Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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New A.D. promises success

The journey began as a child on Chicago’s Northwest Side, going to football games at Dyche Stadium and following the ups and downs of Northwestern athletics. It continued at Notre Dame and Northern Illinois, where he gained national renown as one of the most passionate, hardworking men in college sports.

Now Jim Phillips has finally come home.

The Wildcats’ new athletic director arrived on campus Monday morning, after a 17-year rise to national prominence and a two-month stretch marred by tragedy, both personal and professional.

“I cannot tell you how excited I am,” Phillips said Sunday, hours before his first day on the job. “I grew up following Northwestern. I’ve always loved NU from afar, and now I’m thrilled to become a part of the Wildcat family.”

The 21st A.D. in NU’s 113-year athletic history, Phillips replaces Mark Murphy, who left after four years to become president and CEO of the Green Bay Packers. Phillips was named A.D. on Feb. 28, replacing interim A.D. Robert Gundlach.

“This is a perfect fit for Jim and for us,” said NU president Henry Bienen. “He’s rooted in the area, and this is big-time athletics with great academics. And I think he’ll be great for us as well.”

The 42-year-old hails from Chicago’s Portage Park neighborhood, eight miles east of O’Hare International Airport. He brings an impressive resume that includes stops at Arizona State, Tennessee, and Notre Dame. And during the last four years, he revolutionized NIU sports as the school’s athletic director.

At NIU, Phillips oversaw construction of the Yordon Academic and Athletic Performance Center, the largest capital athletic project in the school’s history. He also arranged for the football team to play on the state’s biggest stage, Chicago’s Soldier Field, and helped guide the athletic department in the aftermath of the tragic Feb. 14 shooting of several NIU students.

But it was Phillips’ dedication and passion, both to his job and his student-athletes, that made the biggest impression on NU administrators and coaches.

“The passion, the work ethic, just the burning desire he has to make our athletic department great,” said football coach Pat Fitzgerald, who interviewed Phillips as part of the search process. “That’s what impressed me.”


Just four months ago, no one expected Phillips would have an opportunity to lead NU athletics. But then the Packers gave

Murphy the chance to run an NFL team.

The offer surprised everyone, including Bienen, who received the call from Murphy while on vacation.

“Mark said the job was a long shot,” Bienen said. “Then he called me when I was vacationing and said, ‘I hate to spoil your vacation, but I’m gonna take this job.'”

Murphy’s departure left the school scrambling to find a new leader for an athletic department that had, for the most part, flourished under Murphy. Even with the continued mediocre play of the men’s and women’s basketball teams, the overall program was in good shape. Last year, NU football had the highest graduation rate of any major-conference program, and the women’s lacrosse program has won three consecutive national championships, the school’s first in any sport since 1946.

But Bienen said his search focused on someone who could make the Cats even better.

“We need to have a better revenue flow for athletics,” he said bluntly. “And I think one of Jim’s biggest strengths is that he’s an outreach person. I think he’ll be great with marketing.”

Phillips was told he was one of five candidates interviewed by the search committee, and he received the endorsement of the man whose shoes he now fills.

“I got a call from Mark Murphy,” he said, “and he said he thought I would be a really good choice. I was really humbled by Mark and what he said in his phone call to me.”


The nascent A.D. will have his hands full overseeing a program striving to improve in the elite Big Ten conference. For more than a century, the Big Ten’s only private institution has dealt with two major obstacles: a smaller student body and higher academic standards.

Phillips, however, views NU’s academics as a strength rather than a weakness, a carrot that can be used to attract recruits planning a life after athletics.

“There’s an emphasis on academics,” he said. “A lot of people talk about it, but NU does it. It’s in rarefied air. … You can have great academics and great athletics. One does not have to be compromised for the other.”

In Phillips’ eyes, NU has an additional advantage – the city of Chicago. The city boasts four major stadiums, and Phillips has already utilized one of them.

While at NIU, Phillips arranged for the Huskies football team to play its 2007 home opener at Soldier Field. The team sold out the 61,500-seat stadium in less than a week.

Although he did not guarantee a similar game for the Cats, he emphasized the enormous untapped marketing potential of the Windy City.

“If you look at the Big Ten institutions, NU has the X factor: Chicago. Nobody else has a city like Chicago in their backyard. A lot of college fans don’t have an affiliation in the area, and that’s the group we want to target.”

Phillips demurred when asked about specific personnel decisions he would make in his first weeks at NU, saying only that he likes “to fully understand and fully observe an organization before (making) any major decisions.” But he did insist the Cats could one day match their rivals in Ann Arbor and Columbus.

“Why not? Why wouldn’t we strive to be the very best in our conference in everything that we do?” he said. “There are things we have that they don’t have. And we need to take advantage of that.

“If we need to update facilities or do other things, then those are things we need to address. But we need to be competing for championships across the board.”


With a deal in place, NU was set to introduce its new A.D. in mid-February. But the Feb. 14 shootings at NIU left the campus in shock and in need of support from its leaders. The transition to NU took a backseat, as Phillips put all his energy into helping the Huskies’ student body while Bienen delayed the announcement of his hiring.

“My personal decision became unimportant,” Phillips said. “I just wanted to help this campus heal through a really difficult time.”

For the remainder of February, Phillips helped NIU’s athletes while making preparations to leave. He declined to hold a press conference when his hiring was announced because he felt it was inappropriate in the wake of the shootings.

“It just didn’t seem right,” he said.

While he mourned with the campus, Phillips was suddenly confronted by an even more personal tragedy. His father-in-law was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. His health rapidly deteriorated until he passed away on April 5.

Still, Phillips did not waver, maintaining the same passion and work ethic that NU leaders had found so inspiring.

“Jim has had a tough couple of months, with the tragedy at NIU and the personal problems with his wife’s father,” Bienen said. “And yet, he’s stayed focused; he’s trying to get work done.”


Bienen stressed other areas where he thought Phillips would thrive, including improving fan support and signing more lucrative radio contracts, and advertising support. But Phillips’ greatest strength may be his unyielding commitment to the student-athletes.

On Sunday, his last day as the Huskies’ A.D., he attended a baseball doubleheader and then a softball doubleheader, paying tribute to the athletes to whom he had given four years of his life.

“I will leave any meeting, stop any phone call if I have a student-athlete walk into my office who needs to talk to me,” Phillips said.

Phillips repeatedly emphasized that he would give NU’s athletes “a world-class student-athlete experience.” Much of that effort will come i
n face-to-face time with his players.

While at NIU, Phillips had every single student-athlete to his house for dinner with him and his wife, and he said he’s already committed to opening up his home to all the Cats as well.

“With all the student-athletes here, I might need a bigger house,” he joked.

Now that his obligations to NIU are fulfilled, Phillips is trading in the Cardinal and Black for the Purple and White.

“It’s just been a little bit untraditional,” Phillips said of the transition process. “But once I get started, it’ll be all about moving into the next stage of NU athletics.”

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
New A.D. promises success