When Phil Knight gets to his suite at Autzen Stadium to watch his beloved Oregon Ducks, he can put on his headset and listen to the Ducks' coaches call plays. Then he can go over to the whiteboard in his suite and diagram the play for his guests -- before the Ducks run it.
Knight knows how to draw up his X's and O's, and for good reason. In the offseason, Oregon has been known to send its coaches to his office to give him a private tutorial: Offensive coaches one day, defensive coaches the next.
And Knight knows Oregon's talent, because when the Ducks get a commitment from a recruit, somebody is assigned to tell Knight. On National Signing Day, he sometimes stands around the fax machine in the Ducks' football offices, watching the letters of intent roll in.
Millions of words have been written to dissect the saga of Cam Newton, his father, Cecil, and whether Newton got paid to bring his talents to Auburn. But the more interesting booster story in this national championship game involves Auburn's opponent.
Knight's influence on Oregon is so great that calling him a booster is like calling the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff a concerned citizen. Without Knight, Oregon would be thrilled to go to the Holiday Bowl. Without Knight, Oregon would be asking for money instead of printing it.
Without Knight, Oregon would be ... (gasp!) Oregon State.
Knight holds the key to Oregon athletics in his wallet, and everybody there knows it. The new basketball gym -- Matthew Knight Arena, named after Phil's late son -- is his project. The school's uniforms, more than any other team's, are a billboard for his company, Nike. There is a sense that every new building and every important hire needs Knight's stamp of approval.
Knight graduated from Oregon, but so much of his spending in Eugene is not about education. It isn't even really about athletics, because let's face it: After you spend your first $100 million or so, you probably have all the jockstraps and barbells you need.
No, most of Knight's spending is about recruiting. He spends to excess in order to impress high school kids. In the mixed-up world of the NCAA, schools can spend $50 million on gold-plated mouthpiece holders, but if they give a kid $1,000 to pay his mom's mortgage, it's a violation.
Knight has poured tens of millions of dollars into what amounts to makeup and jewelry for the athletic department. Consider the size and cost of new academic-support buildings at three big-time schools:
Miami, under construction now: 30,000 square feet, $13.6 million.
Michigan, completed in the winter of 2006: 38,000 square feet, $12 million.
Oregon: 37,000 square feet, $41.7 million.
Actually, that $41.7 million is a university estimate of how much the building cost. Knight paid for it himself and wouldn't say. The school may not even know.
What do you get for your extra $28 million? According to The Oregonian, the center features a three-story atrium, a 113-seat auditorium, "a room of bronze athlete-award statues commissioned by a Spanish artist whose sculptures are featured at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland" and a three-story-high etched steel mosaic of Albert Einstein. Naturally, it's not just any three-story-high etched steel mosaic of Albert Einstein. It is made out of thousands of photos of Oregon athletes taken by a photographer who followed them for a year.
Also: "In the second- and third-floor women's bathrooms, facing the stalls is a larger-than-life mirror etching of Knight."
(I'm so glad they're larger than life, because exact life-sized mirror etchings of Knight would just be weird.)
Do high school kids really choose a college because of this stuff? Hello? Have you ever met a high school kid? What 18-year-old wouldn't love having vents in his locker to dry his pads after practice? Ten years ago, Oregon noticed that kids would visit Eugene just to see the facilities, even if they weren't going to sign with the Ducks. Oregon kept spending, players kept visiting, and eventually the athletes started to come.
In 2000, Oregon joined the Workers Rights' Consortium, which has heavily criticized Nike's labor practices. Knight withdrew his donation for the Autzen Stadium renovation. Then the university withdrew from the consortium. And then Knight pledged his money again.
Knight's power over Oregon athletics is undeniable, but it is also mysterious. Knight is famously secretive. Does he really get to call one play a game? Is it true that Oregon holds one practice every fall that only Knight gets to attend?
Did Knight coerce longtime Ducks coach Mike Bellotti to resign so offensive whiz Chip Kelly could take over? All we know is that Knight, the marketing and new-idea maven, loves Kelly's fast-paced offense; that some other school was sure to snap up Kelly if Oregon didn't promote him to head coach; that Bellotti resigned to become the athletic director, a job he held for all of nine months; and that Bellotti has said he would like to get back into coaching. Connecting the dots is just speculation.
Did Knight get former Oregon athletic director Bill Moos fired? Moos told me, "I left on my own." But Moos acknowledged that "People said the relationship got strained. I made some decisions along the way that I think weren't necessarily in good favor. He never openly called me and criticized anything I did." Conveniently, Oregon replaced Moos with Pat Kilkenny, a Knight friend who does not have a college degree.
Moos still speaks glowingly of Knight. (As well he should: Moos is now the athletic director at Washington State, which has a Nike contract.) And Moos was the one who first tapped into Knight's heart in the mid-90s, which led to tapping Knight's brain and his wallet.
Most billionaires see their spending as a reflection of who they are. In Knight's case, he wants to be seen as a winner. Before he started pouring money into the Ducks, he needed to know the Ducks were serious about being the best.
"It was never 'Here is a (blank) check,'" Moos said. "It was 'I'll help you but you have to raise so much of it yourselves.' He was never, in those days: 'Hey, I'll take care of it.'"
Moos assigned an employee, Jim Bartko, whose chief responsibility was keeping Knight happy. Oregon could never compete with the tradition of Penn State or Alabama or Texas. So the Ducks went the other way. Fifteen years ago they were a quirky team with a Donald Duck logo and no real national profile. Now every college football fan knows Oregon is the school with the crazy-expensive facilities that uses new uniforms every week. The Ducks revealed their uniforms for the national title game a few weeks ago, and I found them disappointing -- I expected liquid metal, breathable diamonds and hand-plucked duck feathers. Nonetheless, when you create a wave of coverage simply by announcing what your uniforms will look like, you know your marketing.
Pretty soon Knight started to see the fruit bloom on his money tree. Spending begot winning, which leads to more spending. Now Knight takes care of almost anything Oregon wants -- as long as it's on his terms. Oregon is about to build a six-story, 130,000 square-foot football operations center, and of course it will all be top of the line. Right now, they're just figuring out where to put the hangar for the space shuttle. Nobody needs a 130,000 square foot football operations center -- that is more than 1,500 square feet per scholarship player. But you better believe that recruits will love it.
That facility, like the academic building, will be Knight's baby. The school will lease the land to Knight, whose chosen architects and designers will build what he wants. Then he'll give it back to Oregon.
People sometimes compare Knight to Oklahoma State turbobooster T. Boone Pickens Jr. But Knight has much more sway in Eugene than Pickens does in Stillwater. Pickens lives in Texas. Knight is the richest person in Oregon and runs one of the state's the most important businesses.
When the State Board of Education discussed whether to let Knight build the new football facility on his own, privately -- in possible circumvention of the open-bidding and public-records laws, according to The Oregonian -- school president Richard Lariviere warned them about the danger of saying no to Phil Knight.
"It really doesn't have much to do with the central mission of the University of Oregon," Lariviere admitted."If we don't accept this gift, what will be the negative consequences for the university's education and research mission. Probably not much -- immediately, in the short-term.
"But they could be really, really profound over the longer term. Really profound. This is an important gift for our future."
In other words: it's Phil Knight's money hose, and Oregon has to let him control the spigot. The Ducks are his franchise -- the fact that they play college sports, instead of pro sports, is a mere technicality. By the time Knight is done with this football facility, he will have spent more than $300 million transforming Oregon athletics. Thanks to Knight, the quality of facilities for the football team dwarf what almost everybody else on campus can use. Is it worth it? Some say no. Others say: Turn on the BCS championship game Jan. 10, and there is your answer.