What Jim Phillips has done to unify ACC football ahead of an offseason full of potential change

Several looming questions face the ACC and commissioner Jim Phillips during the conference's winter meetings. Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

In the year since Jim Phillips became ACC commissioner, he has made it his mission to prioritize football.

That is a big reason football will take up the bulk of the agenda when the league holds in-person winter meetings in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, starting Wednesday. At the top of that agenda: in-depth discussions about scheduling and divisions. Only this time, multiple sources inside the ACC indicate there is much more movement toward eliminating divisions altogether.

Phillips has not been shy about saying he wants the league to reimagine football, and he told ESPN last year that at some point, the ACC would go to the NCAA and ask that divisions no longer be required for conferences with 12 or more teams to hold a championship game.

The ACC has not done that just yet, but the conversations this week could push the league much closer to making that a reality.

"It feels we are headed in that direction," one source indicated.

What Phillips has done in the last year to not spur these types of conversations to happen again illustrates how he has tried to lead a conference with significant challenges that existed before he arrived. Phillips hasn't been afraid to challenge the status quo inside the league, nor has he been shy in standing up for what his coaches and athletic directors want -- even if it means serious blowback.

"That's the value that Jim brings, and the opportunity that Jim has as a new commissioner," NC State AD Boo Corrigan said. "It gives you the ability to look at everything. That's where Jim has been so good. Just because things have occurred a certain way before he got here, that doesn't mean that's the only way to do it."

Of course, what to do about divisions is only one piece to the larger scheduling conversation that will happen this week. Scheduling without divisions, how many conference games need to be played and figuring out how to schedule games with the Big Ten and Pac-12 as part of their Alliance must also be discussed. The Big Ten is also looking at its own division and scheduling format.

"We've carved out a lot of time to focus on this, and I'm looking forward to the conversation," said Virginia athletics director Carla Williams, who is on the ACC football subcommittee. "Because I think it's really important. It's going to set the stage for what happens, and how we progress for years to come."

If the goal is to make sure football is positioned well into the future, some might ask how Phillips became a lightning rod when it comes to College Football Playoff expansion. The short answer is: He did what his ADs, coaches and presidents asked.

As soon as Phillips let it be known the ACC preference is to address the myriad issues confronting college football before voting to expand the playoff to 12 teams, he drew backlash, criticism and passive-aggressive comments from those heavily invested in expansion as soon as possible. Phillips knew he would take the heat, but the fact he was willing to do it showed leadership to those inside the league and reinforced their faith that he had their backs.

Especially since, as one source indicated, the coaches were against a 12-team expansion from the start.

The issues with the 12-team format began well before January. During ACC Kickoff in July, coaches heard a presentation from Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick about the 12-team model that he, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson developed.

But multiple coaches said they were not given much in the way of detail or information about how it would affect the regular season, number of games played, academic schedules, the holidays or bowls outside the playoff.

"Jack tried to swindle us into going for it. That thing got squashed back at ACC media day," one source said.

Without much in the way of detail, coaches were asked to poll their players for their preferences. North Carolina coach Mack Brown and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney both said their players were against a 12-team playoff format because they worried about how many games they would have to play. Phillips cited both coach and player responses on the health and safety questions as one reason the league did not want to vote just yet on expansion.

In a recent interview with ESPN, Brown said, "The people that were selling the 12-team playoff didn't do us any favors, because they didn't explain to us what it meant, and I didn't do our players any favors because I asked them what they thought, and I really didn't have any parameters to tell them. So I don't think that vote was really valid, because I didn't give them information.

"That wasn't fair for me to put them on the spot like that. I was the only fool that said, our players didn't vote for it, they'd rather have six or eight. And very honestly, I didn't do a good job of explaining it to them, because I didn't understand it."

But the bigger reason the league wants to wait is because of the issues facing college football right now -- including the transfer portal, roster management and name, image and likeness. When Phillips said, "Collectively, we have much larger issues facing us than whether to expand the CFP early by two years," he was simply delivering a message he heard from his coaches, presidents and administrators.

"He's given the coaches a voice," Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi said. "It's not the commissioner saying, 'Hey, I don't want 12 teams. It's, 'Hey, coaches, what do you like?' To me, the commissioner's being a leader, and that's about leadership and not making everybody happy, but doing the right thing and making the right decision."

That is in large part because Phillips has put in the work to listen over the last year. One of his first acts as commissioner was to establish a football subcommittee with Swinney, Narduzzi, Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson and five athletic directors to get their feedback on the most pressing football issues confronting the ACC and open direct lines of communication.

As a result, coaches feel as though their concerns are being heard and addressed -- and that has gone a long way toward the way Phillips has been viewed. Clawson described far more alignment among coaches and ADs than ever before, a sentiment echoed by many others.

Phillips has supported legislative and waiver requests from football coaches that have included flexibility for roster management, eliminating a preseason roster limit, allowing redshirting players to play in bowls as a fifth game without using a season of eligibility and increasing the number of days during preseason and spring practice periods to incorporate more rest days.

"He's just, he's very inclusive. He's very accessible, and he understands that we're the ones recruiting and we're the ones running our teams and practicing," Clawson said. "He's done a great job of listening to us."

Narduzzi believes the ACC has leverage now in the playoff talks, so that the issues coaches want addressed will be discussed. One of the biggest has to do with roster management and the health and safety of players. Coaches want those to be addressed first -- including potentially putting windows on when players can enter the portal, revisiting redshirt rules and adding 5-to-10 scholarships so teams have more players in an expanded playoff world.

"It's not about the individual," Narduzzi said. "It's about college football, and that's what the ACC coaches and our commissioner have really just grouped together and said, 'Listen, let's fix some of the crap we have.' There's so many issues, and if we just go to 12 teams, they're not going to fix any issues. They keep screwing up all the issues. So fix the issues we have, and then we'll talk."

Brown explained the rush to push through the early signing date, transfer portal and NIL have exposed unintended consequences on the back end that need to be addressed. That is why he and the other ACC coaches prefer not to speed through a vote on expansion, because of lessons learned with the other hot-button issues.

Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff said, "broadly we're in agreement with Jim that we have to conduct a full review of the college football calendar and rulebook ... those things, in my opinion, can occur at the same time as expansion, but we shouldn't let expansion get in front of that work." So that leaves the criticism to fall on top of Phillips.

"Anyone saying Jim Phillips is a villain is crazy," said Boston College athletic director and ACC football subcommittee member Pat Kraft. "He's passionate, and he's doing his job representing the ACC. We all knew where the criticism was going to come from. I texted him that day and I thanked him for being a strong leader and working so hard for us."

Much of that criticism has to do with the ACC itself, a league that missed the playoff in 2021 and would stand to benefit from an expanded 12-team field -- especially financially, a key area that must be addressed. Critics say the ACC is tapping the brakes on expansion unnecessarily, especially since it is expected to happen after the current CFP contract expires following the 2025 season.

"We're not against expansion categorically, but you just can't keep adding stuff without looking at what we're doing," Clawson said. "There's got to be a way that we can expand the playoffs and still make the game safer, and let us manage our rosters. There is a solution to this. But can we first figure those things out? Once we have the rules down and the calendar down, then let's expand it in a way that makes sense."

The job Phillips inherited from former commissioner John Swofford last year was a big one, after spending 12 years leading Northwestern as athletics director. The ACC has long wrestled with building up its football visibility, beyond Clemson holding the playoff torch. Phillips was there when the Big Ten Network launched, and understands how important it is to get the football messaging right. So he makes sure to talk about it every day.

"His buy in to the importance of football, it just permeates throughout the conference. He talks about it, and he reiterates it, and he repeats it, and it's just a steady drumbeat of how important ACC football is," Williams said.

Phillips has been a highly visible presence, asking for feedback from coaches on a frequent basis and sitting in on their calls routinely.

He attended 22 football games last season -- and made campus visits to all 14 ACC schools. He emails players of the week in all sports, giving them a direct line to the commissioner that has added a personal touch that multiple ADs noted when describing his leadership style.

The ACC Network has broadened its coverage -- including campus stops to every school in the preseason and road trips to four ACC regular-season games, the ACC championship game and the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl between Pitt and Michigan State.

More importantly, Phillips finally made ACC Network full distribution a reality with Xfinity finally on board -- allowing fans in places like Miami and Boston to get the network so Kraft can finally get it in Boston College's offices.

Issues remain, though, and at the top of the list is the same issue that topped the list when Phillips arrived: figuring out a way to increase revenues while being locked into a television contract with ESPN through 2036.

Getting creative with divisions and scheduling could help somewhere down the road, but as the SEC and Big Ten grow the conferences' financial lead on the ACC and college football prepares for playoff expansion, it will be incumbent on universities themselves to find ways to keep finding their own revenue streams.

"I just don't know that the commissioner himself or herself has a great effect on the success or failure of football," Miami athletic director Dan Radakovich said. "Jim has done a really good job of saying that football is incredibly important. Now, it's up to the individual schools to go out and make sure that we do what he's talking about, and that's part of all of our jobs."

David M. Hale contributed to this report.