Big move in the Big Ten: Sam Phillips on why he decided to transfer from Nebraska to Illinois

By David Willett | April 28, 2024
Nebraska’s Sam Phillips competes on floor at the 2024 NCAA Men’s Gymnastics Championships.
© Amy Sanderson/Gymnastics Now

Not even a week after an All-American finish on high bar (sixth) and in the all-around (eighth) at the NCAA Men’s Gymnastics Championships, Sam Phillips announced on social media that he will be transferring from Nebraska to Illinois, joining the squad led by Head Coach Daniel Ribeiro for his final year of eligibility.

Due to a season-ending injury in 2022, plus the year given to athletes impacted by COVID-19, Phillips gets a sixth season in the NCAA, and his move to Illinois allows him to take advantage of that opportunity. 

“It goes back to August,” Phillips told Gymnastics Now. “I wanted to do a sixth year… [Nebraska head coach] Chuck [Chmelka] kept me in the spot until recruitment. I did not want any [scholarship] money, just a spot [on the team]. When the recruitment came, I did not have a spot so I was like, ‘Ok, maybe I am done with gymnastics.’”

Phillips tried to find other ways to stay in Lincoln – or at least connected to the sport. He sought an assistant coach position. Phillips recalled even discussing a move to EVO in Florida, where a group of Olympic contenders train together, to continue his career, but it didn’t pan out. Phillips was running out of ideas. He weighed the decision heading into the season, and found more motivation from his growth in training.

“Intersquad came around and I did good, and I thought that I had more to give to NCAA gymnastics … I went to Chuck and told him what I was gonna do – ‘I’m gonna transfer.’” 

Unlike the program hopping that happens in NCAA football, transferring is not as common in NCAA gymnastics, especially on the men’s side where there are only 15 teams. Many of the transfers that have happened the past few seasons have come after programs were cut.

With that said, Phillips was met with support when he shared his decision: “Chuck and John [Robinson] supported me. I entered the grad transfer portal in December, committed to Illinois in January, kept it close to my chest all season, and finally told the team after NCAA.”

Phillips was a star during his time with the Huskers, especially in 2024. This past season, he was one of the team’s statistical MVPs – only behind Taylor Christopulos in points contributed. He scored as high as a 14.750 on floor, 14.300 on high bar, 14.400 on parallel bars, and 14.300 on vault. His all-around high was a 80.650.

Phillips is a great addition for the Illini because he can fill holes left by graduating stars Michael Fletcher and Connor McCool. In the Big Ten, where Illinois and Nebraska have been closing the gap with conference powerhouse Michigan in recent years, adding an asset like Phillips is huge.

When coming to this decision, Phillips highlighted the closeness of the Illinois and Nebraska programs: “The culture is very fun – lighthearted. Dan is very close to John, and [he’s] young, so it really was an easy fit. I am looking forward to a new perspective on gymnastics and to taking a new approach.”

Phillips was a team captain for multiple years with the Cornhuskers and will bring a wealth of experience to an Illinois squad that is losing some of its key leaders. 

“I’m going to lean into change when they need me to bring my perspective and my context, and I am also going to lean out and go with the flow at times … It is going to be a breath of fresh air,” Phillips said.

Gymnastics is already a niche sports. Gymnastics in the States? And then NCAA gymnastics? Everyone knows everyone. So it’s no surprise that Phillips already has connections with some of his new teammates.

When asked who he is most excited to train with, Phillips responded quickly with Vahe Petrosyan, who was his club teammate at the prestigious Gymnastics Olympica USA. 

“I am really excited to be teammates with him again,” Phillips said. “His freshman year was kinda tough because of injuries, but when he is healthy, he is a force to be reckoned with.”

When talking about what he will miss the most from his former team, Phillips emphasized his relationships with the team and the coaching staff, especially coach Robinson. Also can’t forget the Nebraska training facility, which recently got a major upgrade.

Phillips will be pursuing a Master of Science in Management at Gies College of Business while in Urbana-Champaign. 

For now, Phillips will be training in Lincoln ahead of the U.S. championships, set for May 30-June 2 in Fort Worth, Texas, which could potentially be his last competition representing Nebraska.

“My goal at the competition is just to have fun,” Phillips said. “It was my season goal to make U.S. championships, and it has been a long time coming. My first time competing on the elite stage in seven years, so I am going to go out there and just have fun.”