Northwestern’s athletic director on being in the eye of an NCAA storm

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Northwestern Athletic Director Jim Phillips, right, congratulates former NU kicker Jeff Budzien after a game in 2013. - Northwestern Athletics/Stephen J. Carrera

Northwestern Athletics/Stephen J. CarreraNorthwestern Athletic Director Jim Phillips, right, congratulates former NU kicker Jeff Budzien after a game in 2013.

In the drama that is the shifting landscape of college sports, Jim Phillips’ role just got bigger.

Northwestern University’s athletic director already was playing a large part in a wide-ranging assault on the NCAA, given his football team’s petition to form a labor union. Now Phillips’ new job running a key NCAA legislative body puts him squarely in the spotlight.

The head of NU athletics, in his seventh year at the Evanston university, this month began serving a two-year term as chairman of the NCAA’s new Division I Council, a group of 40 leaders in college sports—mainly athletic directors—designed to be the vehicle through which new NCAA rules about everything from recruiting and transfers to player safety protocol will be evaluated.

The panel is a new iteration of the NCAA’s combined leadership and legislative councils—bodies infamous for the sluggish pace with which they and their subcommittees considered key student-athlete welfare changes at 345 Division I schools—and aims to fast-track important pieces of NCAA legislation for which schools and conferences push.

That makes Phillips the shepherd of college sports’ new policy-making body at a time when the NCAA’s long-standing foundation of amateurism is being dealt crushing blows. He will represent the council on the NCAA’s Division I board of directors, the 24-member group composed mainly of university presidents that ultimately enacts new NCAA rules.


“What’s frustrated folks is how long it’s taken for rules and adoptions to take place that people think are really sensible. They just get bogged down in the system,” Phillips said in an interview with Crain’s. “The request from the board is to have a more nimble, strategic and very much less bureaucratic structure that allows rules to be handled quickly and efficiently.”

Leading the group, which is slated to meet every other month to discuss potential NCAA rule changes, will mean building a consensus among members about things like how NCAA legislation is enacted, championships and student-athlete rights, and coming up with recommendations to the board of directors.

Complicating that: balancing a lot of different viewpoints from schools of various sizes and conferences.

“He’s the ring-leader,” said University of Akron Athletic Director Tom Wistrcill, who also serves on the NCAA-appointed council.

But if any athletic director is well-suited to toe the line for the NCAA as it strives to evolve and repair its public image, it’s Phillips, council reps say.

Wistrcill is one of many council members who thought Phillips fit the bill for the chairman role because of his leadership track record in Evanston, at Northern Illinois for four years during the last decade and at Notre Dame before that, as well as a natural ability to make disparate voices feel heard.

“He understands the big-picture things happening within Division I,” he said. “And he can speak very concisely about what the issues are facing (athletic directors), but also represent that in a way that the (NCAA board of directors) will respond to, as well.”

Other athletic directors who didn’t know Phillips personally prior to serving on the council say he earned the role in part by his public handling of the Northwestern football unionization movement. The school is appealing a landmark decision made by the Chicago regional director of the National Labor Relations Board that said its football players are employees of the university with the right to form a union. Phillips has balanced his staunch opposition to unionizing while trying to not alienate his players.

“He has handled that as well as anyone could,” said University of Richmond Athletic Director and council member Keith Gill. “What’s shaped my thinking about him is what is in the public discourse and how impressed I’ve been by how he’s managed (the situation).”


Phillips has been a key player in the changing NCAA landscape since former NU quarterback Kain Colter, right, led a push to unionize the Wildcat football team.

Phillips has been a key player in the changing NCAA landscape since former NU quarterback Kain Colter, right, led a push to unionize the Wildcat football team.

Phillips leads the council amid upheaval in college sports that includes NU’s union movement; a lawsuit arguing that athletic scholarships violate antitrust law; and a federal judge’s ruling that college football and men’s basketball players could receive deferred compensation for use of their names, images and likenesses. The NCAA last year also gave the 65 schools in the “big 5” conferences (Big Ten, SEC, Big 12, ACC and Pac-12)the ability to revise certain NCAA rules since their circumstances largely are different from those of smaller schools.

The unrest already has produced big changes, including those autonomous conferencesapproving larger stipends to cover student-athletes’ full cost of attendance and the NCAAremoving the limit on athletes’ meals and snacks they can have related to athletic participation.

But heavier issues lie ahead, regarding things like athletes’ long-term medical coverage, with Phillips primed for criticism as the face of the body created by the NCAA itself.

“We’ve gotten some criticism, and rightly so, for some of the missteps we’ve taken or some of the bureaucratic things that have occurred (regarding NCAA rules), and we’ve got to cut through those things,” he said. “Ultimately the question is, ‘What do we want college athletics to be?’ ”

Council agendas will be full of controversial topics tied to that very question. One was raised this week by the Big Ten Conference at a meeting about whether freshmen should be required to face a year of ineligibility to acclimate to student life.

Other issues on the docket, said Phillips, may address academic reform, season lengths and a bevy of questions brought to the forefront by former NU quarterback Kain Colter and the College Athletes Players Association in their push to unionize.


Phillips said the union movement “has helped continue to shape me and develop me as an administrator,” even if it hasn’t weakened his opposition to collectively bargaining with athletes.

“I stand by what I said. I love our kids, we absolutely encourage and promote independent thinking and encourage them to be leaders on campus,” Phillips said. “But I don’t believe in the employer-employee relationship (for student-athletes). There’s no piece of me that believes that’s the proper relationship.”

Identifying what issues to tackle first will be a challenge for Phillips, with pending legal developments poised to cause big waves for the council to negotiate.

“How are we going to operate in an environment that is more and more dictated by legal and court rulings than it ever has been in the past?” said Valparaiso University Athletic Director Mark LaBarbera, who is in his 11th season running the school’s program and also serves on the council. “That’s where you’re going to see a lot of energy go.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Phillips, a 49-year-old father of five, will be balancing his new role with his position as president of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics—the professional association for college sports administrators—and his day job running NU sports.

“Sleep is overrated,” said Phillips of his commitments. “It’s amazing what you can get done while everyone else is sleeping.”