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Mike Polisky named Combe Family Vice President for Athletics and Recreation

Over the past decade, he has led a transformation of Wildcat athletics brand and strategy

Mike Polisky is the new Combe Family Vice President for Athletics and Recreation, Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro announced Monday. Polisky assumes the role effective immediately. A Chicagoland native, Polisky has been the Wildcats’ Deputy Director of Athletics for External Affairs since 2010 and is the 22nd person to lead the department in its 126-year history. 

“After our search committee conducted a thorough nationwide search and identified a number of strong candidates, I appointed Mike Polisky to build on our unprecedented successes and to lead Northwestern Athletics and Recreation into a new era,” Schapiro said. “With his long experience at Northwestern, and his integrity and wisdom, I’m confident we will continue to be a model for excellence on the playing field and in the classroom.”

“Over the last 11 years I’ve had the honor of working for the best and brightest student-athletes in college athletics, alongside the most impressive group of coaches and staff in the industry, at one of the most remarkable institutions of higher education in the world,” Polisky said. “I’m grateful for the trust placed in me by President Schapiro, chair of the Board of Trustees Lanny Martin and the entire Northwestern family. The progress I’ve been part of here has been possible for the same reason the future of Athletics and Recreation is so bright: the people. My family and I are so thankful to be members of the Wildcats community.”

Polisky has been responsible for leading a transformation of the Wildcats’ public-facing brand and strategy, overseeing ticket sales and service, marketing, fan experience, corporate sponsorships, media and public relations, creative services, broadcast operations and community relations, as well as Northwestern’s relationship with its media partners, including longtime radio flagship WGN Radio AM-720.

The search committee included trustees, faculty, a head coach and current and former student-athletes who provided feedback on the critical attributes and experience necessary for success in the position.

“Mike’s deep understanding of Northwestern’s culture of hard work and excellence on behalf of our student-athletes stood out among a field of very talented candidates,” said Craig Johnson, chair of the search and senior vice president for business and finance. “We look forward to his leadership and the new heights he will take us to as a university.”

Johnson also thanked DHR International for supporting the search and for identifying a diverse pool of candidates. 

Polisky has maintained sport administration responsibilities for numerous Wildcats athletics programs during his tenure, including women’s golf during their 2017 NCAA stroke play championship campaign, men’s basketball when it earned its first March Madness invitation and football over the last four seasons, during which the program captured its first two Big Ten West Division titles as well as Citrus Bowl and Holiday Bowl championships. 

He succeeds Jim Phillips, who concluded 13 years of leadership at Northwestern in February to become commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference, and Deputy Athletics Director Janna Blais, who guided the department during the last three months as interim vice president.

The Wildcats have been ascendant in competition, in the classroom and in the community over the last 10 years. Northwestern has won recent Conference or NCAA championships in lacrosse, field hockey, women’s basketball, women’s golf, women’s tennis, wrestling, fencing, women’s soccer, swimming and diving, along with four consecutive football bowl titles. ’Cats student-athletes have set a national standard in the classroom by any measure, including the top NCAA Graduation Success Rate among FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) institutions for three straight years. The group of more than 500 individuals also devotes thousands of hours of service each year in support of more than 100 community organizations in Evanston and throughout Chicagoland.

Combe Family Head Lacrosse Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said Polisky has been a tireless supporter of all of Northwestern’s teams and its student-athletes.

“The depth and quality of the candidate pool reinforced just how appealing this position truly is, the momentum around our department and our University has never been stronger,” said Amonte Hiller, who was a member of the search committee. “With Mike at the helm, and the incredible collection of talent we have here, we are in position to rise even higher together.”

Shortly after his arrival, Polisky developed and introduced the first comprehensive marketing campaign in the history of Northwestern Athletics: “Chicago’s Big Ten Team.” The wide-ranging brand strategy has produced dramatic gains in awareness, sales and fan interest. The Wildcats football season ticket base has more than doubled over the last 10 years, reaching an all-time high in 2018, and five ticket revenue records have been set in the past nine seasons. Basketball season tickets also have nearly doubled since 2009, while revenues hit record highs in ten consecutive seasons on campus. He also engineered a new relationship with Learfield IMG, an alliance that has nearly tripled corporate partners over the last 10 years.

Alongside his predecessor Jim Phillips, Polisky led Northwestern to a historic agreement with Under Armour in 2012 to outfit all 19 Wildcats varsity programs, the company’s first with a Big Ten Conference school.

Perhaps no partnership under Polisky’s leadership has been more visible than a wide-ranging collaboration between Chicago’s Big Ten Team and the Chicago Cubs. Northwestern brought college football to Wrigley Field in 2010 for the first-time since 1938 and is slated to return to The Friendly Confines this November for the first of five planned contests at the venue. The connection also has afforded other Northwestern teams the opportunity to compete at one of the most iconic settings in sports, including baseball in 2013 and the stadium’s first-ever college lacrosse game the following year, when the seven-time NCAA Women’s Lacrosse Champion Wildcats defeated Southern California at Clark and Addison.

Polisky has forged renewed relationships for the Department of Athletics and Recreation across Northwestern’s campus, including a groundbreaking professional development program for coaches and staff with the world-renowned Kellogg School of Management. He is a member of the LEAD1 Sport and Scholarship Committee, the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA) and National Association for Collegiate Marketing Administrators (NACMA).

Prior to joining Northwestern, Polisky served as president and general manager of the Arena Football League’s (AFL) Chicago Rush for eight seasons, where he was honored as the AFL's 2008 Executive of the Year and the franchise was awarded the AFL Commissioner's Award as the league's "Organization of the Year" three times (2004, 2007 and 2008). He also was president of business operations for the American Hockey League’s Chicago Wolves. Before his career in sports, the University of Iowa graduate spent five years at Jim Beam Brands Company (now Beam Suntory) and five years at Public Communications, Inc., in Chicago.

Polisky and his wife, Liz, have three children –Mia, Anna and Sam.

Northwestern All-Time Athletics Directors

  • 1895-1896 Otto Miller
  • 1897-1898 W.J. Bryan
  • 1898-1902 C.M. Hollister
  • 1903-1904 Horace Butterworth
  • 1905-1906 F.O. Smith
  • 1906-1910 Louis Gillesby
  • 1910-1913 Charles Hammett
  • 1913-1918 Fred Murphy
  • 1919-1920 Charles W. Bachman
  • 1921-1924 Dana Evans
  • 1925-1945 Kenneth L. Wilson
  • 1945-1956 Theodore B. Payseur
  • 1956-1966 Stuart K. Holcomb
  • 1967-1974 W.H.H. (Tippy) Dye
  • 1975-1980 John Pont
  • 1981-1987 Doug Single
  • 1987-1993 Bruce Corrie
  • 1993-1994 Bill Foster
  • 1994-2003 Rick Taylor
  • 2003-2007 Mark Murphy
  • 2008-2021 Jim Phillips
  • 2021- Mike Polisky

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Mike Polisky, Combe Family Vice President for Athletics and Recreation
Mike Polisky, Combe Family Vice President for Athletics and Recreation