These days, anyone who follows Chicago sports is well aware of how Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz, with the help of Vice President John McDonough, re-branded the Blackhawks from obscure afterthought into main event of the Second City. Northwestern Athletic Director Jim Phillips could likely be the next executive to accomplish such a feat. Anyone who had a pulse in Chicago around New Year’s heard all about Wrigley Field’s hosting of the 2009 NHL Winter Classic. And the huge success of that event inspired Northwestern’s AD into thinking about using the legendary ballpark for an event of his own.
Phillips is aggressively pursuing the idea of joining forces with the Cubbie faithful for a football duel between Northwestern and the University of Illinois in 2010 or beyond. The plans for Wildcat football at Wrigley Field are still in the beginning stages, but Phillips has had talks with Chicago Cubs Chairman Crane Kenny regarding the potential game and other future initiatives. He’s also been hanging with out with Brooks Boyer, the White Sox V.P. or marketing and John McDonough, the man who holds the same position with the Blackhawks as well as Bulls brass. When he sees them he picks their brain to get more ideas.
Like Rocky Wirtz, he’s a man of the people: greeting everybody he can, getting involved in the community, talking in depth with fans and media alike. He gets to know the journalists covering his team because basically, the AD is to collegiate sports what the owner is to the professional games.
Using the surrounding area’s valuable sports assets to raise more awareness for collegiate athletics isn’t new to Phillip’s innovative marketing style. When Philips served as Northern Illinois University Athletic Director prior to his arrival at Northwestern, he and former Iowa Director of Athletics Bob Bowlsby arranged a football game between NIU and Iowa at Soldier Field. The September 1st, 2007 match-up was a sell-out; setting a Mid-American Conference attendance record for a home football game at 61,500.
Phillips’ creative use of using The Friendly Confines or Solider Field as alternative playing grounds is just one example of his creative methods for promoting college athletics. Since he burst onto the Wildcat scene in April of last year, Phillips has already organized a meeting between Notre Dame and the Northwestern baseball teams at U.S. Cellular Field. The event was a wonderful surprise for both the Notre Dame and Northwestern coaches, players and most importantly, the fans.
There have been other notable successes under the Phillips regime. The purple and white have a multifariously victorious resume. Women’s lacrosse have continued their dominance of this decade (2008 NCAA Lacrosse Champions for the fourth-consecutive year), softball (Big Ten regular season and tournament champions) and men’s basketball (first NIT appearance in 10 years, win over a top ten team in 15 years and finishing one win shy of the school record).
Wildcat football also benefited from Phillips passion for his position with a trip to the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, Texas following a season in which the team was, like the b-ball squad, one win shy of the school record.
The key to Phillips success hasn’t been just his ability to color outside the lines, but also his relentless campaigning for the end result, coupled with his passion for college athletics and student-athlete development. Perhaps the head coach of Northwestern’s baseball team, Paul Stevens, said it best when he explained the influence Phillips has on the Wildcat athletic community.
“He has made a major difference in how he goes about taking care of the teams,” said Stevens. “I think this event is evident of what this gentleman is talking about when he talks about world class experiences. He does not know the word no. He will go out and try to give you the best opportunity to showcase your program and this was a great venue for that.” Stevens also expressed gratitude over Phillips “pushing the envelope” for the athletic programs at Northwestern. Quite the understatement.