GREENSBORO, N.C. — The Atlantic Coast Conference announced Monday that James J. Phillips, Ph.D., the Combe Family Vice President for Athletics & Recreation at Northwestern University, will serve as the conference’s next commissioner.
Phillips brings more than three decades of experience in Division I athletics, a track record of tremendous achievement, a vision for the future of intercollegiate athletics, and a passion for helping student-athletes achieve impact and success in competition, in the classroom and in their communities.
Monday’s announcement follows a comprehensive nationwide search facilitated by the conference’s Board of Directors, with support from its athletic directors, senior women administrators, faculty athletic representatives and student-athletes, as well as Turnkey Search, one of sports and entertainment’s premier talent recruitment/executive search firms. Phillips succeeds John Swofford, head of the ACC since 1997, who earlier this year announced he would retire in June 2021 after spending nearly 25 years as ACC commissioner.
“Jim is one of the most talented athletic administrators in the country and uniquely qualified to successfully and seamlessly take over the helm of the ACC,” says ACC Board Chair Kent Syverud (Syracuse University). “Over the course of nearly 13 years, Jim has elevated and cemented Northwestern’s position as an outstanding Power 5 athletics program. Northwestern’s ascension in the world of intercollegiate athletics is a testament to Jim’s vision, leadership and foundational dedication to the success of student-athletes. The ACC is fortunate to have someone of Jim’s caliber and integrity lead the conference at this pivotal moment in intercollegiate athletics.”
Phillips, who assumes the role of ACC Commissioner in February 2021, was named Northwestern’s 21st director of intercollegiate athletics and recreation in April 2008. By 2012, Phillips was elevated by Northwestern President Morton Schapiro to the position of Combe Family Vice President for Athletics & Recreation, a title reflecting the campus-wide responsibilities of the role as well as its voice on the President’s Senior Staff. Phillips, a Chicago native, acknowledges that while his departure from Northwestern is bittersweet, he is grateful to have the opportunity to build on the storied success of the ACC.
“With overwhelming gratitude to ACC Board of Directors chair Kent Syverud, search advisory committee co-chairs Nathan Hatch and Fr. John Jenkins, and the Conference’s 15 member institutions, I accept this humbling invitation to lead the Atlantic Coast Conference,” said Phillips. “Serving Northwestern student-athletes, staff and the greater Wildcats family for the last 13 years has been the privilege of my professional life. The opportunity to watch my children grow up in my hometown, and work alongside leaders like presidents Henry Bienen and Morty Schapiro, as well as board chairs Pat Ryan, Bill Osborn and Lanny Martin, is something I’ll always be profoundly thankful for. My career has been dedicated to the development and betterment of student-athletes, and I am thrilled for this once-in-a-lifetime chance to guide one of the most prestigious and accomplished athletic organizations in the world.”
Phillips has led Northwestern to elite status both on and off the playing fields. In competition, under his leadership, 10 of Northwestern’s athletic programs won conference or national championships, with the football team clinching the Big Ten West Division crown twice in the last three seasons. Nine of Northwestern’s 15 all-time football bowl appearances have occurred with Phillips at the helm, as well as the school’s first appearance in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Over the last five years, Northwestern has invested more than $500 million in new and renovated facilities, supported by record fundraising success.
Academically, Wildcats student-athletes surpassed 200 Academic All-Big Ten honorees each of the last 10 years, including a record 288 honorees in 2019-20. Northwestern scored a 98 percent overall Graduation Success Rate (GSR) in the latest data released by the NCAA, a figure which led all FBS schools for the second consecutive year, and has finished in the Top-4 all 15 years the metric has been released.
Phillips is known as one of the leading voices across the college sports landscape. He was elected as the inaugural chair of the NCAA Division I Council in February 2015 and served as the first-ever sitting athletic director on the NCAA Board of Directors and Board of Governors. In March of 2017, he was appointed to the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Selection Committee, a group he is slated to chair in 2021-22. Phillips also serves as a member of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Oversight Committee, was appointed to the Fiesta Bowl Board of Directors in June of 2018 and currently chairs the Big Ten TV/Media Committee. He twice has served as a member of the Rose Bowl Management Committee, and was honored as the 2018 Sports Business Journal Athletic Director of the Year for his leadership at Northwestern.
Phillips’ commitment to inclusiveness in athletics was recognized in 2019 when he was honored by the NCAA as a Champion of Diversity and Inclusion. The honor recognizes those who work to support underrepresented communities among college athletics administrators. In 2020, Phillips announced the creation of a new senior leadership position, the Senior Associate A.D./Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer, to lead the department’s foundational commitment to a world-class experience for all Northwestern student-athletes. He also established senior staff positions for leaders in community relations, to focus staff and student-athlete service initiatives, and the Kabiller NU For Life professional development program.
Before arriving at Northwestern, Phillips held several leadership positions in major athletics programs, including director of athletics at Northern Illinois University (NIU) from 2004-2008. Prior to NIU, Phillips served as associate director of athletics, then senior associate director of athletics for external affairs at the University of Notre Dame from 2000-2004. Before that, he was assistant athletic director for annual giving and major gifts at the University of Tennessee (1998-2000). Phillips began his career on the coaching side as a basketball team manager and student assistant at the University of Illinois. Phillips went on to serve as a graduate assistant coach and later an assistant basketball coach at Arizona State University before transitioning to athletics administration work in 1997.
Phillips earned a Ph.D. in education administration from the University of Tennessee, a master’s degree in education from Arizona State University and an undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois. He and his wife, Laura, have five children: Luke, Madeline, Meredith, John and James.
The ACC conducted a comprehensive, inclusive nationwide search process facilitated by Turnkey Search, a division of Turnkey Sports & Entertainment. Turnkey spoke with stakeholders across the ACC in developing the job description, and assembled a diverse array of candidates across sports, education, business and government.
—courtesy ACC Communications