NU appoints athletic director

Andrew Simon

For Jim Phillips, February has been a month of heartbreak and joy.

Northwestern officials confirmed Thursday that Phillips, the athletic director at Northern Illinois University, has been hired to direct NU’s athletic department. The two schools announced the move after a delay of about two weeks due to the fatal shootings Feb. 14 at Northern Illinois, where Phillips had served as athletic director since 2004.

While the Chicago-area native and University of Illinois alum considers this the opportunity of a lifetime, he also leaves his position with a heavy heart.

“It’s been really tough,” said Phillips, his voice cracking as he struggled to maintain composure. “This has been a dream opportunity for my wife and I because of what Northwestern stands for, which I think is everything that’s right with college athletics … I’m left with mixed emotions. I am excited, and I’m an enthusiastic person, but this was a horrible tragedy. It breaks your heart.”

Phillips will begin his duties April 14 after he concludes his responsibilities at NIU and with the NCAA women’s basketball tournament selection committee. Until then, Robert Gundlach will continue to serve in an interim capacity, as he has done since Jan. 1.

Gundlach took over for Mark Murphy, who left NU after 4 1/2 years to become president and CEO of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers.

NU President Henry Bienen praised Murphy’s work and said that in the search for Murphy’s replacement, finding someone with strong ties to the area was a key factor.

“I think it was an advantage that he knew Chicago well, had contacts in the media, people like him a lot,” Bienen said. “He knew the institution, knew us. We didn’t have Mark that long a time, because he got a great opportunity … Jim’s got a big family here, and I hope he’ll be rooted here for a long time.”

Phillips said he was happy to get the chance to move to Evanston, which is close to where he grew up and near where his father still lives, in Portage Park.

The NU job also represents a major step in Phillips’ career, as just four years ago he was serving as senior associate director of athletics for external affairs at Notre Dame. He then left for NIU.

During his tenure, Huskies student-athletes excelled academically, achieving the highest cumulative GPA in school history in the fall of 2006.

Phillips also worked to expand Northern Illinois’ athletic profile, helping to get new facilities built and increasing the number of Huskies games carried on radio and television.

“The top priority will be delivering a world-class experience for the student-athlete,” Phillips said. “I think the No. 1 achievement we’ve had (at NIU) is our academic success. We’re not at Northwestern’s level, but I’m proud of the success we’ve had.”

Phillips’ commitment to academics and knack for increasing the athletic program’s visibility helped him get the job, according to Bienen.

“I thought Jim was a very good fit for us,” he said. “The first thing for me is always, ‘Do you understand what Northwestern is all about?’ We want to compete at the highest level while maintaining very high academic standards … He had experience in marketing and external relations, and I think that’s an area where we can really improve what we’re doing.”

Phillips was first contacted about the position soon after it opened up, and he later received a call from Murphy, who told him he thought NU would be a perfect fit.

But Phillips was not the only candidate. According to Bienen, NU interviewed three other candidates and had serious conversations with about 10 people, but the president declined to list any names.

According to a Chicago Tribune article, Rick Sund, a former NU basketball player and general manager of the Dallas Mavericks and Seattle SuperSonics, and Steve Lopes, the senior associate athletic director at Southern California, were among those who spoke to the school.

But in the end, Bienen and NU’s Board of Trustees decided Phillips was the man for the job.

When he finally takes over that job in April, Phillips said he will not rush to make any drastic changes.

“There will be a learning curve, but I think one of the worst things you can do is to act too quickly,” he said. “You’ve got to try to be thoughtful and strategic before you make any decisions.”

Phillips also is not shying away from the challenge of heading the athletic department of the only private school in the Big Ten. In fact, he sees that status as something to be embraced, rather than as a hurdle to clear.

“It’s never going to change,” Phillips said. “So we’ve got to find ways to make it an advantage. Northwestern has the ‘X-factor’ of the Chicagoland area, and no other institution has that kind of area for recruitment, exposure on TV, radio, print media, selling tickets … It’s something to be sold in a way that says, ‘Who wouldn’t want to go to Northwestern? Who wouldn’t want to get the best education in the country?'”

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