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Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips: Why did Penn State want him?

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Penn State is not the first school to reportedly express interest in Northwestern AD Jim Phillips


There was a moment last Saturday when it seemed possible that Jim Phillips, Northwestern’s director of athletics, would leave for Penn State. The Nittany Lions were set to announce their new AD at a news conference, and beat writers were tracking flights from Chicago. Days earlier, the Chicago Tribune reported that Penn State was interested in Phillips. When you started connecting dots, Phillips heading to State College felt like a realistic possibility. Penn State wound up hiring Sandy Barbour, formerly of Cal-Berkeley.

The Phillips-to-Penn State, will-he-won’t-he mini-saga provides a nice jumping-off point for a discussion of Phillips’ background and recent history. How did he get to Northwestern? How much longer will be stay there (Hint: I don’t know)? And why does it feel like a lot of other schools covet him? Let’s go way back. Phillips graduated from Illinois in 1990 and served as a manager and student assistant in the school’s athletic department. He completed a master’s degree in education at Arizona State and a Ph. D. in educational administration at Tennessee.

Phillips served as an assistant AD with the Volunteers, then held multiple positions at Notre Dame, who hired him in 2000. Phillips became Northern Illinois’ AD in 2004. Over his four years there, Phillips struck a four-year rights deal with a major Chicago radio station, scheduled football games against Big Ten teams Iowa, Michigan and Ohio State and was at the forefront of a fundraising campaign for a $14 million athletics facility. He was the driving force behind several other fundraising campaigns and hired Jerry Kill (now at Minnesota) as football coach.

Northwestern hired Phillips in 2008 to replace Mark Murphy, who left to become the president of the Green Bay Packers. During his time at NU, Phillips has negotiated a partnership with the Chicago Cubs that will see the Wildcats play five football games at Wrigley Field; signed Pat Fitzgerald to a contract extension running through 2020 after Michigan expressed strong interest in him; hired former Duke assistant Chris Collins as men’s basketball coach; and helped devise the marketing brand "Chicago’s Big Ten Team."

Other notable things that have happened at NU under Phillips’ watch: the apparel agreement with Under Armour, the Wrigley Field game against Illinois in 2010, the high APR scores and success in non-revenue sports, the surge in football season ticket sales; the new video boards at Welsh-Ryan Arena and Ryan Field. Phillips’ greatest accomplishment might be the fundraising that led to Northwestern’s approving the construction of a $220 million lakefront facility that Fitzgerald said will be a "game-changer" for the football program.

Penn State is not the first school to be register interest in Phillips. Stanford reportedly tried to poach Phillips in 2012, offering nearly double his estimated annual salary at NU ($750,000). Wisconsin and Illinois have also courted him. What has kept Phillips around? Many have pointed to his Chicago roots. Another possibility is that he feels there’s more to accomplish at NU: the basketball team making the NCAAs; seeing the new facility and possible other facilities upgrades, such as to Ryan Field, come to fruition; dealing with the unionization of scholarship football players.

Before Barbour was introduced last Saturday, The Centre Daily Times related some of the qualities Penn State president Eric Barron was seeking in candidates for the school’s then-vacant AD position:

He and his team sought someone who can maintain and enhance the financial standing of the athletics department; play a role in fundraising and marketing of the university generally and athletics specifically; handle litigation-related issues that arise; ensure students are successful in the classroom and on the field; handle compliance issues; lead contract negotiations with coaches; and lead a department that wins with integrity.

It’ easy to see why Penn State reportedly was interested in Phillips. The question is, when other schools show interest – and they will – will Phillips continue to rebuff them?