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Jim Phillips realistic about state of Northwestern athletics

Jim Phillips isn’t happy. He’s also optimistic.

That’s not to suggest the Northwestern athletic director doesn’t know where to land on the state of his athletic department. It only means that, maybe, he doesn’t get enough credit for being a realist.

Anyone who watches Phillips pace the north end zone at Ryan Field on football game days might have noticed his frustration this season. That’s the unhappiness. And Phillips said as much when he addressed the state of the athletic program Friday, acknowledging that back-to-back 5-7 football seasons fails to meet his expectations.

The optimism? Phillips believes that the football team will rebound; part of the justification for why he and coach Pat Fitzgerald elected to keep the staff intact for 2015 despite offensive struggles.

Chief among those reasons is this same staff won 10 games in 2012.

When asked about the 10-year contract he awarded Fitzgerald in 2011—a contract some feel might be an albatross considering the team’s struggles over the past two seasons—Phillips says in his coach there is “no better fit for the program.”

But is there pressure to turn things around?

“I’m the guy that gave him a 10-year contract,” Phillips said. “Nobody else did. I own that and I feel that that’s been as wise of an investment and as wise of a decision as I’ve made.

“I hold him ultimately responsible for the direction of the program.”

The past two seasons have given reason to question where the program is headed on and off the field.

Northwestern ranked 12th in scoring offense in the Big Ten this past season and 10th in total offense. But the biggest eyesore may have come at the end of the season when the offensive staff’s ability to develop talent came into question.

After losing starting quarterback Trevor Siemian in a win over Purdue on Nov. 22, junior Zack Oliver looked unprepared when he started in a loss against Illinois the following week. A win would have made Northwestern bowl eligible.

The development of redshirt freshman Matt Alviti, once a prized recruit offered a scholarship by some of the premier programs in the country, has also not come as expected.

But if the offensive staff is going to be criticized for the lack of production at quarterback, it also has to be recognized for its ability to quickly develop true freshman Justin Jackson into the team’s featured running back this season.

The latter is the model Phillips would like to see followed.

“We have to be a premier place for talent development,” Phillips said.

“That has to be the heart and soul of how we move forward.”

Phillips isn’t hiding from what is expected in 2015 and what he calls “an important year.” He says that Fitzgerald is in agreement.

As much as the coaching staff needs to prove itself capable of turning the program back into a perennial bowl eligible team, there’s equal pressure on the administration, including Phillips.

The promise of a new athletic facility, largely dedicated to serving the football program, seems more artificial as time passes. Northwestern hasn’t broken ground on the project.

It’s a cornerstone in the recruitment of football players who currently are treated to out-of-date facilities that even include dilapidated parking lots adjacent to Ryan Field.

In order to build the new athletics facility, which will sit on the lakefront, Northwestern needs to raise $260 million. Phillips says they have raised “a lot of money.”

He was unwavering and direct in saying the facility will be built.

“I have been assured from [President Morton Shapiro] Morty, [board of trustees chair Bill Osborn] Bill and the Board of Trustees that the Lakefront Athletics project is one of the very top priorities for the university,” Phillips said. “Am completely confident that it will happen.”

Despite the self-acknowledged hurdles in front of Phillips and the Wildcats athletic department, his star is rising nationally. The academic success of the Wildcats student-athletes is unparalleled and due to the support staff Phillips has put in place. Of the 151 fall sport athletes, 103 were named Academic All-Big Ten.

It seems that whenever a big-time athletic program is searching for a replacement, Phillips is their first call. Stanford, Penn State and Michigan have all previously been rumored to be interested in Phillips.

It has fueled speculation that his future with Northwestern is uncertain.

“My actions have always spoken to what my intentions are,” Phillips said. “And so I can’t help speculative things. I can’t help that and I can’t help when maybe a place reaches out.

“Northwestern has been really good to me and I’ve tried to be equally as good to Northwestern. I love being here.

“I think I’m going to be here a long time.”

Email: sgruen@suntimes.com

Twitter: @SethGruen