big Ten, field hockey, tennis, golf, fencing and other Olympic sports have become nationally renowned. The Wildcats finished sixth out of 14 Big Ten schools for overall excellence in the 2017-18 Learfield Directors’ Cup, and their 31st-place showing overall is the highest finish under Phillips.
“I tell people when they come in to interview, ‘Are you ready to put on your sneakers and run next to the athletic director?’ That’s the pace he keeps,” said Janna Blais, a deputy AD in her ninth year at Northwestern. “He’s going to yank this place forward. He’s a builder, he enjoys the process of trying to get to the top. It drives him.”
Never has Phillips’ persistence been more evident than during the construction of the $270 million lakefront facility — the Walter Athletics Center and Ryan Fieldhouse. When the building is fully completed this summer, it will culminate a six-year process that started with a facility master plan to relocate athletics from the perimeter of campus to its center, while raising all of the necessary funds privately.
The project took so long that it became known as “The fake by the lake,” which only served to motivate Phillips even more. For more than a year, Phillips had a sticky note attached to his phone with “Shovel” written on it, as a reminder to keep pushing until a shovel went in the ground. Once construction began, Phillips’ staff framed the note with a photo of the groundbreaking.
Not only will the fieldhouse be one of the finest indoor football facilities in the nation, it’s also symbolic of Phillips’ message to his coaches and staff that there’s “a better destination” for Northwestern.
“There’s a tendency at schools that are great academically to say, ‘Hey, we put new grass in, we’re good for 10 years,’” football coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Or, ‘here’s some new bleachers, we’re good for a decade.’ There’s a complacency that just can’t happen. Jim has been that lightning bolt in the athletic department to make sure that doesn’t happen.”