Northwestern has chosen Mike Polisky as its new athletic director despite some internal opposition

Shannon Ryan, Chicago Tribune
·3 min read

Northwestern President Morton Schapiro has selected longtime deputy athletic director Mike Polisky as the new athletic director despite some internal resistance to the selection, according to sources.

The Wildcats have been seeking a replacement for Jim Phillips, who left after more than a decade in February to become the ACC commissioner. Polisky is expected to be officially announced as the successor early in the week, sources said.

The search process has been long, muddled and, at times, divided with opposition as well as support for choosing Polisky, sources said.

Polisky is a familiar face in Evanston, where he joined the Northwestern athletic department in 2010. As deputy athletic director for external affairs, he spent a decade working in branding and strategy with close ties to Phillips.

Some on the search committee urged caution and some were against hiring Polisky because he is named as one of four defendants along with the university in an ongoing lawsuit filed in December by a Northwestern cheerleader that said cheerleaders were sexually exploited and the university did not properly handle complaints. In a follow-up meeting with department leaders, the cheerleader said in the 58-page suit that Polisky accused her of “fabricating evidence.”

In February, more than 80 female Northwestern faculty members signed a letter published in The Daily Northwestern in support of cheerleaders and urged the university to “prioritize transparency and accountability moving forward.”

According to sources, the decision on the athletic director by Schapiro — who will conclude his nearly 13-year tenure Aug. 31, 2022 — has been closed-door and without much transparency or continued communication with some members of the search committee.

Concern was expressed as the search narrowed about the optics and ethics of hiring Polisky while the lawsuit is ongoing, sources said.

Others, sources said, are in favor of Polisky, noting his involvement in helping oversee a golden era for Northwestern athletics under Phillips — arguably the strongest the department has ever been — with a consistently successful football program, gleaming multimillion-dollar facilities that rival the best in the nation and improved national branding of Northwestern sports.

He has been involved in ticket sales and service, marketing, corporate sponsorship, media and public relations, creative services, community relations, fan experience and merchandising.

Other candidates in consideration had strong resumes, too, some with ties to Northwestern.

Out of a multitude of candidates for what has become a top-tier job, the committee last week recommended Polisky; Anucha Browne, a former Northwestern basketball star and sports executive; Nina King, Duke’s deputy athletic director; and Janna Blais, the current Northwestern interim athletic director and a decade-long deputy athletic director, according to sources.

Browne starred for the Wildcats women’s basketball team in the 1980s. Since 2017, she has worked as the chief engagement officer for UNICEF USA after a lengthy career in sports executive roles.

She served as NCAA vice president for women’s basketball championships from 2012 to 2017 after working as senior associate athletic director for marketing at the University of Buffalo and senior vice president of marketing and business for the New York Knicks.

After six years with the Knicks, she was fired and won a retaliation and sexual harassment lawsuit against then-general manager Isiah Thomas and team owner James Dolan.

Blais oversees Northwestern’s athletic department in compliance, academic services and student development, athletic training, sports performance and the NU for Life Program. She also serves as the program’s liaison at Big Ten and NCAA meetings.

King, Duke’s deputy athletic director for administration and legal affairs and chief of staff, served as chair of the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Committee for the 2020-21 season. A Notre Dame graduate, she worked as director of rules education at her alma mater from 2005 to 2008.