Georgia Tech professor advised on hire of ACC commissioner

Before the ACC presidents hired Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips to succeed John Swofford as conference commissioner, the conference’s search advisory committee reviewed a pool of 10 to 15 candidates that included college athletics administrators, but also executives from television and professional sports, according to a member of that committee, Georgia Tech faculty athletics representative Baratunde Cola.

“It was a very broad search,” Cola told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “A lot of different types of people.”

Before the hire, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that four candidates were Clemson president Jim Clements, ESPN executive Burke Magnus, former Florida State athletic director Stan Wilcox and West Coast Conference commissioner Gloria Nevarez.

No candidates from professional sports appear to have been publicly identified. The leadership struggles during the pandemic of Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren – who came to the post in 2019 from a position with the Minnesota Vikings – may have played a role in dissuading ACC presidents from hiring a candidate without direct experience in college athletics.

The 20-member search advisory committee had two primary objectives – giving input to the presidents (including Tech president Angel Cabrera) on the qualities they sought from a new commissioner and then to give feedback on candidates’ resumés.

Cola said that the resumés shared with the search advisory committee were blind with key information redacted so that they couldn’t determine candidates’ identities.

While knowing Phillips only through his credentials, Cola gave his approval of Phillips, whose hire became official Monday. Cola, a mechanical engineering professor who serves as a liaison between the athletic department and the school’s faculty, believes that Phillips’ background will be advantageous. Besides having advanced along the college athletics administration track and overseen Northwestern’s athletic department over a highly successful 12-year run, Phillips also earned a master’s in education and a doctorate in educational administration.

Those credentials, Cola said, give him a background to connect with and command the respect of different groups, including presidents, athletic directors and coaches.

“I think he checks a lot of boxes for being able to bring credentials and experience into relationships,” Cola said.

Two of the significant challenges that Phillips will face will be guiding the ACC through the coming change in NCAA rules that will enable athletes to be paid for the use of their name, image and likeness (NIL). Another is finding ways to increase revenue from its contract with ESPN.

“I don’t think you need special skills to take on TV and NIL,” Cola said. “I think you need to have a special perspective to take them on, to make sure that they advance the mission of the student-athlete. I have confidence that Jim is the right guy to be able to do that well.”

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