CLEMSON — It was right in Terry Don Phillips’ character.
Quiet, without a lot of fanfare.
Last week, Clemson’s athletic director told The (Charleston) Post and Courier that he would not seek a contract extension when his current deal expires in June 2013.
University president James Barker reportedly wants him to consider, but if Phillips keeps his current stance, his tenure running Clemson’s athletic department will end next summer.
This isn’t a popular stance, but if this is it for Phillips, his time in the corner office of Clemson’s athletic office complex should be celebrated.
In 10-plus years as the Tigers’ athletic director, he has massively improved facilities and made smart hires which have solidified the department’s footing in its most important sports.
His first major hire, men’s basketball coach Oliver Purnell, took a moribund program to three consecutive NCAA Tournaments. When Purnell bolted for DePaul, his replacement, Brad Brownell, gave Clemson its first NCAA win since 1997.
The athletic campus Phillips will leave behind looks quite different than the one he inherited in 2002.
Clemson has committed over $140 million to new facilities in his tenure, impacting all sports; the department is currently in the middle of a $50 million fundraising drive which will improve facilities across the board.
That includes a $10 million football indoor practice facility rising inside the current complex and the $15 million final phase of Memorial Stadium’s WestZone project, which will include a decorative oculus and a museum devoted to Clemson’s sports and military heritage.
The $65 million WestZone has transformed the football program, adding gleaming new luxury suites, locker rooms, coaches’ offices and meeting rooms and even a training table for players to eat meals, which promotes team unity.
It has also given recruiting a major boost, fueling top-10 and top-15 classes, one after another, improving the program’s talent level; the 2013 class, currently top-15 by all three major recruiting services, boasts the nation’s No.1 overall recruit in defensive end Robert Nkemdiche.
Phillips’ boldest move – elevating a wide receivers coach named Dabo Swinney to head coach – has also paid off. Following a shaky 2010, Swinney authored a breakthrough last fall, winning Clemson’s first ACC title since 1991.
Shortly after Swinney’s hiring, Phillips said that if Swinney packed up his office, he’d be packing his up, too.
That won’t be necessary. The program appears on solid ground, with Swinney working as a CEO overseeing a well-paid staff; coordinators Chad Morris and Brent Venables will make $2.1 million combined this year, more than any coordinators in college football.
Phillips has persevered; following Clemson’s 6-7 2010 season – the program’s first losing record in 12 years – he survived a performance review from CU’s board of trustees.
One popular online stereotype of Phillips is that he is tired, lazy and out of touch.
Those lazy perceptions fail to consider his real – and considerable – health issues.
A year earlier, he was forced to spend weeks away from the office after a routine back surgery wrought complications including leaking spinal fluid, blood clots and pneumonia.
Through it all, Phillips has been a personable and responsible face for Clemson athletics.
At 64 years old, stepping aside would be completely understandable; it is an age when many successful people focus on enjoying life and what they’ve built.
If Phillips chooses to do so, fans shouldn’t lose focus on what he has built. It is significant, and should not be underestimated.