Most Powerful Boosters

Updated: January 12, 2006, 10:31 AM ET
By Mike Fish | ESPN.com

If money talks, Phil Knight and T. Boone Pickens are vying for the title of college sports' No. 1 booster.

So does that make them the most influential of all fat cats? Well, maybe. Or maybe not.

Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesVince Young and the Longhorns gave Texas fans reason to celebrate this season.
As any Oregon Duck knows, Knight ranks as the wealthiest college sports booster, and Pickens just promised $165 million on top of what he's already given Oklahoma State, but the power to pull strings -- i.e. hire and fire coaches, athletic directors and, on some campuses, even presidents -- isn't always decided by who has the fattest bank account. Some boosters demand more say for their buck. For others, clout comes by virtue of appointment to the board of trustees or a governing body.

That said, an ESPN.com unofficial list of the most influential boosters features a half-dozen billionaires recently tagged by Forbes as among "The 400 Richest Americans." Also listed are a couple ex-college jocks, one of whom led his hoops team to the NCAA championship game, and the son of a legendary football coach. Along with later-in-life guys named Red, Thunder, Jim-Bob and, of course, Mr. Nike.

And, perhaps proving you get what you pay for, the school with the largest collection of moneyed boosters is freshly crowned football national champion University of Texas. The Longhorns practice and play in plush facilities and head football coach Mack Brown works under one of the sweetest contracts. Texas can call upon not just high-powered Houston attorney Joe Jamail Jr., but at least two other boosters with enough financial muscle to rank on any top-10 list.

Joe Jamail Jr.

Joe Jamail
School ties: University of Texas (B.A. Class of '50; J.D. Class of '53)
Age: 79
Reported wealth: $1.4 billion
How made money: The salty-tongued Houston lawyer amassed his fortune overseeing major personal injury cases, most recently representing victims of a BP refinery explosion.
How much donated: Estimated $30 million
School song/cheer: Hook 'em Horns
Braggin' Rights: Just a few telltale signs of money and influence seen around campus: Joe Jamail Field at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, Lee and Joe Jamail Texas Swimming Center. ... Only individual with two bronze statues on campus bearing his likeness, the most recent sits inside the football stadium. ... Called the "King of Torts" by Time and Newsweek, his $11.2 billion verdict against Texaco in 1985 is listed in the Guiness Book of World Records as the largest civil damages award in history.
The Buzz: The Longhorns lead the college sports world in fat cats, with Jamail and Billy Joe "Red" McCombs on the Forbes list of 400 wealthiest Americans. Another influential big-timer is Jim-Bob Moffett, an ex-Longhorn tackle for Darrell Royal, who built Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold into a business with annual revenues of almost $2 billion. ... McCombs, who recently sold the Minnesota Vikings for $600 million, gave UT's largest single donation ever of $50 million to the business school. The business school and women's softball complex bear his name.

Here's the rest of our Top 10 list, in alphabetical order:

Paul W. Bryant Jr.

Paul W. Bryant Jr.
School ties: University of Alabama (Class of '66)
Age: 61
Wealth: N/A
How made money: President of Greene Group, a privately held company involved in dog tracks, casino management, reinsurance and farming.
How much donated: N/A
School song/cheer: Roll Tide
Braggin' Rights: Best known as the son of the legendary football coach, Paul "Bear" Bryant. ... Currently serving a second six-year term on the University of Alabama board of trustees. ... Donates millions to his alma mater, including a $10 million gift in 2002 and led $100 million athletic fund-raising campaign.
The Buzz: 'Bama insiders say he has a hand in everything, but discreetly keeps his name out of the headlines. ... Looking for a coach after Dennis Franchione bolted in 2002, 'Bama AD Mal Moore flew down to Tampa on Bryant's private jet to interview South Florida's Jim Leavitt. Later, Bryant personally flew out to Washington on his jet and delivered Mike Price, who was fired before ever coaching a game. ... One of nation's leading advocates for preservation of Civil War battlefields.

POWER OF THE BOOSTERS
It's a love-hate relationship that binds a college and its boosters. They are often the first ones pointed to when recruiting violations surface. And the first ones called upon when facilities need an upgrade. With their money comes their two cents. Some call it influence. Others say it's meddling. ESPN.com examines the role of the college booster:

TUESDAY
• Just do it! It's not just a Nike catch phrase, it's heady advice in dealing with billionaire philanthropist Phil Knight, who lords his money over his alma mater.
• Money talks: Giving $100 million to his alma mater does more than get Boone Pickens' name on OSU's football stadium, it buys him decision-making influence.
• Corporate $upport: Joe Malugen didn't graduate from Troy University, but he saw the giant-killing football team as a marketing vehicle for his company.

WEDNESDAY
• Wave of support: In the wake of Hurricane Katrina's devastation, Tulane's athletes have served as roving ambassadors for the storm-ravaged university.
• The high price of supply and demand: The face value of a seat at a college football game is but a fraction of its real cost, thanks to mandatory donations tied to season-ticket sales.

THURSDAY
• A Tiger of a trustee: He might be slight of frame, but none throws his weight around like the Most Powerful Booster in college sports.
• Power Brokers: The power to pull strings isn't always decided by those with the fattest wallets in ESPN.com's top-10 list of college boosters.

ALSO
• Boosters Gone Wild: Deep pockets, dirty deals and death threats make for college football's "most unhealthy rivalry."

Christy Gaylord Everest
Christy Gaylord Everest
School ties: Attended University of Oklahoma and Colorado College
Age: 54
Reported wealth: N/A
How made money: Third-generation boss of the family-owned Oklahoma Publishing Co., which owns Oklahoma City's Daily Oklahoman.
How much donated: Gaylord family has donated nearly $80 million to OU, including $18 million to athletics.
School song/cheer: Boomer Sooner
Braggin' Rights: After the family's $12 million contribution to help complete an expansion project, OU Board of Regents in 2002 renamed the football playground the Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. ... According to OU president David Boren, athletics is third on the list of the family's benevolence. The Gaylords recently gave $22 million, the largest single gift ever to OU, toward the new building housing the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication, and contributed more than $30 million to health science programs.
The Buzz: The Gaylord name comes with big bucks and power of the press. ... Christy Gaylord Everest, who attended the University Oklahoma, is chair of the OU Board of Regents, the official governing body. ... Her husband, Jim, is an OU grad. ... The family's Gaylord Entertainment owns a handful of resort/convention centers, including Opryland Hotel in Nashville and Colorado Springs' Broadmoor Hotel.

Paul Tudor Jones II

Paul Tudor Jones II
School ties: University of Virginia (Class of '76)
Age: 51
Reported wealth: $2 billion
How made money: Founder of a Greenwich, Conn., money management group. Tudor Investments made its name and a fortune successfully predicting the 1987 market downturn.
How much donated: More than $50 million
School song/cheer: The Cavalier Song
Braggin' Rights: Anted up $35 million toward the $130-million basketball arena to be named after his dad, a '48 grad of the UVA Law School -- John Paul Jones. Also gave $10 million to help fund an addition to the research sciences building.
The Buzz: Sources in the basketball community say he was influential in the hiring Dave Leitao from DePaul. ... Best-known as founder of the Robin Hood Foundation, which is dedicated to fighting poverty in New York City. ... Avid pheasant hunter and bass fisherman, who grew up in Memphis. ... Owns a private island in the Bahamas.

Phil Knight

Phil Knight
School ties: University of Oregon (Class of '59)
Age: 67
Reported wealth: $6.9 billion
How made money: Co-founded sneaker-maker Blue Ribbon Sports, later changing the name to Nike and adding the famous swoosh logo.
How much donated: The president's office has him down for at least $52 million and the athletic folks suggest he's been good for $60 million to $70 million.
School song/cheer: "Mighty Oregon"
Braggin' Rights: Donated $27 million to the library bearing his name and $10 million to finance construction of the William W. Knight Law Center, named for his late father.
The Buzz: Oregon has the No. 1 booster, in terms of dollars and cents, and is counting on him to ante up toward a new basketball arena. ... Chipped in at least $45 million for recent sprucing up of the football stadium. ... Mr. Nike ran for legendary track coach Bill Bowerman and still has his nose in Hayward Field business. ... Earned his MBA from Stanford.
Check it out: Just do it!

Bill Laurie

Bill Laurie
School ties: University of Missouri (Memphis State, Class of '74)
Age: 53
Reported wealth: $2.2 billion
How made money: Nice marital catch, hooking up with the former Nancy Walton, a daughter of the late Wal-Mart co-founder Bud Walton
How much donated: More than $30 million
School song/cheer: Fight, Tigers
Braggin' Rights: Contributed $25 million in 2003 for the new basketball arena to be named after their only child, then 22-year-old Paige. The Paige Sports Arena lasted only until a "20/20" story revealed the Wal-Mart heiress paid a former roommate $20,000 to do her school work at Southern Cal, which was followed by Paige Laurie's voluntarily surrendering her communications degree. The Lauries previously endowed the E. Paige Laurie Professorship for the Equine Center at the School of Veterinary Medicine and gave money for a new performing arts center on campus. ... Nancy's late father, Bud, put up $15 million and still has his name on the University of Arkansas basketball arena.
The Buzz: Nancy's dad and her uncle, Sam Walton -- co-founders of Wal-Mart -- were Mizzou grads. The seven heirs are worth $83 billion and all rank on the Forbes 400 List. ... Nancy and Bill Laurie both graduated from what was then Memphis State. They moved to Columbia, Mo., after marrying and evolved into fervent backers of the Tigers' basketball team. Mizzou fans regularly vent online about Bill, the starting point guard who led Memphis to the NCAA Championship game in 1973, meddling in the program. He supposedly influenced the decision to hire Quinn Snyder rather than Bill Self when the head job last came open. ... Nephew Josh Kroenke played hoops at Mizzou. ... The couple owns the NHL's St. Louis Blues.

Don Leebern Jr.

Don Leebern Jr.
School ties: Attended University of Georgia
Age: 66
Wealth: N/A
How made money: CEO of Georgia Crown Distributing Company, a wholesaler and importer of liquor, wine and beer.
How much donated: N/A
School song/cheer: "Glory"
Braggin' Rights: After 14 years on the powerful state board of regents, the ex-Bulldog football player was just reappointed to another seven-year term. He displayed his clout when he lined up with embattled UGA president Michael Adams in a successful bid to oust popular athletic director and longtime coach Vince Dooley. ... Donated $500,000 toward construction of the Butts-Mehre building, the posh athletic headquarters.
The Buzz: A member of the search committee that hired Adams in '97, Leebern got on Adams' good side early when he chipped in to pay tuition for Adams' son to attend Emory University. ... Leeburn shares an Athens home with UGA gymnastics coach Suzanne Yoculan. Leeburn got Yoculan in hot water with the NCAA last year when he provided his private plane to fly Yoculan and six members of the UGA girls' gymnastic team for a weekend romp in New York.

Bobby Lowder

Bobby Lowder
School ties: Auburn University (Class of '64)
Age: 63
Reported wealth: N/A
How made money: CEO of Colonial BancGroup, a Montgomery-based outfit that is one of the wealthiest banks in the country
How much donated: More than $20 million
School song/cheer: "War Eagle!"
Braggin' Rights: The ultimate campus puppeteer. Appointed to the Auburn board of trustees in 1983 by Gov. George Wallace and ain't leaving until at least 2011, if then.
The Buzz: Teams with fellow trustee Jimmy Rane, whose lumber company has endorsement deals with many Southern coaches, to fund and ride shotgun over the athletic program. Put up at least $10 million, the school's minimum for naming rights, to put his parents' names on the business school. ... The George Steinbrenner of college sports, only without official ownership papers.
Check it out: A Tiger of a trustee

T. Boone Pickens

T. Boone Pickens
School ties: Oklahoma State (Class of '51)
Age: 77
Reported wealth: $1.5 billion
How made money: Chairman of the billion-dollar energy hedge fund BP Capital Management
How much donated: More than $290 million
School song/cheer: "Ride 'Em Cowboys!"
Braggin' Rights: The Cowboys play in Boone Pickens Stadium. Famous name also appears on the geology school building, wing of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and swanky lodge at the OSU golf course.
The Buzz: Doesn't bother to sit on any boards, but rules the roost in Stillwater. Good buddy Mike Holder is the new athletic director. ... A major donor and fund-raiser for the GOP. ... Made a $165 million donation on Tuesday, the single largest gift to a collegiate athletic program, to upgrade the football stadium and kick start the fund-raising effort for a controversial 100-acre complex for Olympic sports -- track and field, baseball, softball, etc. ... Country singer Garth Brooks, a former OSU javelin thrower, is another well-known donor.
Check it out: Texas tea fills Cowboys' coffers

John "Thunder" Thornton

John Thornton
School ties: University of Tennessee (Tennessee Wesleyan, Class of '75)
Age: 51
Wealth: N/A
How made money: Residential development. Started out selling knockoff rugs, eventually selling to Mohawk Industries in 1993 for $34 million.
How much donated: N/A
School song/cheer: "Rocky Top"
Braggin' Rights: Sits on the University of Tennessee board of trustees, which oversee the state's major colleges. ... Longtime football coach Phillip Fulmer counts him among his best friends. Thornton is also tight with Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt. ... Behind-the-scenes player in Fulmer's bid to uncover dirt on Alabama football program.
The Buzz: After selling his rug company, "Thunder" gave $1 million to Tennessee for the chance to run with the football team through the "Power T" formed by the marching band during a game at Neyland Stadium. Money went toward an athletic student life center -- the Thornton Center. ... His Chattanooga home, a log-style Wyoming lodge design, is so massive it's called "Thunderdome."

Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at michaeljfish@gmail.com.

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