CHICAGO – Jim Phillips got a different kind of interview request on Monday.
Instead of talking about the future of Northwestern, where Phillips enters his ninth year as athletics director, or the future of the Big Ten, where he’s mentioned as a successor to commissioner Jim Delany, he turned the clock back more than a decade.
From 2000-04, Phillips served as an athletics administrator at Notre Dame, part of an all-star staff under Kevin White that helped turn out current athletics directors at Northwestern, Penn State, Marquette, North Carolina, Florida State, Stanford, Bradley, Army and Buffalo. White left Notre Dame for Duke in 2008, replaced by Jack Swarbrick.
“Notre Dame shaped who I am as an administrator, how I’ve tried to lead,” Phillips told Irish Illustrated. “Those were some really important years in my career.
“What really hit me in my core as a young administrator there was the care of the student-athlete, about trying to put the student-athlete first in all of your decisions. That is really deep in my soul.”
Sandy Barbour left Notre Dame a year before Phillips, spent a decade as Cal’s athletics director and landed the same post at Penn State two years ago.
“Notre Dame goes about its athletics business doing the right things and getting results both on the field and in the classroom,” Barbour told Irish Illustrated. “That’s certainly motivated me.”
How Notre Dame impacted these Big Ten athletics directors, never mind those in the ACC, Pac-12 and Big East, may ultimately be critical for Notre Dame too. Both Phillips and Barbour lauded Swarbrick taking the Irish from the Big East to the ACC (hockey heads to the Big Ten) while keeping football independent.
Despite the dull drumbeat wondering when/if Notre Dame will join the ACC in full, both Phillips and Barbour can appreciate Swarbrick’s department for where it is right now.
“If you step on Notre Dame’s campus for one day, you appreciate the independence of that football program and what that has meant to the culture of that place and the history and the tradition of it,” Phillips said. “For (Swarbrick) to keep that in tact while also finding safe harbor for those other 25 programs in a really great league … I think he did an incredible job at a really tough moment.
“I think they’re exactly where they should be.”
Consider that statement.
The potential future Big Ten commissioner believes Notre Dame should not join the Big Ten.
“I think a majority of people would not have gotten Notre Dame to the place that (Swarbrick) got the institution to,” Phillips said. “It’s a real credit to him.”
“I think he loves the place. I think he has a passion for the place. He’s very smart. He works hard. That all comes together to threading the needle.”
That’s how I described Swarbrick’s charge here, the ability to maintain football independence without losing in media rights – Notre Dame gets a full share of the ACC’s new network revenue – or College Football Playoff access. And get two basketball programs into the nation’s best conference. And renovate Notre Dame Stadium. And update coaching staff salaries, sports science and nutrition.
Basically, Swarbrick has had to keep Notre Dame the same while evolving Irish athletics at the same time. Phillips, who has invited Swarbrick to lecture in the class he teaches at Northwestern, called the Irish athletics director “under-valued” nationally. Barbour acknowledged Swarbrick goes at it alone, by choice, part of the reason he creates model for Notre Dame’s athletics department more than following the.
“I don’t know that there’s an institution that occupies that space in our industry,” Barbour said. “He has, and Notre Dame has as an institution, no one else to look to and say what’s best practice, how do we do this? Now, Notre Dame occupies that space in a lot of things. I think Jack’s done a great job. But (independence) is a decision that Notre Dame has to make over and over and over again.”
“It’s part of Notre Dame’s culture, it’s part of their heritage, it’s part of their DNA. I think just by definition that would be very hard to change and yet that’s a decision that Notre Dame continues to have to make very consciously. They can’t get left behind. Hard to imagine Notre Dame ever getting left behind, right?”