Northwestern has 20-20 vision with AD

The new 10-year contract Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips received Wednesday won't generate as much attention as the similar deal given to football coach Pat Fitzgerald in May.

But it's just as important, and perhaps even more so.

While Fitzgerald's value to the football program and the fan base is undeniable, Phillips provides the type of department leadership Northwestern needs both now and in the future. The fact that both men are signed through 2020 -- among the longest contracts in major college athletics -- is no coincidence, but Phillips' presence in Evanston could be more vital, especially if Fitzgerald decides to coach elsewhere (unlikely, despite what you hear from some media members).

"Jim Phillips is one of the most talented, energetic and hard-working persons I have ever met," Northwestern president Morton Schapiro said in a prepared statement. "I predict that, under his leadership, we will achieve even greater athletic success while always remaining true to the academic values that define Northwestern."

Phillips has spearheaded Northwestern's enhanced marketing and branding efforts. He convinced the administration to invest in a full marketing and sales force, crucial for a school that has a small alumni base and is located in the saturated Chicago sports market. Living in Chicago both before and after the sales and marketing push launched, I've noticed a significant difference in the visibility of Northwestern sports. Will it translate to better attendance? Time will tell, but the effort and creativity are there.

The next phase for Phillips is facilities. He launched Northwestern's first facilities master plan in November, and the result could be significant for a football program falling behind its Big Ten brethren in this area. The unfinished business with facilities likely played a role in Phillips' long-term commitment, as his alma mater, Illinois, coveted him for its athletic director vacancy.

He also has made upgrades in Northwestern's future football schedules and was aggressive in trying to lock up Fitzgerald to a long-term contract.

Phillips' deal has been in the works for some time, and it seemed unlikely he would leave a comfortable work and family situation, especially with a major facilities project on the table. But Phillips, like Fitzgerald, has been coveted by bigger schools, and Northwestern chose to be proactive in both cases.

Northwestern has rarely showed this type of commitment to athletics, and having both Phillips and Fitzgerald in place for the long haul should pay off.