ACC at a Crossroads: Jim Phillips Facing Internal and External Threats to League’s Survival

Looming lawsuits from two member schools and pressure to keep up with the other three power conference puts Phillips and the ACC in perilous position.
ACC commissioner Jim Phillips.
ACC commissioner Jim Phillips. / Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Jim Phillips has come to a halt. For 30 minutes, his hectic professional life has been paused for piety. Hands clasped in front of him, posture perfect and body absolutely still, it is time to pray.

The commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference has fled the bustle of men’s basketball media day in October, briskly walked three blocks through downtown Charlotte, pulled the handle on a heavy wooden door and taken his place in a pew for the 12:10 p.m. mass at St. Peter Catholic Church. This is his daily routine. 

He’s not just a regular here. He’s a devout regular, an active participant. When the priest asks for prayer requests from the congregation, Phillips raises his voice: “Let us pray for those who don’t have anyone else praying for them.”

Striped tie cinched tight and white shirt crisply starched, Phillips could be described as an emphatic Catholic—from first genuflection to last, and with every sign of the cross in between, he is punctilious in the practice of worship. He does not fidget. His eyes do not wander. He does not reach for the phone in his pocket.

“You have to shut out the world when you go into church,” Phillips says later over lunch across the street at Famous Toastery, where, as a regular, he fist-bumps the staff upon arrival. “It’s 30 minutes every day when it’s not about anything other than that. I’m not the commissioner of the ACC. I’m one of God’s children, like everybody else. It’s helped me.”

Phillips’s True Believer worldview expands beyond religion—it’s how he sees college athletics as well. He’s an idealist in an increasingly cynical space, a consensus builder in a predatory environment, a preacher of unity to a fractured congregation. He’s trying to hold together a cathedral of a conference as the winds of change threaten to blow it away. 

The ACC’s spring meetings begin Monday in Amelia Island, Fla. Since the last spring meetings, when simmering dissension reached an open boil, two schools have sued the league with an intent to leave. Amid ongoing conference instability, the ACC is the latest one in jeopardy of fracturing.

Formed in 1953, the ACC has evolved like every other league in major-college athletics, expanding far beyond its basketball-centric roots as an eight-school conference in the mid-Atlantic region. It remains among the four richest and most powerful leagues, along with the Big Ten, SEC and Big 12, but its future is murky and identity up for grabs. 

The Big Ten and SEC are distancing themselves from everyone else monetarily, threatening to further narrow who can win in the revenue sports. As the once-great Pac-12 was picked apart last summer, the Big 12 was lauded for proactively adding four of its schools. The ACC later grabbed two from that league (Stanford Cardinal and California Golden Bears) and one mid-major striver (SMU Mustangs) to reach 18 members for the 2024–25 academic year. But in the process, the ACC and Phillips were criticized by many who believe that won’t improve the conference’s football product—or the bottom line. 

The climate has only gotten stormier since then. In December, the ACC football power Florida State Seminoles sued the league and has been sued by it in return. Then, the Clemson Tigers joined in, filing their own lawsuit in March against the only conference they have known in the last 70 years. The two most powerful football programs in the conference have gone to war.

Frustrated by a long contract with ESPN that was agreed upon in 2016 under previous commissioner John Swofford, the Seminoles and Tigers are exploring their options to break the ACC grant of media rights, which ostensibly ties members to the league until ’36. An exit could cost a half-billion dollars, unless Florida State and Clemson find a legal escape hatch. Six other ACC schools acknowledged last spring having held preliminary talks about leaving, but haven’t yet taken the next step of actively trying to leave.

Former ACC commissioner John Swofford.
Former ACC commissioner John Swofford. / Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Florida State’s lawsuit claims the ACC’s deal with ESPN actually has a potential out clause—ESPN, the suit says, has a unilateral option in 2027 to extend the pact to its conclusion in ’36, and that option must be exercised by February ’25. Although the grant of rights is separate from the television contract, the two clearly are interdependent. If ESPN ends the deal, it might unlock the grant of rights—or result in more legal crossfire.

This is the fractious flock that Phillips tends. The burning question for the ACC is whether an idealist can guide it through today’s cutthroat landscape of college athletics.

“He’s a team player,” says legendary former Duke Blue Devils men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has known Phillips for decades. “His values as a leader are needed. But it’s a really tough time. People [in the ACC] have not been forthright in expressing their agendas. They have hidden agendas. Fans would be amazed by all the stuff that is secretly happening in our conference. It finally came to fruition with Florida State, but Florida State’s not the only one looking at different things.  

“It’s a hell of a job right now. It’s a ‘wow’ time. Not a ‘wow’ like ‘great.’ It’s a ‘wow’ like ‘What the hell are we going to do?’” 

Jim Phillips grew up in an archetypal Catholic family in Chicago’s Portage Park neighborhood. He was the youngest of 10 children, with three brothers and six sisters. The four boys had one bedroom and slept two to a bed. 

“Structured chaos,” Phillips says with a smile. “I didn’t know that the world was bigger than the northwest side of Chicago. It was just an incredible childhood that I loved.” 

It was not, however, entirely idyllic. At age 13, Phillips was standing at the intersection of Montrose and Linder, waiting to cross the street. A driver waved him across. Another driver—drunk, Phillips says—swerved around that car and struck him. He broke both femurs. 

Phillips was in traction for three months and in a body cast for six. His athletic career was curtailed. 

“It was significant,” he says. “It altered my life.” 

Phillips was told in no uncertain terms that he was going to college. Not all of his siblings did, and neither of his parents were four-year college graduates, but they wanted Jimmy to maximize his academic gifts. He matriculated to the University of Illinois and planned to study education but wound up working in the athletic department. That was the gateway to a life’s work.

Illinois is where he met his future wife, Laura, herself the youngest of seven children from a Catholic Chicago family. Their paths had never crossed growing up, though they later deduced they attended the same Chicago Cubs game on the same night because they ended up with identical promotional giveaway merchandise. She was a high school jock, playing basketball and running track; he was a hard worker with what Laura calls an “electric smile.”

Jim brought her along on the college athletic ride. After spending four years in the athletic administration at Notre Dame under Kevin White—one of the old-school majordomos of the profession—Phillips got the athletic director’s job at Northern Illinois. He then came home to Chicago in 2008, planting roots as the AD at Northwestern—a perfect fit. 

That 12-year run also established him as the heir apparent to one of his mentors, Jim Delany, as commissioner of the Big Ten—but the league unexpectedly went a different direction in hiring NFL executive Kevin Warren in 2019. At the end of ’20, Phillips got the next-best available job: ACC commissioner. 

Ever the idealist, he entered into the infamous “Alliance” with Warren and the Pac-12’s George Kliavkoff in 2021, a reaction to the SEC poaching the Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners from the Big 12. When Warren then raided the USC Trojans, UCLA Bruins, Oregon Ducks and Washington Huskies from the Pac-12, the Alliance was left in tatters and the balance of power among the Power 5 was forever altered. 

“I think the low point [for Phillips] was the Alliance,” says one ACC AD. “He thought that was real.”

For the past two years, Phillips, his wife, Laura, and their five kids have attended the Orange Bowl. While there, they have served meals at Camillus House, a charity that helps the unhoused and at-risk around Miami. After last season’s game, the Phillips family was up at 5:30 a.m. the next day to serve breakfast. 

“Student-athletes and coaches regularly do service work at our bowl, maybe an occasional athletic director,” says Eric Poms, CEO of the Orange Bowl. “I’ve never had a conference commissioner do this, much less his whole family.”

Phillips brings a similar zeal for personal outreach to his job. He sends an email of congratulations to every ACC Athlete of the Week in every sport. “He texts coaches after wins or tough losses,” says Notre Dame Fighting Irish women’s basketball coach Niele Ivey. “He’s very thoughtful and engaged with us.” Athletic directors often receive similar messages. 

Is that laudable thoughtfulness, or a waste of time? Some within the league see such interpersonal pleasantries as a sign Phillips is focused on the wrong things. “I don’t think [SEC commissioner] Greg Sankey is spending time sending out those emails,” says one AD. “Jim is incredibly nice, and believes that being nice will get you where you need to go. But it’s not the same as having a strategy. His strategy with ESPN is kindness—ESPN doesn’t respond to kindness. You’ve got to be so strategic and so aggressive in this business.” 

Other league ADs praise Phillips. There is an acknowledgement the job has never been harder, and they believe Phillips is doing what he can to keep the ACC “a healthy third,” to quote the commissioner, among conferences. 

“I think he’s done a tremendous job transitioning the ACC to a more forward-thinking conference,” says Pittsburgh Panthers AD Heather Lyke. “He’s shifted the mentality in regards to football while maintaining everything that’s great about ACC basketball. Instead of being humble about how great we’ve been, we’re starting to go ahead and brag a little bit.” 

Adds Louisville Cardinals AD Josh Heird: “In a tumultuous time, he was tasked with keeping the conference viable and healthy. I think he’s done that. Has he pushed it forward? That’s the real question, and I think it’s a difficult one to answer.” 

In terms of broad-based athletic competition, the ACC is the national standard. In 2022–23, it won nine of the 37 national championships the NCAA sponsors, tied for most of any conference. The ACC followed that up by capturing half of the eight NCAA fall sports national titles and a nation-leading five NCAA nattys through the winter sports championships in April for the 2023–24 academic year—and spring is traditionally when the league really shines.

Men’s basketball, the backbone of the league, is in transition after losing coaching icons Krzyzewski, Roy Williams and Jim Boeheim. The collapse of Louisville’s program and downturns at Florida State, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame haven’t helped, either. NCAA men’s tournament bids this year were five, for the third year in a row. (However, the women’s tournament boasted eight ACC teams, tied for the most among all conferences.) The ACC still reliably hits the high notes—it has placed nine teams in the past nine Final Fours, winning three national titles (Virginia Cavaliers 2019, North Carolina Tar Heels ’17, Duke ’15). 

The last ACC men’s basketball team to win the NCAA tournament, the 2019 Virginia Cavaliers.
The last ACC men’s basketball team to win the NCAA tournament, the 2019 Virginia Cavaliers. / Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

But as football—and football-driven revenue—continues to exert its primacy, the ACC is feeling squeezed. Clemson has regressed after a run of six straight College Football Playoff bids and two national titles from 2015 to ’20. FSU has rebounded, but was controversially excluded from the most recent playoff. With the Miami Hurricanes terminally underachieving and Virginia Tech Hokies rebuilding, there is little depth to the league at a time when depth is about to be rewarded in a 12-team playoff format. 

“This is the best basketball conference, historically, in the country,” Phillips says. “I do not want to downgrade basketball. But at the end of the day, our future will be tied to football success, football revenues, tied to TV.

“We’ve done a support questionnaire for our 15 schools to declare, what are you spending operationally? Salaries, support staff, summer school. We brought those numbers together so everyone can see it. There’s some peer pressure.” 

Of course, goading schools into spending more on football would be easier if the league were making more on football. That’s where the forever ESPN contract rankles ACC members. When it was signed, Swofford was hailed for bringing stability to the league—and Phillips defends Swofford for agreeing to it. But it has left the ACC chasing additional revenue without any easy solutions. 

That led Phillips on the quest that ended with adding Stanford, Cal and SMU. Those were home-run additions in the areas of academics and Olympic sports—areas that matter to Phillips and many of his league presidents. Stanford has won the Learfield Directors Cup as the top-performing overall program in 26 of the award’s 29 years of existence, and Cal also is a consistent feeder program to the U.S. Olympic team.

“I believe in providing the access and affordability to a group that may not have had the chance to go to college,” Phillips says. “I believe in the foundation in academics, I just do. I understand the business component, I’m in the middle of it. But I don’t believe this is an employee-employer relationship. I don’t fundamentally believe that the most important thing these young people do when they go to college campuses is to play their sport. It’s hard for me to fundamentally change off of that. And that’s why the Cal–Stanford–SMU piece made sense for our group.” 

Except these schools don’t appreciably move the revenue or competitiveness needles in football, while their additions increase travel challenges. Some ACC members publicly declared their opposition to the expansion, but Phillips pushed it through—the league could not afford to stand pat through yet another round of realignment. If nothing else, an 18-school ACC has some cushion in case of defection.  

Which brings us back to FSU and Clemson. The Seminoles have been fomenting revolution for a while, garnering some support but also some scorn from fellow league members. “Seventeen of us in the league are very cohesive and supportive of one another,” one AD says. “And then there’s Florida State.”

Florida State athletic director Michael Alford.
Florida State athletic director Michael Alford. / Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Clemson, meanwhile, let FSU take the brunt of the public criticism before making its legal filing against the league four months later. The Tigers had been much more circumspect for as long as they could be, but ultimately were in lockstep with the Seminoles all along.

Florida State and Clemson officials declined comment for this story, citing the ongoing litigation between the school and ACC (the conference also declined to comment on the suits). Phillips and FSU athletic director Michael Alford remain cordial, though, according to sources familiar with the relationship. The same can be said of Phillips and Clemson AD Graham Neff.

In deference to FSU, the league last year agreed to a “success initiative” that will distribute football and men’s basketball revenue unequally in favor of the schools that earn it via performance. That calmed the waters for a while, but when FSU was snubbed from the playoff in December, it gave the school cover to blame the league, leading to the lawsuits. 

Florida State reportedly is exploring private equity options that would soften the massive economic blow caused by its departure, but the larger question remains: Where would the Seminoles and Tigers go? Many in the ACC seem willing to call their bluff. “There has yet to be one person tell me, ‘Hey, Florida State is going to get out of this thing [grant of rights],’” one AD says.

The SEC seems like an unlikely landing spot; it would not provide new TV markets for the league, and SEC members, the Florida Gators and South Carolina Gamecocks, assuredly would not be excited about helping their biggest rivals. The Big Ten might be an option, but only if there is a guarantee Clemson and FSU would add revenue. The Big 12, which is competing fiercely with the ACC for third among the power four, would certainly welcome both schools aboard—but that’s not likely to be the Tigers’ and Seminoles’ first choice. 

What’s more pressing is the potential chain reaction that blows up the league if those two depart. Miami would be at the front of the pack to follow them, but North Carolina would loom largest as a hotly desired property by both the SEC and Big Ten. For a league whose soul has always been Tobacco Road, that’s the existential threat. 

Instead of further following the dictates of football, Krzyzewski has another idea. 

“We have a conference that in a lot of ways wants to split,” he says. “I’d like to see us talk to the Big East and say, ‘Let’s form the best football-basketball conference.’ Not everyone has to play football. There’s only one conference that thinks about basketball every day of the year—that’s [commissioner] Val Ackerman and the Big East. If you’re a partner with them, that’s a really good thing.” 

Prior to this week, the last time the ACC pulled all its leadership together was for winter meetings in Charlotte in February. The weight bearing down on league officials at that point was crushing, given the national landscape: massive lawsuits, potential employee status for athletes, virtual free agency for players, the flailing NCAA, the flexing Big Ten and SEC, the internal strife … all with no clear resolution in sight. League athletic directors noted that after spending a few days discussing all of that, a tone of despair and panic from the commissioner would have been understandable. 

At the end of it, though, Jim Phillips told his ADs that he wants to keep his league grounded in one core value: Do the best you can for your athletes. He encouraged the ADs to be True Believers in the many benefits of sports. “His sentiment was very pure,” says Lyke, the Pittsburgh AD. “He has the good parts of college athletics in him.” 

The question is whether the good parts alone are still enough for a conference to survive.

Pat Forde


Pat Forde is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, covering college football and basketball as well as the Olympics and horse racing. He co-hosts the College Football Enquirer podcast and is a football analyst on the Big Ten Network. He previously worked for Yahoo Sports, ESPN and The (Louisville) Courier-Journal. Pat has won a remarkable 28 Associated Press Sports Editors writing contest awards; been published three times in Best American Sports Writing; and was nominated for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize. A past president of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and member of the Football Writers Association of America, Pat lives in Louisville with his wife. They have three children, all of whom were college swimmers.