The 100 Northwestern fans who made up the sold-out crowd at Ditka’s Restaurant for the school's Coaches Caravan took it easy on athletic director Jim Phillips.
None made him squirm by asking about his contract status. The Tribune reported Sunday that Phillips has rebuffed interest from Illinois and Tennessee and instead plans to sign a new contract that will keep him in Evanston until at least 2020.
Meeting with reporters afterward, Phillips said he had promised university officials he would decline comment on the subject.
He was more than happy, though, to talk about NU’s plan to overhaul its athletic facilities.
While at the podium Tuesday night, Phillips told the crowd that he has not been "bashful about saying that football is the engine that drives us. That doesn’t mean we don’t care as much about basketball."
That comment drew a smirk from women’s basketball coach Joe McKeown and a mock-sour look from men’s coach Bill Carmody.
"We like football, too, right, Bill?" McKeown said, turning to Carmody. "I was a schoolyard quarterback."
Phillips told reporters that after meeting with the head coach of all 19 NU teams and hitting 30-35 college campuses to examine their facilities, he will use the summer to make a priorities list.
Then in the fall, he will seek approval from President Morton Schapiro and NU’s Board of Trustees. Some believe Northwestern will spend at least $250 million on the multi-faceted project.
"One of our challenges is space," Phillips said. "That’s not an issue in Columbus, South Bend, Louisville or Bloomington. But for us, in a lot of ways, it’s a jigsaw puzzle. If you do this here, then what are the ramifications?”
In other words, if NU coach Pat Fitzgerald gets his wish for an on-campus practice facility near Lake Michigan on North Campus, would that displace the soccer or women’s lacrosse fields?
Phillips said adding landfill does not appear to be a viable option.
He also posed this football-related question: "Is (the priority) Sunday through Friday -- or the seven Saturdays a year?"
Meaning, would NU’s top priority be to build the practice facility, which could be a boon to recruiting? Or pouring money into Ryan Field, especially the crumbling stands on the east sideline?
"Can you have two priorities at the same time?" Phillips asked. "I don’t know."
Welsh-Ryan Arena, which houses the volleyball, wrestling and basketball teams, also has to be either renovated or torn down and rebuilt.
Some other highlights from the evening:
*Carmody said he hopes to add a home game with Baylor this season and Temple for either 2011-12 or 2012-’13. Interestingly, ESPN.com bracketologist Joe Lunardi projects a first-round matchup between Baylor (6 seed) and Northwestern (11 seed) in the 2012 NCAA tournament.
By scheduling more attractive games, Carmody said, "we want to get people who are on the borderline to come watch us play."
*Carmody said that NBA scouts projected that John Shurna could have been a mid-second round draft pick but that he needs to get stronger and improve his dribbling and defense.
“He’s a 3-man (small forward) in the NBA, so he’ll have to guard some of the most incredible athletes in the league,” he said.
Carmody said that Shurna, who measured 6-foot-10 in shoes, reminded people: "I play in shoes."
Carmody also said that he wants the humble Shurna to "be greedier. It’s not a democracy on the court. Sometimes I have to tell John to shoot it. He can be a bit of a knucklehead at times."
*The funniest moment came when Carmody was asked about Juice Thompson, who graduated as NU’s all-time leader in assists and minutes played. Noticing Thompson’s grandfather, Gino McKinney, in the back of the room, Carmody joked: "He was overrated."
McKinney, who stands just 5 feet, yelled: "You can see where he got his height from!"
* Fitzgerald said that rehabbing quarterback Dan Persa is "on a pitch count -- 75 balls a day. He’s probably trying to throw a few more. He’s a workaholic. If the workout is called for two hours, he’ll do four. Then he’ll go (voluntarily) to watch tape and take some teammates with him.”
Fitzgerald added: "If you didn’t notice, at the end of last year, we really stunk without (Persa). So, yeah, he’s really important."
*Asked about position battles, Fitzgerald said that only Persa and left tackle Al Netter had locked up spots. "I’m not joking," he said. "That’s it."
Then Fitzgerald added cornerback Jordan Mabin, safety Brian Peters receiver Jeremy Ebert and defensive end Vince Browne.
*A new rule will allow assistants to watch the game from a monitor in the coaches box. "They’ll only get one channel," Fitzgerald said. "They can’t be watching cartoons up there."