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.