In the days following the Ducks’ 38-6 loss to the Colorado Buffaloes in the 1996 Cotton Bowl, five men sat down in Dallas, Texas, to discuss the future of athletics at the University of Oregon.
Coming out of the Ducks’ second-consecutive nine-win season and ranked 18th nationally in the final polls, any questions about the transition from coach Rich Brooks to Mike Bellotti had been answered. But the five men who met in Dallas weren’t worried solely about football. They were looking at the bigger picture.
The meeting consisted of executive athletic director for Nike liaison Jim Bartko, Coach Bellotti, UO donor and businessman Randy Pape, donor and eventual athletic director Pat Kilkenny and Nike chairman and UO alumnus Phil Knight. With open minds and open checkbooks, the five of them agreed that, with enough support, athletics at the UO could reach unseen heights.
“We went to the Rose Bowl in the ’94-’95 season and I think he saw that athletics could be a great window to make the University of Oregon great,” says Jim Bartko, executive athletic director for Nike liaison. “That’s when he said we should look at the logos, uniforms and investment into facilities to make the University of Oregon a national product academically and athletically.”
Bartko says it was in that meeting following the Cotton Bowl that Pape, Knight and Kilkenny stepped up to say they were interested in funding whatever it took to get to the next level of play.
“We all agreed that facilities were what was needed to make it to that next level, so the next day after the meeting we got to work on the Moshofsky Center,” Bartko says.
That 1996 football season would bring big change to the face of Oregon athletics.
With donors, administrators and athletics officials plugging away at getting new development underway, the athletic department’s marketing team got a crash course in Nike merchandising. Working with the likes of Nike designers Tinker Hatfield and Todd Van Horne, the football team debuted a bold new look previously unseen in college athletics.
The rendezvous in Dallas had created new trust between the donors and the UO, but no relationship had been more important in the history of the University as the one that was growing between Knight and the UO.
Uncle Phil. The University of Nike. The house that Phil built. We’ve all heard the wisecracks made around the University of Oregon campus when referring to its affiliation with Knight, but the relationship has many levels unseen by Oregon students and fans.
The story that everyone knows is that Oregon’s wealthiest man is a UO alumnus, he ran track for Coach Bill Bowerman and his multibillion-dollar corporation got its start under the lights at Hayward Field. To call that the tip of the iceberg would be an understatement.
“It’s important to make a distinction between Knight’s relationship with the University and Nike’s relationship with the University,” says Dan Williams, former University vice president and interim athletic director for the ’94-’95 school year. “There’s no doubt that Phil’s relationship influences Nike’s relationship, but Nike’s relationship is very business-like.”
In fact, Nike’s contract with the UO isn’t much different than any other contract it has with other universities. Williams and Bartko point to the company’s heritage as a large reason it provides so much innovative design and technology to the school, but not everything Knight has done for the University of Oregon is tied to his company.
“The other relationship between Phil and the University is obviously more personal, and most of that has centered around his generosity,” Williams says.
Knight and his wife Penny have donated over $300 million to the UO and to the athletic department over the past 20 years. His first philanthropic venture was helping to fund the $27 million renovation of the library in 1994. It added 132,000 square feet and was renamed Knight Library in honor of his family.
Five years later in 1999, the William W. Knight Law Center opened. 138,000 square feet of innovation in architecture and technological integration dedicated to Knight’s father, a 1932 Oregon law school graduate. The law school had outgrown McKenzie Hall and it provided Knight with chance to preserve his father’s legacy on campus.
Next would be a $30 million gift toward the expansion of Autzen Stadium in 2002, an idea that had been kicked around for years without a benefactor to jump-start the project. Knight dished out a third of the project’s total cost to bring the stadium’s capacity to its current grade.
More recently are the $42 million athlete tutoring center, the $100 million endowment of the Legacy Fund to insure the bonds taken out on Matthew Knight Arena and the $68 million expansion of the athletic department and football operations buildings. Knight has also established 27 endowed professorships in every department, which collectively receive over $325,000 in bonuses per year.
Despite providing the UO with new venues for academic and athletic success, Knight’s contributions frequently draw criticism for their luxury, and although the relationships with Knight and Nike are separate, the Nike mantra of being the best shines through in everything Knight does.
“In my mind, everything Knight has touched on campus represents how Nike operates,” Williams says. “If Phil is going to give money personally to do a project, it’s going to be the best there is.”
While admiring Knight’s aspirations to give the best to the UO, Williams admits that the way in which Knight carries out his projects was initially a source of tension within the campus community.
When Knight wants to make a donation, he offers that the UO give him access to the deed for the land, he would develop on it, and then he gives it back as a gift to the University. This process allows him to sidestep the public bidding process in order to find the best architect and contractor combination to ensure the project gets done his way.
“He’s impatient with mindless stumbling blocks. He wants to see good things done and if we do in fact embark on them he wants to see them done quickly,” says Dave Frohnmayer, law professor and former UO president. “It provides an ethic that being mediocre and being in the middle of the pack isn’t for the state of Oregon or the University.”
Frohnmayer — a native Oregonian, former attorney general and longtime friend of Knight — believes that Oregon has a falsely leveling attitude that average is okay; something Knight and UO administrators have had to battle for decades to extinguish.
“Mr. Knight doesn’t share that (attitude). I don’t share it, and I think that anyone who is at a good academic institution shouldn’t share it,” Frohnmayer says. “It doesn’t mean you’re looking down your nose at people, but when you don’t try and be world class at what you do it transmits that mediocrity is okay to your students.”
Knight’s involvement with the UO has also drawn public criticism in the sense that he has used donations to sway the affairs of the University in ways favorable to him and his company. Several articles in both the Oregonian and The New York Times have pointed to when the UO joined the Workers Rights Consortium monitoring group on sweatshop labor at a time when Knight leveraged a donation to impose his will.
Frohnmayer and former athletic director Pat Kilkenny disagree that Knight has ever leveraged a donation to sway any decision made by the UO.
“I think the WRC is an accident that we fell into as far as policy and the buck ends with me. I should have been wiser about the nature of the WRC,” Frohnmayer says. “We got bad advice and it was a very ideologically polarized relationship that was short lived.”
Kilkenny says his relationship with Knight, despite being friends before his tenure as athletic department, was never intrusive, but before Kilkenny was Bill Moos, who in 2006 was reportedly ushered out of his position by a $2 million discharge contract and non-compete clause. Just months later Moos returned to his alma mater, Washington State University, as athletic director.
Moos has publicly denied that differences with Knight in particular prompted his departure, but some speculate his fall from grace with the University’s biggest donor had a hand in his exit.
“Phil was never intrusive and he didn’t ever ask for a seat at the table,” Kilkenny said. “Our communication with him was quite simply one that we would have with any number of donors, and it was informative given his capacity to provide vision and guidance in areas relevant to what we were doing.”
Kilkenny and Frohnmayer both say that the UO would not be where it is today without Knight’s philanthropy, and not just in athletics but academics as well.
“Without Phil’s engaged philanthropy we’d be in a much more inferior place,” Frohnmayer says. “He has made a statement that there is no corner of campus that is unimportant to philanthropy, and there’s never been a statement such as that to the degree he’s done it.”
As for the future of the relationships between the UO, Nike and Phil Knight, athletics officials remain open minded to any philanthropy or strategic improvement that Knight or Nike bring to the table. Craig Pintens, athletic director for marketing and public relations says the athletic department will continue to be students of Nike and Knight in order to further build their own brand.
“Nike is the greatest sports marketers of all time, and our unique relationship with Nike has established us as a national brand in college athletics,” Pintens says. “We need to continue to be a sponge and absorb as much as we can to try and take all the best practices Nike consistently is achieving and emulate them in our own marketing.”
As Knight’s two alma mater’s are set to play each other this Saturday, it’s a good point in time to reflect on how far the University of Oregon has come in such a short amount of time. Knight’s philanthropy has left a lasting impression on this campus in a multitude of ways, but when you’re sitting either at home, at Autzen or at the bar this Saturday when the Ducks take the field against the Stanford Cardinal, try and imagine what things would be like if Knight hadn’t picked Oregon.