James J. Phillips, Northwestern’s Combe Family Vice President for Athletics & Recreation, will become the next commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), the conference announced Monday. He will assume the role in February 2021.
Phillips came to Evanston in 2008 and has served as the vice president for athletics and recreation since 2012, where he helped Northwestern’s student-athletes achieve tremendous success in competition, in the classroom and in their communities.
“Jim Phillips has been a remarkable leader for the past 13 years, and his legacy includes excellence both in the classroom and on the playing fields,” President Morton Schapiro said. “On behalf of Northwestern, I wish him and his wonderful family all the very best as he begins this exciting new stage of his career. He will be missed professionally and personally by all of us who have had the privilege of working beside him.”
As vice president for athletics and recreation, Phillips oversaw many important initiatives essential to the well-being and success of Northwestern student-athletes. The University had more than 200 student-athletes earn Academic All-Big Ten honors each of the last 10 years, including a record 288 honorees in 2019-20. It had a 98% overall Graduation Success Rate, according to the latest data released by the NCAA, a figure which led all FBS schools for the third consecutive year, and has been a national leader in all 15 years the metric has been released.
"Serving Northwestern student-athletes, staff and the greater Wildcats family for the last 13 years has been the privilege of my professional life,” Phillips said. “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."
Under Phillips’ leadership, 10 of the University’s athletic programs won conference or national championships. The football team has won the Big Ten West Division title twice in the last three seasons, and men’s basketball made its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Additionally, Phillips oversaw a transformational expansion in new and renovated athletic facilities for all 19 varsity programs and more than 500 student-athletes, supported by record fundraising success.
While successfully elevating the profile of Northwestern Athletics, Phillips is also one of the leading voices across the college sports landscape. He was elected inaugural chair of the NCAA Division I Council in February 2015. During a two-and-a-half-year term, he served as the first-ever sitting athletic director on the NCAA Board of Directors and Board of Governors.
In March 2017, he was appointed to the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Selection Committee, Northwestern's first representative in 50 years. In July 2020, the NCAA announced that he will serve as vice chair for the committee during the 2020-21 season before chairing the committee in 2021-22.
A 1990 graduate of the University of Illinois, Phillips started his career as a manager and student assistant in the Illinois athletic department. He earned a master’s degree in education at Arizona State University in 1992 while serving as a graduate assistant coach. He later became a restricted earnings basketball coach during a period in which the Sun Devils reached the postseason in five consecutive seasons. He then transitioned out of coaching and into athletics administration work at ASU in 1997.
Phillips holds a Ph.D. in educational administration from the University of Tennessee, which he completed in the summer of 2007. He served as assistant athletics director with the Volunteers until 2000. Phillips moved to the University of Notre Dame in 2000, where he served as associate director of athletics and senior associate director of athletics for external affairs. Before arriving at Northwestern, Phillips was director of athletics at Northern Illinois University from 2004-2008.