Notre Dame to ACC? Jim Phillips Could be the Guy to Make it Happen



We’re not saying Notre Dame football will join the ACC on a permanent basis, but if it’s going to happen, then 2021 is the year that the ball could get rolling. Will we ever see Fighting Irish football in a conference? Well, this is the time that the stars are aligning to potentially make that possible.

Jim Phillips completes his stint as Northwestern Athletic Director next year, and he’ll replace the retiring John Swofford as the new Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner. If anybody can get it done, it’s a wheeler-dealer like Phillips. If you saw first hand some of what he’s accomplished at NU, then you can see why he could be the key figure/difference maker in getting the deal done.


ND already competes in the ACC for every sport except football, and the conference has been in partnership with the football program for some time. The Irish have played a schedule filled with ACC opponents, and been a part of the league’s bowl alliances, for several years already.

So if there is one league that Notre Dame would join, it would be the ACC, and the ACC only.

Phillips has been described by some that know him as a “gladhandler,” a “social climber” or a “politician” who is overly adept at “working the room.”

While those words and phrases may be seen as pejoratives to some, to others they are taken as complements. No matter how you look at it, ambition is a positive attribute, and making the rounds and greasing the wheel is just how things get done- especially so in big money college athletics.

northwestern chicago's big ten team

One of the reasons Northwestern football had their bowl game losing streak prolonged was because they kept getting placed into better bowls than they really deserved at the time and hence were matched against tougher opponents.

They were able to annually jump the hierarchy in the bowl pecking order, due to Phillips.

He worked all the angles to get NU to the better bowl destinations.

northwestern football wrigley field

Phillips, a neighbor of Chicago Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts, also formed/strengthened the working relationship between NU athletics and the Cubs.

He got the wheels in motion for having his athletic programs stage contests within the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field, a huge boost for marketing and promotions. Jim Phillips will bring this creativity and innovation to his new gig.

His move to the ACC is a huge boost for the conference and a tremendous loss to Northwestern.

The ACC’s gain is also a loss to the Big Ten, who whiffed badly when they passed up Phillips for Kevin Warren.


Phillips was considered a strong contender to succeed Jim Delaney as Big Ten Commissioner, but the league decided to go in a different direction, and early on, they have paid for that mistake.

Warren’s tenure is obviously still in its early stages, the first returns have been overwhelmingly negative. If there’s one thing you can get fans of a given Big Ten school to agree upon with the fans of their rivals, right now, it’s a disbelief in Warren.

He came off as weak when the Big Ten football season was at first nixed, only to then be brought back later. He looked even worse when the rules for Big Ten title game entry were changed, so that the league’s cash cow and bellwether program, Ohio State, could get in.

What’s perhaps even worse is that when the rules, made up on the fly to begin with, were changed in order to benefit OSU, no one was surprised.

It’s clear that the only real reason the Big Ten bothered to stage a season at all in 2020 was so that they could get a team (i.e. Ohio State) into the College Football Playoff. Phillips coming to the ACC is one reason why Notre Dame joining the league could actually happen, but there are several other key factors in play here as well.

Notre Dame just played a season in the ACC, and it worked out well, perfectly, for all involved. The ACC got both of the participants of its championship game, ND and Clemson, into the playoff.

NBC had the best ratings for Fighting Irish football than they’ve had in a decade and a half. And the top of the college football food chain is in dire need of a shakeup. Even ESPN, who are totally in bed with the CFP, are writing and then featuring front and center, an article pointing out the staleness and predictability of the college football final four.

When that happens, you know it’s gotten tedious. And it’s true, while Ohio State rules the roost in the Big Ten, the same could be said for Clemson in the ACC, Oklahoma in the Big 12, and Alabama in the SEC. College football is seeing their power five conferences mimic the top professional soccer leagues in Italy, France and Germany- the same team wins pretty much every year.

(Or Spain, where it’s one of just two teams who win it every year).

The timing is right to shake things up. However, there are no indications out of South Bend, at this time, things will change.

Quoting an ESPN article that ponders the idea of Notre Dame joining a conference:

While Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick has repeatedly batted down any suggestion the Irish are leaving their independence behind anytime soon — including saying last week, “the reasons that we value independence and [why] it continues to be a priority for us aren’t impacted by the positive experience of being in the ACC fully this year”

And that brings us to another reason why this could happen soon, Swarbrick and his leadership. Like Phillips, he is a highly accomplished visionary, who gets things done.

Just last week the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame awarded Swarbrick the NFF John L. Toner Award.

The plaudit is for excellence as an Athletic Director. Jon Miller, a NBC Sports Executive who’s been involved with the Notre Dame relationship since day one, sings the praises of Swarbrick, especially so for his getting Campus Crossroads project completed.

“All the credit goes to Jack Swarbrick,” Miller told The Sports Bank by telephone on Wednesday.

“He had the vision of creating an athletic and academic facility that you could combine into one, you’ve been there so you have seen what an undertaking it was, and how great it has worked out- he was really a visionary when it came to that.”

NBC pays Notre Dame $15 million annually to broadcast all their home games, with the ESPN/ABC family handling all their road contests.

If ND is to move from friends-with-benefits to fully committed monogamous relationship with the ACC, the television broadcast deal will be the biggest piece of business that needs to get done, and it will be have to be ironed out first.

Miller doesn’t see this season as changing anything regarding Fighting Irish football remaining independent versus joining a league.

“Notre Dame values their independence, we value their independence,” he said. “This was a lightning in a bottle kind of thing.”

“Since Dick Rosenthal who was the Athletic Director at Notre Dame first brought us the concept back in 1990, I know I’m dating myself, it’s been a remarkable partnership. They are a unique group of people who really are first class all the way, from the leaders of the university to the athletic department, you name it.”

Of course, what this year has taught us, more than anything is how all of life is a “very fluid situation” and that almost everything we pay attention to is “subject to change.” Miller provided fantastic historical context of the ND-NBC deal, and what the college football landscape was like back then, 30 years ago.

“When we did the deal, very rarely did schools have all their games televised,” Miller continued.

“That’s the reason Notre Dame pulled out of the CFA, because they were being told by the leaders of the College Football Alliance that they could only have two national television games (per season) and Dick Ebersol said, we’re Portland to Portland, we have fans from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine.

“And we recruit across the country, so we’re looking for national exposure, and if we buy into this CFA that is going to greatly impact our ability to accomplish the goals that we have.”

notre dame stadium

So if you know where the sport is coming from, you can see where it is going, and Notre Dame, in their contract with NBC, were very far ahead of their time. Perhaps their proverbial app is now due for an update.

“The difference is in 2020, every college football game is on television someplace, from the power five, even down to some of the smaller conferences, all of those games are televised too,” Miller continued.

“The uniqueness of having your game televised is not as great as it was.”

When you consider all these factors together, along with the organizations and the visionaries in leadership positions involved, maybe now is when Notre Dame football in a conference finally happens.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank, partnered with News NowBanks, the author of  “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” has regularly appeared in WGNSports IllustratedChicago Tribune and SB NationFollow him on Twitter and Instagram.


  1. Or not. Not one fact that was presented that showed that ND has any interest in this idea at all.

Speak Your Mind