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Northwestern AD Jim Phillips puts his focus on the future

Athletic director Jim Phillips left Northwestern's new men's head basketball coach Chris Collins pose during press conference Welsh-Ryan ArenEvanstIll. Tuesday

Athletic director Jim Phillips, left, and Northwestern's new men's head basketball coach Chris Collins pose during a press conference at the Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, Ill., on Tuesday, April 2, 2013. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: April 22, 2014 6:38AM

There might not have been an athletic department in the Big Ten that dealt with a wider range of emotions than Northwestern. In a year the university enjoyed record numbers in season-ticket sales, attendance and corporate sponsorship; it went through gut-wrenching, roller-coaster seasons in football and men’s basketball.

Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips sat down with the Sun-Times to discuss the year that was and the future of his programs.

Q: What’s your state of the union for the athletic department?

A: I feel exceptionally good about [where we’re at]. But as I described to the staff — and I believe intellectually and emotionally and I talked to the kids — I believe there’s a better destination.

Q: Has a men’s basketball team that finished 11th in the Big Ten ever been more exciting?A:

The beauty of college athletics and dealing with young people is you can’t script it. It doesn’t allow you to. The way the season started out in the nonconference and then the first three games of the conference season, it looked like it was going to be a tough season. But it switched.

At the beginning of the year, I didn’t have an idea or a number that I wanted us to win as far as games. I just wanted us to know that the first year [under coach Chris Collins] was a foundational year.

Q: Do you expect the month of March to get busier in the ­coming years?

A: That’s that better destination. Of course. I also know in my 20-plus years of college athletic experience, there are no overnight successes. There are no quick fixes.

It will never be about any one particular season, it will be more about level of a program over a particular period of time.

Q: How do you shake the history of futility with a basketball program that never has made the NCAA tournament?A:

We can’t control anything that’s happened in the past. What we can do is try to do something and pave a way for us to have better success as we move forward.

Q: What was this football season like? Pretty bizarre dynamic of going from BCS contender to finishing the conference season 1-7.

A: We were all disappointed after we look at the 10-3 season we had the year before and there were such high expectations. And I like that. I like having high expectations. That never bothers me about criticism or people being disappointed. That means you move the needle for your expectations.

Q: What’s your message to the coaching staff after a season like that? How are people held accountable?A:

Nobody was more disappointed than those coaches were. I know those coaches were extremely disappointed. But when you have a plan and you have the right leadership, you really embrace those things.

When I look at it over totality and totality of [coach Pat Fitzgerald’s] tenure, it’s been outstanding. That doesn’t mean anyone’s happy or feels good about the conference season we had last year.

Q: Why so aggressive with football scheduling, with Northern Illinois, Notre Dame and Stanford on the schedule in coming seasons?A:

That’s where we want to be. It’s about us continuing to elevate our program and if you’re going to elevate your program, you need to try to elevate your schedule.

Q: Would you consider the same thing for basketball?A:

One has more maturity to it and is just beginning its journey. You have to be sensitive to those things. You’re going to see that with men’s basketball as we go forward, but they’re not at the same place as far as scheduling just yet as far as football is.


Twitter: @SethGruen

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