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Where does Northwestern’s athletic department go after Jim Phillips?

Phillips’ departure to become the ACC commissioner poses a challenge for NU.

Andrew A. Nelles/Chicago Sun-Times via AP/file 2013

Northwestern’s athletic department finds itself at a critical point in the future of Northwestern sports following last week’s news that athletic director Jim Phillips will become the next ACC commissioner. Compiling an impressive search committee for the new AD hire, NU officials hope to continue on the road to national prominence following an excellent football season, promising starts for both basketball teams and continued success of various non-revenue sports.

Phillips leaves Northwestern after 12 years at the helm, and during that time he led initiatives that will serve Northwestern Athletics for years to come. The most impressive of these projects was the lakefront Walter Athletics Center, which cost $270 million and has been referred to as the nicest facility in college sports. He also oversaw the renovation of Welsh-Ryan Arena as well as numerous other facilities on the Evanston campus.

COVID-19 has created both financial and logistical issues that have shaken many strong athletic departments to the core. For example, Stanford, which boasts an endowment of $27 billion, was forced to cut 11 varsity sports while the University of Minnesota, one of NU’s public Big Ten counterparts, voted to cut its men’s indoor track and field, gymnastics and tennis programs following the 2020-21 seasons.

Amidst uncertainty and financial strain both before and during the pandemic, Jim Phillips provided a stable hand with his steady leadership. He has become one of the most respected athletics administrators in the country during his time at Northwestern, which led to him landing the ACC job.

“Northwestern’s ascension in the world of intercollegiate athletics is a testament to Jim’s vision, leadership and foundational dedication to the success of student-athletes,” ACC board chair Kent Syverud of Syracuse said in a statement.

Janna Blais, the deputy director of athletics for administration and policy, will step in as interim vice president for athletics and recreation once Phillips officially leaves in February. She is a talented administrator who has been at Northwestern for over a decade and currently leads five departments within the athletic program, according to Northwestern Now.

Her most immediate concern will be the retention of head football coach Pat Fitzgerald, who is currently under contract at NU until 2026 but has attracted the interest of a plethora of NFL teams following the Wildcats’ miraculous turnaround in 2020. Retaining Fitz would be a major step in setting the tone for the future of Northwestern athletics, as losing him would likely see NU revert back to a middling Big Ten team in the school’s most public-facing sport.

Northwestern has proven it belongs in conversation among its larger Big Ten peers and that quality academics don’t need to be a barrier to big-time athletics. Northwestern is no longer just the small school with smart kids a few miles north of Chicago, and this hype video narrated by Justin Jackson in anticipation of last week’s matchup with Ohio State articulated that sentiment beautifully.

The search committee needs to find a candidate to replace Phillips who recognizes that Northwestern isn’t Michigan, Wisconsin or Ohio State and therefore can’t be treated that way. Northwestern has a unique set of circumstances as the only private university in the country’s premier athletic conference and a new athletic director must recognize those circumstances, be comfortable with them and find ways to use them advantageously. By using a strategy that reflects Northwestern’s fortunate financial and geographical situation, Wildcat sports will consistently compete for championships in the Big Ten and finally receive national respect.