Another story must take the lead in the “Worst-Kept Secret” category.
The previous leader ended its reign Wednesday morning when Northwestern announced athletic director Jim Phillips agreed to a lengthy contract extension.
NU’s release says Phillips agreed to a new 10-year deal that runs through 2020, but I believe that means Phillips stays through June 30, 2021.
Either way, it’s the obvious conclusion to the Phillips/Northwestern relationship.
Yes, Phillips owns a degree from Illinois and served as a basketball manager during the Flyin’ Illini glory years, but there was no chance he would become Ron Guenther’s successor. He closed that door when he moved from Northern Illinois to Northwestern in April 2008.
Since becoming NU’s AD, Phillips, his wife, Laura, and their five children have integrated themselves wholly into the Northwestern and Chicago sports communities.
Here are some examples:
1. Phillips teaches a class at Northwestern’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management in conjunction with Blackhawks czar John McDonough. The class allows Phillips to use his connections throughout Chicago's professional sports world in order to teach MBA candidates how to operate their own franchises someday.
2. The Phillips family lives next door to Cubs owner Tom Ricketts on the North Shore. At one of the Cubs-Sox games last month at Wrigley Field, the Phillips family sat in the second row with easy access to Crane Kenney and the rest of the Cubs brass --- not to mention ill-fated couple Jay Cutler and Kristin Cavallari seated in the third row.
3. Most important, Phillips has launched a ton of initiatives over the last three years. Northwestern’s athletic department looks dramatically different with its increased emphasis on marketing, ticket sales, social media and other 21st century concerns.
Of course, the biggest piece to this puzzle is the facilities master plan that soon will be outlined.
Expect Northwestern to deliver a new, comprehensive football facility on campus that will handle every need except Game Day.
“I think there’ll be something completely different for football operations,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said in May.
Phillips also plans to upgrade Ryan Field’s facilities for the fans.
If football moves its base to a new campus-based facility, then there’s room to build a new basketball arena.
While Welsh-Ryan Arena’s intimate atmosphere provides an unbelievable experience for nine Big Ten games each year, a modern building will help NU’s men’s team close the recruiting gap with blue-chip recruits who see superior facilities when they visit other schools.
Here was Fitzgerald’s take on Phillips last week. Remember, Fitzgerald received a contract extension in May that takes him through the 2020 season:
“Jim and I are very close. Not only professionally, but also personally. And he’s a Chicagoan. I think he knows how we all feel about him and we’re very thankful for his leadership.
“You look at what we’ve done as an athletic department as a whole. The national championships (in women’s lacrosse), the whole nine yards. Us being in three straight bowl games. I could keep going on and on. Success academically and socially.
“He’s not going to back down from anything. He’s got great vision. He does a tremendous job leading our entire department. He lets us coach, so he doesn’t micromanage us but he’s right there in full support. That’s kind of our model.
“And with Morty (Schapiro) as our president, they’re going to do everything they can to help us. As a coach, that’s all you can ask for.
“He’s fair. He’s a huge fan, which is kind of fun. Sometimes I’ve got to talk him off the ledge a little bit in the locker room after a game, but that’s all right. Hopefully I’ll do my job a little better so we don’t have to have those kind of conversations. I look forward to working with him for a long, long time.”