Football: Athletic Director Jim Phillips talks Friday night games, bowl games, safety of football

Jim Phillips ponders. The athletic director discussed various aspects of college football with The Daily.

Daily file photo by Brian Lee

Jim Phillips ponders. The athletic director discussed various aspects of college football with The Daily.

Daily Sports Staff


Earlier this week, members of the Daily’s sports desk sat down with vice president for athletics and recreation Jim Phillips. He touched on a number of topics, including the Northwestern football team. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.

The Daily: Do you like the new Friday night Big Ten games, and do you think they’re good for Northwestern?

Phillips: Yeah, I do. We’re just a landscape that has changed. You see the Big 12 plays on Thursdays; the Pac-12 plays during the week. I think we strategically waited to see what others had done, tried to learn a little bit, and I think it’s a slight modification. We have to see how it goes. We have to see about player health and safety and some of those things. We certainly take academics seriously here — we’ve got to see what the implications are of leaving to go out to Maryland on Thursday and missing class on potentially Thursday and Friday. So it’ll be a little bit of a test pilot.

The Daily: Northwestern was the only school to get two Friday games. Was that random or did the program push for that?

Phillips: It’s random, but a little bit of good fortune as well. That’s going to be a Friday night where there’s one Big Ten game on, and we’re going to get a chance to play on the road once and have a chance to showcase it here on campus. And there are lots of things I want to see. For home, I want to see what happens with our students. Is that something our students like on a Friday night after a long week of school? Maybe that’s a great time instead of knocking on their rooms at nine o’clock in the morning on Saturdays and saying, “Come on, get up,” and they’re like, “Oh my gosh, I’m exhausted. I don’t know if I want to necessarily get up.”

The Daily: If the Friday night games become successful, will there be plans to add permanent stadium lights at Ryan Field, and if so, what is the timetable?

Phillips: Yes. The expectation of the Big Ten is for us to have lights in each of the facilities. I assume we’ll treat the first year as we’ve treated previous years where we’ll just bring them. But ultimately, we have to find a permanent solution to that, and it just would make sense for us to invest in permanent lights. We would have to work with the city and some of the community folks, et cetera, but long-term we’d like to get to a permanent light situation. I think next year we would go with temporary lights, but hope by maybe 2018, 2019. I don’t really want to pin it down. I still don’t know what that would entail to work through campus and facilities, so there’s some moving parts to all of it. The goal is to eventually have some kind of permanent lights.

The Daily: Across college football, there has been a proliferation of bowl games. Just last year, we saw three 5-7 teams qualify for bowls. How do you feel about the number of bowl games, and do you think 5-7 teams should be playing?

Phillips: So that’s part of my ultimate responsibility as chair of the NCAA Council; we’ve talked about that. We put a ban and moratorium on any new, additional bowl games. We want to see one more year to see what that cycle looks like. I’m not sure I know where the end result will be. Any time you can give a group of student-athletes at a university a chance to go and celebrate and be together for a bowl game that’s a great thing. Bowl season play is terrific. But do we have an over-saturation? Should we reduce the amount? Should 6-6 be the criteria, or should it be a winning season, 7-5? Those are things we’re still debating and talking about and we’ll see where that goes.

The Daily: So much has been made about the safety of football in recent years, and you see injuries like Matthew Harris’. From a Northwestern, or even college football standpoint, do you think that the game is going to be changed at all to better prevent those types of injuries?

Phillips: I do, and I think it’s already taking place. I’m proud that we were the first college program to have an independent concussion spotter up in the press box that has communications to the sideline and that can yank someone. Also, for return to play, we were one of the first, if not the first. It was really patterned off to the NFL. We did that several years ago. I think the rules have changed for the betterment, the kickoffs, some of the targeting rules, some of the tackling rules, leading with your head and those things, I think they’ve all made the game safer. My hope is that it continues to be a safer game. I’m really proud of Matthew.

I’ll share a private story with you: I’ve been close with Matthew. One of the things I think my responsibility is, is when we get a kid sent to the hospital, I go with them. I went with Matthew at Penn State when he left the game, I did it with Brett (Walsh) a few weeks ago when we were in Iowa, when he was carted off. But I had Matthew in my office less than two weeks ago, probably last week, the days run into each other. And I wanted him to know how proud I was of him for walking away from the sport of football, a sport that he loves, a sport where he had aspirations to play on Sundays in the NFL, that he was making the right decision. He’s a wonderful young person. He’s bright, he’s got a very bright future ahead of him, and I could only imagine what he went through to get himself to that position. Those kinds of decisions are the right decisions. You don’t need to suffer another head injury after you’ve had a few already when you have a beautiful future ahead of you. But it’s tough, it’s tough. And you also sometimes feel outside pressures, and I’m not saying this about Matthew but just in general, whether they be family pressures, coaching pressures, other pressures of “Hey you gotta get back out there, we gotta win this game.” That’s not what it’s about. It’s really the health, welfare and safety of overseeing young people, and I think that’s what was done very correctly with Matthew. And he won’t be the last. He’s not the first and he won’t be the last, we’ll have to continue with that. We also look at a sport like soccer. Women’s soccer had more concussions last year than football did, we see with the new data. So you’ve got to take the same kind of care with them as you do with football or any of your other programs.