Big Ten conference bigger player in national football power structure

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There were a lot of topics on the table of discussion in last week’s Big 10 meetings. First and foremost, is the rapid move towards a four team playoff in college football, which could get here in a couple years. I asked Northwestern Athletic Director Jim Phillips what his biggest takeaways were from the meetings.

“Couple things – tremendous collaboration between all 12 institutions in trying to get to the “right place” in current landscape and our complete confidence and trust in Commissioner Delany,” he said.

No doubt about it, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany (the second highest paid commissioner, behind only the Pac-12’s Larry Scott) is one of the most powerful men in college football. He’s a big reason we’re getting close to having a true playoff, as his getting on board with the hybrid bowl/playoff idea will be critical to having a final four.

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Former Rush, Wolves President coming to Northwestern

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Northwestern University Director of Athletics and Recreation Jim Phillips announced today that Mike Polisky, most recently the team president of the Chicago Wolves and formerly president and general manager of the Chicago Rush Arena Football organization, has been named Northwestern’s senior associate athletic director for external affairs. He begins his duties with the Wildcats on Monday, June 14.

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Northwestern Jumps Wisconsin in Bowl Hierarchy

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By Paul M. Banks

You could certainly call this year’s bowl destination for Northwestern a step up from last season’s, and you can say that the selection process gave NU more respect this year than they did last year. In ’08 a 8-4 Iowa team jumped a 9-3 NU squad (which beat Iowa) for the Outback Bowl slot. Unless there’s a two game gap between teams in the standings (head-to-head is not a tie-breaker), the bowl has the right to select whichever team they want. And NU’s poor home attendance was cited as one of the main reasons for the snub.

Northwestern instead went into the Alamo Bowl as the biggest underdogs of the bowl season and lost to Missouri in OT due to a missed extra point. Purple Pride showed it could travel well, and now…DSC03028

An 8-4 NU team managed to jump the 9-3 Wisconsin Badgers. (Although it’s meaningless to the bowls, NU did again win the head-to-head here) Still the Badgers are a bigger national brand and have been a power for most of the last couple decades. But Bucky’s dominion had a couple things going against them. Being to so many Florida bowl games lately, the bowl committee worried their fans wouldn’t travel for this game. And a game out in Hawaii yesterday only heightened those fears.

Of course, when you consider the concept of “bowl-weariness” being a factor in the selection process, it reminds me you that most of these games are truly glorified exhibitions, as long as we don’t have a playoff system. Seriously “bowl-weary” isn’t that the best endorsement for a playoff system? well, that’s another topic for another time.

Back to today, where you can say that Dr. Jim Phillips just out-worked Wisconsin’s Athletic Director Barry Alvarez for it.

Northwestern blog Lake the Posts agrees with me:

“A win on New Year’s Day over an SEC team is about as much of a dream scenario as we could expect when you consider where we were on November 1 of this year. Congratulations to Jim Phillips who must have put on some convincing lobbying presentations for NU to get the nod over 9-3 Wisconsin who throttled Hawaii last night.”

And regarding Phillips’ lobbying, our friends at Spread Far the Fame describe that in detail.

“I give all the credit in the world to NU Athletic Director Dr. Jim Phillips. Bowls are VERY political, and he did an incredible job convincing the Outback Bowl that NU was the right team for them. I’ve spoken to Dr. Phillips a few times since the Outback snubbed NU last year. He told me that he actually met with their representatives soon after the bowl season ended last year and discussed with them why they chose Iowa over NU.

Then the campaign continued every single month. He would host bowl reps. at his house nearly every Friday night, and in the end all his work paid-off BIG TIME for the program.

Obviously, all his campaigning would have been for naught if the football team hadn’t stepped up and played their best football of the year in November. Pat Fitzgerald’s ‘Cats were able to win their final three games, including an upset of a top 5 team in Iowa, and a victory over the Badgers as well.”

Tonight at the bowl game press conference, I asked Dr. Phillips about how much of the selection process is about money and business, instead of football, or how much is about football and business at the same time.

“One affects the other and as we all know well, the economy is a factor as we try to live through it. And as a program there’s great excitement over the destination and the opportunity. But the economics are important, and it’s going to be important for us to travel well and demonstrate like we have in years past that we are eager to come back to the Alamo Bowl, and we are eager to come back to Florida for the first time in 13 years.

The one thing I will say from my two experiences here, the Big Ten conference does it as well as anyone in the country, there are no back room negotiations financially that we’ll commit to another two thousand, three thousand tickets, you take what the bowl asks you to take that’s agreed upon when the contracts are put together. And so there really is a clean slate relative as to who’s the best team to take, and who would be the most excited or whatever the bowl criteria is, you’ll have to ask them, but I think that helps all the schools in the Big Ten, especially during an economy like what we have right now,” he responded.


Does Northwestern Leapfrog Wisconsin in Bowl Picture?

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By Paul M. Banks and Jake McCormick

(PMB) Well Jake, I guess we both we wrong in our predictions for this game. The team I cover ended up besting the team on your beat in in one of the most exciting Big Ten games of the 2009 season.

To make all our readers and fans of both team jealous, David Kay and I (I guess you could call this game the TSB bowl) saw quite a lot of cool stuff on the sidelines of the game in the 2nd half. A lot more than just sideline princess Charissa Thompson. Although seeing the Big Ten’s hottest reporter up close is always a treat. We saw NU Athletic Director Dr. Jim Phillips nervously pacing back and forth behind the end zone during the extremely tense final minutes, we heard Pat Fitzgerald screaming at the refs about how they were calling holding penalties, and in the end, we almost got trampled by the students storming the field celebrating with the team around the 50 yard line of Ryan Field.DSC03149

Like I predicted the crowd had more red than a Trotskyite convention, so this was kind of like a neutral site game or quasi-home game for Badger fans. How are the Wisconsin fans dealing with this loss? How do they feel?

(JM) Like they had too much pure grain alcohol and distilled water last night. I’m still fuming at Wisconsin’s inability to grasp the 70-30 passing to rushing split of the Northwestern offense. They simply weren’t ready to play, took Northwestern for granted, and did everything in their power to make it harder to pull out a win. Even when the Wildcats were giving away field position and making their own mistakes we somehow found a way to one up them. I’ll give the Northwestern offensive line some credit for practically neutralizing O’Brien Schofield and JJ Watt, although I think that is made easier with Kafka’s quick release and the lack of under center snaps. Given the lack of a home field advantage and Wisconsin’s higher level of overall depth and talent, this one is really tough to swallow. Fitzgerald is definitely an intense guy. He reminds me of a quasi-successful Todd Haley with all his strained facial expressions, minus the lack of respect for his players.

(PMB) The title of this post is also my next question to you. Your take?

Here’s what Fitz had to say on that subject, very intensely to the media in the post game presser.

“Although you will write other things, our fan base travels OUTSTANDING to bowl games, so make sure you check your facts. If you need any, you see Dr. Jim Phillips. He’ll make sure you have them, and they are crystal clear, when you write about the facts of our bowl attendance tomorrow. So, at the end of the day, I think we are a very attractive group of Wildcats that would go down to any destination that we are honored to have the opportunity to participate in.”

I greatly enjoyed that pre-emptive strike against scribes who say the Purple Hearted fans don’t travel well. But two things: 1.) In the internet age we write our stories today, not tomorrow 2.) It reminded me a bit of Mike Gundy’s infamous GET YOUR FACTS STRAIGHT just not as angry.

(JM) Fitzgerald tends to get a little high and mighty after wins against ranked opponents. I’m sure you remember that comment about how Northwestern has been a better program since 1995 than Notre Dame and Stanford. There’s some truth to that, just like the statement above, but those definitely are embellished bragging points after emotional wins. Northwestern fans probably do travel well, but I would say Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio State fans top the Big Ten in bowl fan support. Then again, the Wildcat fan base is much smaller than those three.

I think Northwestern has made their case for a better bowl placement, but I think at the end of the day Wisconsin will still be playing in January, mostly because of money. I have no problem if it’s the other way around though, because I feel like they took two giants steps back after putting their best foot forward for three straight weeks.

Here’s are some interesting stats that may help explain why things ended the way they did today: In the last 26 games where the margin of victory/defeat is seven points or less, Northwestern has won 24 of those games. Since 2000, Wisconsin is 4-7 in road conference games in November. Both are definitely interesting, and seemingly overlooked, pieces of information.

(PMB) All of NU’s talking points begin with “since 1995…” If you look at the history of the program, you’ll see why. However, in their defense, most people don’t remember much beyond 5-10 years anyway, so it makes sense. I’ve heard that Notre Dame and Michigan won a bunch of national titles 50 years before I was born, but they’ve been mediocre in my lifetime, so I don’t care.

Fitz also said that he thought the Big Ten MVP would come down to either John Clay or Mike Kafka, and that after today he (naturally, as expected vote for Kafka) I myself would vote for neither, and pick Penn State’s Darryl Clark. However, I can see people making cases for all sorts of different players, as this year there is no clear front-runner. Kind of like NL Cy Young was this year. Your pick?

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(JM) I would probably take Clark as well. John Clay would come next for me, but I can’t put him first because of his equally successful ability to lose a game for Wisconsin with his butter fingers. Clay will have some big expectations for this award next year, but he was too inconsistent with his ball handling and play in big games for me to consider him the frontrunner. As for Kafka, his 10/7 TD to INT ratio doesn’t really jump out at me as being impressive. He plays in a pass-first system, and although it’s not completely his fault that the Wildcats usually don’t put up 33 points per game, 10 touchdowns for a player of the year is too low; unless you’re Jesus Tebow, of course.

(PMB) Right, tebow could complete 20% of his passes for the season, and the media would still hand him the Heisman. So where do the Sconnies go from here? How do you think they’ll respond out in Hawaii, and in their bowl game?

As for the Wildcats, and whatever bowl game takes them, I’m predicting their performance will be reflective of their Coach, who also gave us this gem in post.

“Well I assume we’re going to be playing some champion from some other league like we did last year, so 99.9% of the country is going to pick us to lose like they did last year, so I don’t have to motivate our guys a whole lot. Obviously, we’re a couple miles away from the crest of the mountaintop, and that’ll happen whichever bowl opportunity we are privileged to play in. This is a mountaintop that we’ve talked about now for a couple of years, and something we need to get over to eliminate all the naysayers and the negativity towards our program, and obviously to represent the great Big Ten conference the way we want it to be talked about and represented throughout the nation.”

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(JM) I think the Badgers are still destined for the Outback Bowl. They have one of the best traveling fan bases in the nation, are regular New Year’s Day bowlers, and boast the top offense in the Big Ten. Coach Bret Bielema won’t let them take two teams lightly in a row, so I would expect a nice bounce back from Sconnie in the Aloha state. At least the weather will be a nice break from the typical Northern United States chill that apparently kills them in November.

Jim Phillips, CEO of Northwestern’s Athletic Program Part 2

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By Paul M. Banks

For part one, click here.

As Northwestern Athletic Director Jim Phillips aggressively pursues the idea of joining forces with the Chicago Cubs to stage a football game between his Northwestern Wildcats and their rival, the University of Illinois at Wrigley Field, it reminds me of how I once heard Phillips described.  The head coach of NU’s baseball team, Paul Stevens explained Phillips’ influence on the Wildcat athletic community. “He has made a major difference in how he goes about taking care of the teams. I think this event (a NU-Notre Dame baseball game at U.S. Cellular Field) 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.”nupractice1

The plans for Wildcat football at Wrigley Field are still in the beginning stages, but Phillips has already given lots of attention to heightening the Prairie State’s premier rivalry. “We have a new trophy, replacing the tomahawk. It’s a good rivalry, a healthy one that’s only going to get better, and it makes sense given the geography and alumni in the area. Ron Guenther is a tremendous Athletic Director, I have a lot of respect for him, he’s certainly someone I’ve watched from a far as I was working my way up the ranks of college athletics, and he feels the same way about the rivalry,” Phillips said.

This year, the two teams will play November 14th for the Land of Lincoln trophy. Phillips has history both sides of the rivalry, he’s a University of Illinois graduate, and he also grew up on the Northwest side of the city in the Portage Park neighborhood. The first college football games he went to were at Northwestern, and he grew up a Northwestern fan. At NU, many of the teams under his watch have had success. It all starts with Women’s Lacrosse who continued their dominance of this decade finishing a perfect 2009 with their fifth straight NCAA Lacrosse Championship. There’s also softball (Big Ten regular season and tournament champions) and men’s basketball is improving (first NIT appearance in 10 years, win over a top ten ranked team in 15 and finished one win shy of the school record).
But Football is the most beloved and most important. Its once-a-week seriousness treats every game as if we are going off to war.

“I think you’re right, and the numbers show it all across the country, the point of view here, I can’t speak for other anywhere else, but it’s the engine that drives us. We have 18 other sports that benefit from the residual of football- from a financial standpoint, from a spirit and fan support standpoint, from a media coverage standpoint, I just think that football has a different place.

I think the stadiums reflect that, you don’t see basketball arenas being built to serve 60,000 people but you see that in football because there’s a demand for it. Look at what they Michigan, Ohio State did with their stadiums, and that would be our hopes here. That’s what you have to strive for: to get to that point where you need the extra seating,” Phillips said. jim_phillips_-_nu_athletic_director1

I also asked him his thoughts on my theory that although baseball is the alleged “national pastime,” but football is actually our true national game and it’s the sport which is actually most indicative of our culture.

“Your point is a really good one, there seems to be a connection with American society and what football represents in our country. No diminishing baseball, it’s a great sport, but I think they’re obviously 2 different entities,” he said.

Jim Phillips, CEO of Northwestern’s Athletic Program Part 1

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By Paul M. Banks

In 2008-09, Chicagoans became well aware of how Chicago Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz, along with team Vice President John McDonough re-branded the Blackhawks from red-headed stepchild to main event on the Second City’s sports stage. Forbes named them the biggest turnaround in sports business history. When you’re a university Athletic Director, you have responsibilities which often come quite close to matching those of a professional franchise owner.  Northwestern’s A.D. Jim Phillips is looking to be the next executive to accomplish such a feat.
“John McDonough is a close friend, I spend a lot of time with him, as well as executives from some of the other pro teams because they know the market,” Phillips said when I visited his office for an extensive interview earlier this year. Phillips went to Wrigley Field for the 2009 NHL Winter Classic, as well as several other Hawks homes games, taking in the buzz surrounding the team. “I wanted to see what they were doing to revitalize the program, and John is the architect of all that.” daleyhawksjeryse1

Phillips articulated what fundamental principles he noticed working effectively, and how he’s implementing them at Northwestern University.

“One is the fan experience; people want to be entertained, as this economy has affected everybody. I can’t control the product on the field, the wins and losses, but I can hopefully control something with the experience. Getting good tickets and finding a place to park can’t be a hassle. We can’t have a hassle at the concession stands. There has to be lots of family friendly things to do before the game, as part of a broader vision of fan experience.

“Second is target-marketing. Surely, it’s a target audience that will make a difference for us, studies have shown. Pricing is also a critical component, we held the line, and in several instances we even decreased even though other teams in the Big Ten increased their prices. Also, certainly the internet has really taken the head over the direct mail. But there’s still a huge area for that contact. When somebody from our office calls you to thank you for being a season ticket holder and asks you, was it a great experience? Did you enjoy yourself? Was it affordable, something you want to again?”

Like Rocky Wirtz, Phillips is a man of the people: greeting everybody in his path, getting involved in the community, talking in-depth with fans and media alike. He gets to know the journalists covering his team, as Phillips knows increasing awareness for his program is an essential component of his innovative marketing style.

“You certainly got to allow people to have access to your team, that’s what we’ve done with Stretch with the Cats before the spring game, autograph sessions, etc. to break down the barriers that may be real or imaginary within teams or organizations. Hopefully, we can build on the successes of the program and further that. Certainly, the last 15 years we’re third in conference in Big Ten championships behind only the Big 2, but we haven’t had a litany of success over say the past 50 years, especially in the ‘70s there were some rough times,” Phillips articulated.  northwestern

Despite the program posting a very respectable 6 bowl appearances in the past 14 seasons, they may still be haunted by the ghosts of the ‘70s and ‘80s. The Wildcats failed to record a winning season from 1972-1994, including an especially putrid period in 1976-1981, when the Wildcats went 3-62-1. But encountering and conquering challenges is nothing new to Phillips.  When he served as Northern Illinois University Athletic Director, he and former Iowa AD 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.

“When I signed the lease agreement at Soldier Field, my hand literally shook because of what they wanted to rent the facility and I thought: how many tickets do I have to sell in order for this thing to break even? And we did a lot more than break even, but that’s just part of being aggressive through marketing and promotions.”