Big Ten conference bigger player in national football power structure


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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Stanford to Meet Northwestern in 4 game Football Series

Stanford tree

Following last week’s two-game series announcement with Notre Dame, Northwestern University A.D. Jim Phillips announced today a four-game college football series with Stanford. The Wildcats and Cardinal will play their first game in 2019. Yes, that’s how long in advance these things are planned.

Northwestern and Stanford have played six times previously, with the last meeting in 1994, a 41-41 tie with the then-No. 24-ranked Cardinal in Evanston.

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Former Rush, Wolves President coming to Northwestern

northwestern wildcats

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


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.

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


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


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.”

AD Jim Phillips Boosting Northwestern’s profile

By Paul M. Banks and Rikki Greenberg

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.

A Wildcat Experience at The Cell

By Rikki Greenberg

The environment at U.S. Cellular Field was electric and it wasn’t because the White Sox were in town.
This game was all about sporting purple and white or blue and gold while heading to the park to pledge your allegiance to either Northwestern or Notre Dame.

Northwestern senior Tony Vercelli’s two home runs in the 5-1 defeat over Notre Dame was the added bonus to the Wildcat’s big league experience at The Cell last Wednesday night.

The Wildcats (9-23) came out roaring early with a 1-0 lead at the top of the first inning when sophomore third baseman Chris Lashmet hit a double to left field and brought in freshman second baseman Trevor Stevens for a run.

Northwestern hit a dry spell in the fourth inning and continued until the top of the seventh when Vercelli hit a solo home run, his fifth of the season, and extended the lead to 3-0 over the Fighting Irish (20-13).
Vercelli continued his home run hitting streak in the top of the ninth when he scored a two-run homer and dashed any hopes of a Notre Dame comeback with a 5-1 lead.

“If you hit a home run, it’s like a dream come true,” said Vercelli. “But if you hit two, it’s like a fantasy.”
The event was hosted by the White Sox and the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority (ISFA). Northwestern Director of Intercollegiate Athletics and Recreation Jim Phillips was the driving force in making this event a reality for the Wildcats program.

“He [Jim Phillips] does not know the word no,” said Northwestern Head Coach Paul Stevens. “He will go out and try to give you the best opportunity to show case 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 and his ability to provide them with “world class experiences,” such as the most recent occurrence with the Chicago White Sox.

The 2,101 fans in attendance were able to take advantage of open concessions (fresh off the grill polish sausages, hearty hot dogs and cheese fries were just some of the tasty menu options) while taking in a collegiate ball game with a dedicated fan following.
Northwestern fans were not without the trademark Wildcat roar, which blared over the PA system any time a Wildcat player scored a run or made a big hit. RAR RAR RAR!

The enjoyment from an evening spent at U.S. Cellular continued long after the game was over.
All proceeds from the event went to Chicago White Sox charities, such as the Inner City Youth baseball league, the White Sox Amateur City Elite and the RBI program (run through the Chicago Park District).