Phillips did more than recommit to coach Bill Carmody for a 13th season. He renewed Northwestern's vow to interpret intercollegiate athletics the way no other Big Ten school does and few in Bowl Championship Series conferences even try. He clung to a quixotic approach to a recurring problem that has made Northwestern Chicago's Big Ten tease every March.
So continued America's fascinating sports sociology experiment in Evanston: Can a major-college sports program thrive in an environment in which winning clearly isn't the No. 1 determinant of success? As Final Four week begins, it would behoove every basketball campus to reconsider its definitions of thrive, winning and success.
Admirably, Phillips just did. Some ADs operating in an NCAA world increasingly driven by money and power take bold actions that define them and their institutions. In the case of Phillips and Northwestern, it was bold inaction.
Deciding not to fire Carmody after 12 years of missing the NCAA tournament made it clear that at Northwestern, winning basketball games still matters less than developing student-athletes. Honoring commitments means more than buckling to public pressure; relationships mean more than results.
I doubt Phillips or any other AD worth the booster-club revenue ever would agree publicly with that assessment for fear of alienating bottom-line fans every ticket office needs. But if that were not the reality about Northwestern, Phillips would have fired Carmody on Monday morning and called Shaka Smart and Chris Collins by Tuesday.
Instead, Phillips labored to explain an evaluation process that included letting input from Carmody's players influence his thinking. Making student-athletes feel empowered and respecting their opinions enough to ask — imagine that.
I understand why people might call Phillips' decision on Carmody an example of Northwestern accepting mediocrity. It just as easily could be defended as embracing individuality.
For the record, I advocated Phillips changing coaches and that Carmody didn't do anything wrong as much as he didn't do enough right. The Big Ten Network doesn't pump $22 million into each conference school's revenue stream because of viewer interest in members' respective life-skills programs.
So I reached a different conclusion about Carmody but loved the way Phillips defended his. I loved the idea of a Big Ten school espousing ideals more typically found in Division III programs, of an AD taking an unpopular route by taking a stand for something noble. I can applaud a decision I wouldn't have made because of what it symbolizes.
On one hand, Northwestern shows it recognizes the Big Ten basketball arms race by working on plans for $250 million worth of necessary facility upgrades. On the other, it stayed true to an underlying mission colleges usually ignore by keeping a coach who does things the right way.
"We're far from perfect but our compass is our compass and I never want to stray from that,'' Phillips said. "It is about academic integrity and graduating student-athletes and off-the-court issues and trying to make sure we hold our guys accountable and that they represent something larger than themselves.''
Every BCS school says that. How many live it?
"It is about trying to mold leaders and winning and competing for championships,'' Phillips said. "It's all part of the equation. At the heart of it, we want to win badly at Northwestern but we're not going to win at all costs. We're not going to do it without the right values.''
Roll your eyes and look up Pollyannaish if you wish. But ultimately Phillips' decision embodied the mandate for college sports programs Secretary of Education Arne Duncan outlined in a news conference on the eve of the NCAA tournament intended to remind schools of their priorities. Theoretically, Northwestern's stance also reflected the emphasis more Big Ten and BCS-conference universities must consider in light of the NCAA linking academic progress rate with tournament eligibility beginning in 2013.
"Raising expectations, raising the bar is always the right way to go, not dumbing things down — and that's what happened so often in the past,'' Duncan said. "When athletic programs have their priorities in order, there's no better way to teach invaluable life lessons than on the playing field or the court.''
The implication from Duncan's comments was that, more than ever at the start of what many educators hope is an NCAA revolution, athletic departments will be forced to decide what they want to be.
Like it or not, Phillips reminded us last week that Northwestern already knows.