- Mike Fish
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EUGENE, Ore. -- Here's a tip: If you're cashing paychecks from the University of Oregon, treat Phil Knight with unabashed love; even genuflect at his Nikes if the occasion calls for it. Just don't tick him off or, heaven forbid, fall shy of grandiose designs for his beloved alma mater -- lest you might end up following Martin Smith down Interstate 5.
Suspiciously, the longtime track coach resigned a day before the Ducks' season-opening meet this past March, leaving with three years on his contract. The $500,000 buyout he reportedly walked away with makes it sound more like a firing. If so, his testy relationship with the Nike co-founder didn't help. Nor did the almost sacrilegious idea that Smith, a prickly character who refused to seek input from Knight or former Oregon distance running star Alberto Salazar, delivered a successful program around a core of hurdlers, jumpers and throwers -- not seasoned distance runners like those who'd given legs to Oregon's storied track tradition and birthed a sneaker giant.
So, in the showdown leading up to the coach's exit and eventual shuffle to the University of Oklahoma, Knight cut off his financial support to the track squad. The identical don't-cross-me tactic Knight deployed after president Dave Frohnmayer earlier aligned the university with the Worker Rights Consortium, a group critical of Nike's labor practices. "The bonds of trust," Knight said, "have been shredded." Eventually, the university reversed course and Knight turned the financial tap back on.
"That was the worst moment, by far," recalls Frohnmayer, still apologizing for a decision he made five years ago. "It was terrible for him."
Word is more hurt feelings recently caused Knight to turn icy on a proposed on-campus basketball arena. The university wasn't moving fast enough for his taste, some say. Nor was it thinking expansively enough about the grand design. Now, new faces represent the university in negotiations with Knight's people; prime land has been secured; and scuttlebutt has Knight ready to lead the charge again on what would be a one-of-a-kind $160 million facility -- up from what initially was conceived as a $100 million project.
"In higher education you have more hoops to jump through and policies. You can't move as fast as corporate America," athletic director Bill Moos says of Knight's occasional petulance. "In my conversations with Phil, he'll be 'Boy, that is exciting, Bill. Can you get that done? Can you get started on that project in a week or so?' No, because we've got to go through all the various processes. And that can be frustrating."
Maybe Mr. Nike can get antsy and, from time to time, flex his muscle in games of campus hardball. And he can be high maintenance, even if Frohnmayer and others say they don't see it. Fact is, Knight remains every college's booster dream. Not only is he filthy rich -- worth almost $7 billion in Nike stock -- but he's a sports guy, an old runner, a rare booster who made his fortune off fun and games.
Only he isn't exclusively a jockster.
His early gifts, and the only buildings that bear the Knight family moniker, are on the academic side of campus. In 1994, he gave $27.4 million toward renovation and expansion of what is now the Knight Library. Two years later, he donated $15 million to create endowed chairs and professorships as well as $10 million to finance construction of the William W. Knight Law Center, which was named in honor of his dad.
Knight has liquidated more than $1 billion in Nike stock over the past year. With the proceeds going to his charitable foundation, it is assumed additional gifts eventually will find their way to the Oregon campus.
"So often, boosterism has this sort of negative connotation, but Phil's view is that intercollegiate athletics provides a window on the whole university," Frohnmayer waxes glowingly. "And he is proud of the whole university. He doesn't want anything that he is associated with to be mediocre. He is very competitive, but not in a cutthroat way.
"I mean he is undoubtedly the best connected fan-booster in the United States, probably the world, because he lives so intensely in the world of competitive sports. And to have a person of that intellectual caliber, let alone of his loyalty to the University of Oregon, is striking, and it really shows."
Asked the totality of Knight's financial contributions to Oregon, Frohnmayer says, "I'm not willing to reveal that."
Knight, who historically has been reluctant to discuss his philanthropy, declined to be interviewed for this story.
But over the last decade, the father of modern sports marketing, the guy whose push-the-envelope company sold us "Just do it!," "Air Jordan," "Bo Knows Bo" and "Livestrong" and oozed life into a cadre of sport icons, has evolved as godfather of Oregon Ducks athletics. The big bucks started flowing after Oregon played in the 1995 Rose Bowl, its first in 37 years. Ever since -- according to Moos, the athletic director -- Knight has been good for $60 million to $70 million that has found its way into facility upgrades.
Although none of Knight's money has gone directly into Oregon's daily operating budget, the university now ranks among only a handful Division I-A athletic departments that are self-sufficient in operating without any university support.
The Swoosh cast a wide shadow over the university and, in particular, the sports program that one former Duck calls "an athletic Camelot."
One look around the place on a rainy afternoon tells you these aren't your father's Ducks. The football facilities are up to SEC football-factory standards, with the clincher being that the athletic director enjoys swankier office digs than the university president.
Autzen Stadium just underwent a $90 million expansion, half of which Knight covered. The athletic department home is a glittery, spruced-up $11 million Casanova Center. Next door sits the Moshofsky Center, the first indoor practice facility on the West Coast, an enormous $16 million edifice unveiled in 1998 with an eye toward drawing out-of-state recruits to the rainy Pacific Northwest.
What got the architects busy proved to be a blowout loss to Colorado in the 1996 Cotton Bowl. Knight, ever the fan, asked what was needed to reach the next level and, voila, ground was broken on the practice facility. Knight picked up about half the tab, and Ed Moshofsky -- a successful lumberman and an Oregon player in the '40s who has since died -- contributed $2 million. "With Phil's blessing, we used that as the naming gift," Moos recalls.
Knight has his name on none of the sports stuff, and that's by design. He prefers operating behind the scenes, out of the limelight, perhaps not wanting to rub in Nike's connection and make rival schools any more jealous. Case in point: It took six years of cajoling before Oregon business school officials got Knight to accept an award in November named after former legendary Oregon track coach and Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman.
As a matter of record, Knight doesn't sit on university boards. Yet he routinely mingles in the football locker room after Ducks games, which he watches from a $90,000-a-year double suite above midfield. The 67-year-old sneaker mogul is a sports geek, extremely knowledgeable and passionate about his games. And, of course, Oregon folks coddle and fawn over their rich uncle at every turn.
Moos chats with him once or twice a week, and has deputized associate athletic director Jim Bartko to "steward" and brief Knight on an almost daily basis. "Just to fill him in on what is happening," Moos says of the assignment. "And he is always excited about how recruiting is going."
Knight and his wife, Penny, travel the 100 miles from Portland to Eugene for every Saturday game, as well as going to some road games. Standing at his office window, Moos points to the prime spot reserved below for Knight's motor coach. "He flies down on a Gulfstream, one of his planes, and my guy [Bartko] picks him up," Moos explains. "Again, he's just one of the fans."
Those privileged to gain entry to Knight's skybox perch describe him as acting the part of a TV analyst before kickoff, a regular Todd Blackledge in jotting down his three keys to victory on a whiteboard hanging on the wall.
"It is things like: 'X has to gain 100 yards. ... So-and-so has to be perfect on defense. ... We have to have three sacks,' " Frohnmayer says. "It's homegrown on his part, and it is usually absolutely right on. He is extraordinarily well-informed about our athletes. And for that matter, everybody else's."
Knight isn't so bold as to call down to the sideline, though he's known to don headsets to stay abreast of the coaches' play calling at home games. Foremost, he damn well wants to be informed about what's going on. So every offseason, coach Mike Bellotti and his two coordinators travel up to Knight's home outside Portland, spending a few hours talking football and drawing up plays.
"He's a fan, but he is also enamored or excited about the intricacies of the game," Bellotti says. "He is a competitor. I think he looks at our strategies here and likes to say, 'How do you beat somebody with lesser personnel? Or similar personnel? Or better personnel? And what is the thought process going in?' He's excited to get the inner look."
Likewise, the comforting presence of Knight has been a factor in keeping Bellotti at Oregon. At times, Bellotti confesses to even relying on Mr. Nike as a sounding board when folks called with offers.
"When I have been approached about situations, I usually bring it to his attention," Bellotti says. "Not to get anything from him, but more as a person who knows sports across the world. Just what he thought about certain jobs and certain issues. He's been very, very honest.
"It is a relationship that has kept me here, because I know who he is. And I trust him. He has never, ever asked me to do anything. He's never influenced anything. He lends his support, really his creative support. In fact, one time I had one of his [Nike] team managers come and talk to our coaches about sales, about how to sell something."
So is the love from Knight and from Nike, the state's lone Fortune 500 company, part of the same relationship? Not necessarily. Oregon officials stress that Knight's money is separate from the sponsorship contract the school -- like a dozen or so other universities across the country -- has with the Beaverton-based company.
Still, Oregon is and always will be the flagship Nike school. Part of it is just being two hours down the road. Then, there are the co-founders' roots and the Oregon grads who have moved on to executive and creative positions at Nike.
When Nike introduced a new look in college game uniforms in 1999, for example, it offered Oregon first dibs on wearing the high-tech stuff. The creative types also brainstormed as Joey Harrington was pushed for the Heisman Trophy a few years ago. They sketched promotional billboards that sprung up around Eugene this fall depicting Oregon star players in wonderful cartoonlike images.
And when Oregon recently made a successful pitch to become host of the 2008 Olympic Track and Field Trials, at Hayward Field, Nike folks crafted the video presentation. It didn't hurt that Nike is a major sponsor of the cash-strapped U.S. track federation, which owns the trials.
Knight wanted the trials in his old stomping ground, just as he is pushing Eugene to regain its "Track Town USA" title and craves a successful Oregon track program built on the distance running tradition like when he showed up on campus in fall 1955.
And that gets us back to Martin Smith, the former track coach. Between a successful trials bid and sacking Smith -- not to mention his hire of Vin Lananna, who made a name developing distance runners at Stanford -- Moos dropped an early Christmas present on Knight's doorstep. But the idea of Smith's hanging around as long as he did won no points with Knight, who told The Oregonian in Portland: "Bill Moos had 10 chances to make the right decision regarding the University of Oregon track and field program and missed every one of them. It's hard to be that perfect."
No, the Nike boss didn't fire Smith, but insiders say he made it damn well clear he wanted him gone. Salazar, a close friend of Knight's who has a building named after him on the Nike campus, seemingly undercut Smith at every turn. The last shot came when Galen Rupp, the state's best young distance runner since the legendary Steve Prefontaine, chose to train with Salazar rather than with the Oregon program.
Earlier, before the 2004 season, Knight also let it be known he would no longer back the track program financially. In the past, he had matched contributions from Nike employees and the Lame Ducks, former Oregon track athletes, an amount that annually totals as much as $300,000.
In Smith's final season, the Lame Ducks group followed Knight's lead and cut off its contributions. Smith also told his staff that Nike had backed off a promise to pay for resurfacing of the Hayward Field track. Suddenly, Smith found his budget tight and his program no longer cash rich.
"Obviously, it was a very uncomfortable and negative feeling around the program," a former Ducks coach said. "You have to understand that Martin is a pretty tough guy. He is highly successful, intelligent, driven. He just felt that Nike and some individuals wanted to run the program. And he wasn't going to let that happen. So, not to include them cost him his job."
Knight's money and influence ultimately talked. A frustrated, beaten down Smith resigned. And in short order, Rupp had a change of heart about running for the Ducks, Lananna signed on as coach and Oregon landed the Olympic Trials. All of which, presumably, planted a smile on Mr. Knight's kisser.
"In my conversations with Phil seven or eight months ago, he really wanted to take another run at bringing track and field -- as focal point of the country -- back to Eugene, make it 'Track Town' again," Moos explains. "How are we going to do that? We made changes in our staff. I hired Vin Lananna. Those are the kind of things he likes.
"In his mind, and mine, Vin Lananna is the best track coach in America. And the best coaches in America should be at Oregon. So I took a risk. He likes risk takers. We're taking a shot at excellence in the track and field program, and he loves that."
Obviously, it's smart business to keep the No. 1 booster happy. Especially when your financial angel has $7 billion to his name.
Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
It's not just a Nike catchphrase, it's heady advice when dealing with Phil Knight, who lords money over his alma mater.