Like most of his colleagues who run college sports, Jim Phillips did not get into the business to make millions of dollars every year. He started out as a manager for the Illinois basketball team, then transitioned a few years later to the administrative side where he got into fundraising.
When all those years of hard work landed him his first job running his own athletics department, it wasn’t one of the bluebloods but rather Northern Illinois — a long leap from becoming one of the highest-paid athletics directors in the country at Northwestern, then the commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
So when Phillips talks about college sports as a primarily educational enterprise, tsk-tsks those who are steering it toward becoming “singularly commercial” and warns about the danger of being too focused on football and men’s basketball at the expense of other sports, as he did at ACC Media Days on Wednesday, it almost certainly comes from a genuine place.
“Any new structure in the NCAA must serve many, not a select few,” Phillips said. “This includes national governance, media rights, membership, NCAA, CFP access – the list goes on and on. We are not the professional ranks. This is not the NFL or NBA Lite. We all remain competitive with one another, but this is not and should not be a winner-take-all or zero-sum structure.”
How lovely — and unfortunately for the ACC, how out of touch.
You’d think the last dozen years of realignment, not to mention the last 12 months that have seen Texas and Oklahoma jump to the SEC and Southern Cal and UCLA join the Big Ten, would have ended the era of soaring rhetoric in college athletics. At a time when the sports’ biggest brands are looking forward, understanding that revenue is the key to relevance, the ACC commissioner got up in front of his constituents Wednesday and sounded stuck in the past.
Phillips dusted off the old trope that a “pay for play” model would threaten women’s sports, touted the bowl system as a crucial partnership and described college sports as a diverse neighborhood that needs to be preserved, “not two or three gated communities.”
He did not sound like someone eager or prepared for the all-out, existential brawl that has already begun whether the ACC likes it or not.
Will Jim Phillips end up a winner or holding the bag?
Phillips is a genuinely kind person, a tremendous communicator and a highly respected administrator. He’s not even wrong that college sports would be better off if things worked more like they did when he was at Northern Illinois, where the focus is on regional rivalries and doing whatever you can with limited resources to provide opportunities for kids to get a free education by playing sports.
But that idyllic world has been torn to bits by a confluence of factors that are creating a relatively small group of winners in college sports and a whole lot of losers. At this exact moment, it’s unclear on which side of that line the ACC will ultimately end up. If you’re at Clemson or Florida State or North Carolina, it can’t be reassuring that the person steering the ship has more regard for a past that no longer exists than the dirty work required to secure the league’s future.
That act may work at Northwestern, a legacy Big Ten member that will benefit tremendously from the further separation of the haves and have-nots despite being competitively irrelevant. It does not sound so good at a time when the ACC’s very existence could be under threat.
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To be fair, it’s not Phillips’ fault that the ACC will distribute less than half the amount of revenue to its members — and maybe even closer to a third — than the $80 million-$100 million projected for Big Ten and SEC schools in the coming years. And there may not be much he can do about it, as his predecessor John Swofford signed a media rights deal with ESPN that extends through June 30, 2036.
The only real card Phillips has to play is the Grant of Rights agreement that ACC schools signed the last time they were threatened by realignment, meaning nobody can leave without being penalized the cost of their broadcast revenue for the remaining duration of the deal. Today, that’s a potential $500 million hit, not to mention a bloody legal fight that would carry some risk since these kinds of agreements have yet to be challenged in court.
But as that number decreases each year and the real-world impact of the SEC and Big Ten’s financial dominance becomes clear, it will only seem more naive to talk about college sports as a collection of diverse neighborhoods rather than the bare-knuckle fight it is for every dollar that athletics administrators can get their hands on.
ACC isn’t new to conference realignment game
The ACC, by the way, is no bystander in how we got here. One of the seminal moments of the current college sports structure came in 2003 when the ACC won a head-to-head fight with the Big East to poach Miami and Virginia Tech, then added Boston College a few months later.
“Obviously we haven’t distinguished ourselves in how we’ve gone about this,” then-Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski said at the time. “I hope we mend fences because we’ve obviously gone into another person’s yard with our tractor-trailer and knocked down a few trees.”
Eventually, the ACC razed the entire lot. In 2011, with realignment rattling every league, the ACC tried to fortify itself from being poached by adding Pittsburgh and Syracuse, then Louisville a year later. What was left of the Big East — and it wasn’t much from a football standpoint — couldn’t hold together. Thanks to the ACC and the lure of money, one of the six leagues that had automatic access to the old BCS simply ceased to exist.
That paradigm gave way to a Power Five, which is now realistically a Power Two.
It’s hard to imagine a world where the ACC isn’t part of that mix, especially when Clemson has two national football titles in the past seven years and we just had a men’s Final Four with both Duke and North Carolina. These are great schools, huge brands, highly committed athletics programs.
But positioning the ACC as the last bastion of virtue in college sports won’t age well in this ruthless environment. A clear reminder of that came less than a year ago, when the ACC formed an alliance with the Big Ten and Pac-12 as a response to the destabilization wrought by Texas and Oklahoma’s surprise move.
On the conference call announcing the alliance, I asked whether it had been formalized with any documentation, and whether there would be language that prevents one league from poaching members of another.
Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff responded in this way: “There’s no signed contract. There’s an agreement among three gentlemen and there’s a commitment from 41 presidents and chancellors and 41 athletic directors to do what we say we’re going to do…we’re aligned in how we want to approach this, but there’s no signed document and there doesn’t need to be.”
Kliavkoff, a newcomer to college sports by way of the Las Vegas entertainment industry, surely now realizes the naïveté of those empty promises. In this world, looking backward to a simpler time and relying on the idealistic values that brought people like Phillips to power aren’t even worth the effort of a phony handshake.
Anyone who doesn’t embrace that reality isn’t just going to get left behind, they’ll have tire tracks on their back before they even realize they’ve been run over.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why ACC commissioner’s view of college sports could haunt league