Friedlander: ACC needs leadership, not 'Pollyana,' to remain viable. Can Jim Phillips provide it?
Leadership isn’t a one-size-fit-all proposition.
Some lead by quiet example while others are more forcefully vocal in their approach.
Either way, their decisive actions or words are what project a sense of confidence in those who follow them. Even when the situation doesn’t warrant confidence.
Given the current landscape of college athletics, it can be argued that the ACC has never been in greater need of strong leadership. Instead, commissioner Jim Phillips responded to the Big Ten’s game-changing addition of Southern Cal and UCLA with a performance that can best be described as uninspiring at the league’s annual football kickoff event last month in Charlotte.
Clutching to a media grant of rights that bounds current membership to the conference until 2036 like a rosary, even as several schools are undoubtedly going through the document word-for-word looking for an out, Phillips spent nearly an hour defending the antiquated collegiate model, lauding the ACC’s solidarity and making analogies about gated communities.
“The future is bright,” he said, adding that “we need to be diligent and stay focused as we address the threats to what is the sporting envy of the world, the uniquely American combination of academic and athletic development that is college sports.”
With his close-cropped haircut and understated personality, Phillips looks like a 1960s-era sitcom dad. His views on the state of college athletics would fit right in with that same era.
Even he admitted that his comments might be considered by some as “Pollyannaish.”
Social media roasts Jim Phillips for opening speech at ACC Media Days https://t.co/OkFPVGvWGZ
— Butch Harden (Hobert Hoehandle) (@HobertHarden) July 25, 2022
There were no substantive proposals or hints as to what the ACC can do to narrow the ever-expanding revenue gap that exists between itself, the Big Ten and the SEC other than to say that “all options are on the table.” It’s a phrase he repeated several times during his state of the conference address and the subsequent question and answer session.
Contrast that with the leadership shown by American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco at his conference’s media event last week.
“What can we do in the face of the recent conference upheavals and consolidation?” the former ESPN executive said. “Well, we can fight for a healthier and more equitable system on the various fronts that are still in play that are still available to us. Among them are the College Football Playoff, NCAA governance and important protocols that still remain such as scholarship limits, which helps level the playing field.
“Complete concentration on a few top conferences at the expense of historic associations and rivalries does not strike me as a good thing. … We can lament realignment all we want, but we have to deal with it.”
American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco begins his state of the Conference and state of college football address.
— The American (@American_Conf) July 28, 2022
Granted, Aresco is the commissioner of a league that unlike the ACC, is in immediate danger of irrelevance or worse, extinction, once its three most valuable assets – Houston, Cincinnati and UCF – jump to what’s left of the Big 12 next year.
But as the face of that conference, he is at the very least sending a decisive message to his own membership, if not the rest of college athletics, that he fully understands the seriousness of the brewing conference chaos and is ready to attack it.
Phillips, on the other hand, gives off the vibe of a deckhand on the Titanic urging passengers to remain calm.
It’s a dramatic departure from the leadership style of Phillips’ predecessor, John Swofford.
Love him or hate him, there was never any doubt that Swofford had a firm handle on every situation.
Forceful and confident in front of the camera, he earned the nickname “Ninja Commissioner” for his ability to maneuver behind the scenes and keep his movements out of the public eye until he was ready to strike.
It’s how he pulled off the raid that gutted the old Big East and helped the ACC take the lead in the first major reshuffling of the conference deck in the early 2000s.
Perhaps Phillips possesses the same set of skills and his sunshine, balloons and unicorns rhetoric in Charlotte was simply a smoke screen designed to throw everyone, especially the Big Ten and SEC, off the scent of what he and his council of presidents have up their sleeves.
Recent history, however, suggests otherwise.
Just one year ago, Phillips entered the ACC into an alliance with the Big Ten and Pac-12 that was supposed to bring about some semblance of stability in the wake of the SEC’s addition of Texas and Oklahoma and insulate the leagues from having their members poached by other conferences.
No contracts were signed. The deal was just a gentleman’s agreement.
As it turns out, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren wasn’t as much of a gentleman as Phillips or the Pac-12’s George Kliavkoff thought. By picking off the Pac-12’s two biggest names to extend the boundaries of his megaconference literally from coast-to-coast, he has left the other two members of the now meaningless alliance more vulnerable than ever.
Now is not the time for Pollyanna.
Whether it’s further expansion, a revamped revenue distribution plan based on performance and marketing value, inclusion as part of Notre Dame’s proposed new television contract with NBC or whatever else might be on the table, the ACC’s long-term future is inarguably in the balance.
The conference is in desperate need of a decisive leader, because in today’s rapidly changing climate of college athletics, followers will inevitably get left behind.
While Swofford was hardly infallible, as evidenced by the unfavorable media rights deal he negotiated for the league with ESPN, he was at least proactive rather than reactive.
Phillips’ words and actions suggest he is the opposite.