When Northwestern hired Jim Phillips as its athletic director in April 2008, the goal was simple—fix the reputation of Northwestern athletics.
For a school better known for its reputation in the classroom than in athletics, the task was daunting. The football team had been to just six bowl games in its history, the basketball team was the only major-conference school to never reach an NCAA Tournament, and fan support lagged considerably behind the other teams in the Big Ten.
However, just three years later, the Wildcats’ athletic department has seen an incredible improvement. And when the university responded by giving Phillips an extension through 2020, it did more than reward his success or provide stability for the program; it validated its commitment to athletics.
Phillips’ main goal when he arrived in Evanston was to bring fans back to Ryan Field and Welsh-Ryan Arena and to create a home-field/home-court advantage that had been lacking at either venue for quite some time.
Trying to create a fan base in Chicago is difficult, especially with such popular, established professional teams to compete against. Northwestern has a relatively small alumni base as well, especially in Chicago, as many graduates leave the area one they complete their degree.
But Phillips is a marketing genius. And as a Chicagoan, he knew how to drum up support from the city.
That started when Phillips hired Chicago Wolves general manager Mike Polisky to head up a marketing department for athletics. That’s where the “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” campaign was built.
Phillips negotiated a deal to play Illinois at Wrigley Field, a game that received an enormous amount of attention nationwide and brought in the popular ESPN show College Gameday.
Just this week Phillips announced that Welsh-Ryan Arena would be getting a new court and he is asking fans to vote from four options, one of which is a purple-stained court.
The marketing prowess has paid off for the Wildcats, as the exposure has turned into increased revenue and increased fan support. Between 2009 and 2010, Northwestern went from averaging 24,190 fans per game to 36,449 fans per game, the second-largest attendance jump in college football.
Thanks to increased on-field success, a Heisman Trophy-candidate quarterback, and one of the best young coaches in college football, attendance will likely continue to rise.
In addition to his marketing prowess, Phillips has Northwestern on its most successful three-year run in school history.
His marketing successes have indirectly had a positive impact on recruiting and his work with head football coach Pat Fitzgerald—who recently signed a deal through 2020, as well—has turned the Wildcats into a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten.
“Jim and I are very close, not only professionally, but also personally,” Fitzgerald said. “You look at what we’ve done as an athletic department as a whole; the national championships (in women’s lacrosse), us being in three straight bowl games, I could keep going on and on.”
Fitzgerald has aided Phillips in bringing fans back to Ryan Field. The charismatic 36-year-old was a star for the Wildcats during their 1995 Rose Bowl season and has reached out to fans for their support.
Despite his defensive background, Fitzgerald typically fields exciting offensive teams and has exhibited the same “expect victory” mentality that former coach Gary Barnett implemented during Fitzgerald’s playing days.
Over the last three years, Fitzgerald’s teams have been competitive with some of the top teams in the Big Ten and have enjoyed recent success against Iowa, which is slowly turning into a rivalry that Northwestern so desperately needed.
The success is no fluke.
More and more top recruits are considering Northwestern these days because of the increased success of the program. Fitzgerald has been able to use Phillips’ marketing successes to put together a solid pitch to recruits, such as the opportunities to play for a Big Ten program with a growing fan base, the chance to play in a bowl game nearly every year, and the opportunities unique to the program, such as the Wrigleyville Classic.
Now, Fitzgerald can add stability to his recruiting pitch.
Stability has a major impact on recruiting success and the overall success of a program. With both Phillips and Fitzgerald staying in Evanston until at least 2020, more recruits will consider the school, knowing that the key figures who turned the team into a success will be around for their entire college career.
“He lets us coach, so he doesn’t micromanage us but he’s right there in full support,” Fitzgerald said of Phillips. “That’s kind of our model...I look forward to working with him for a long, long time.”
Amazingly, Phillips and Fitzgerald have been able to achieve success in athletics without compromising on academics.
Northwestern is typically regarded as one of the top universities in the country—it ranked No. 12 in the 2011 US News college rankings—and it has upheld its tough admissions standards.
NU also received a graduation success rating of 97, the best in the Big Ten. The football program’s GSR of 95 was also the best in the conference and the basketball program’s GSR of 90 was second best behind Illinois. This coming despite the university’s particularly demanding workload.
"The number one goal of our coaches and staff at Northwestern is to provide a world class experience," Phillips said in a press release following the announcement last November. "It is a source of great pride that we remain a leader among our peers in graduating our student-athletes."
Northwestern is in a unique situation compared to the rest of the Big Ten, and most of the schools around the country for that matter, given its academic requirements, small alumni base, and placement in a professional sports market. And consequently, the job description of the school’s athletic director is different than at many schools nationwide.
Most athletic directors at Big Ten schools just have to sustain a program, giving the head coaches the resources to succeed and watching ticket sales role in.
However, Phillips had to build a program. He built a fan base and capitalized on the success of his teams.
Phillips is changing the reputation of Northwestern athletics, and in inking an extension, the university validated its commitment as well.
Bringing in fans in the Chicago market will always be a challenge and Northwestern will continue to encounter unique challenges that its Big Ten counterparts do not. It’s a never-ending job, and Phillips embraces that challenge.
And despite all of the obstacles, Phillips is turning Northwestern into a respectable athletic program.