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Originally published Tuesday, October 31, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Nike co-founder is spiritual godfather to the Ducks

The richest man south of Bill Gates and Paul Allen is busy, too busy for an interview. Phil Knight is too consumed with finessing his company...

Seattle Times staff reporter

The richest man south of Bill Gates and Paul Allen is busy, too busy for an interview. Phil Knight is too consumed with finessing his company to dizzying heights, with knowing every Oregon football player, with resolving all his public squabbles.

Saturday, Washington plays a football game at Oregon, and the power resides with the Ducks. They have the better facilities in a tighter, more integrated layout, and in this decade, they have far more victories achieved by better recruits.

Even accounting for the cyclical nature of sports, that's a startling development. More than anybody, it is owed to Knight, co-founder of Nike Inc., mega-donor and spiritual godfather to the Ducks.

There is mystery around Knight, and a sweet vagueness among people around Oregon in trying to put a finger on exactly what the impact of his largess has been on the football program.

"He put Oregon on the map nationally," maintains Jim Bartko, former director of athletic development for the Ducks. "Without Phil, I don't think it happens."

Alberto Salazar, the ex-marathon great who ran at Oregon and works in marketing for Nike, pondered the question.

Saturday

Washington @ Oregon,

12:30 p.m., TBS

"Could Oregon still be playing as well as it is, without these great facilities?" he asks rhetorically. "I would find it doubtful."

Of all the football amenities on Martin Luther King Boulevard northeast of downtown Eugene, the one that's most telling is one Knight had nothing to do with. In 2003, Oregon spent some $3.2 million renovating its dressing room, lavishly — some critics say shamefully — appointing lockers with individual ventilation systems and Internet hookups, below three 60-inch plasma televisions.

A plaque in the room recognizes Knight's contribution to Oregon, and he has his own locker, with nameplate and hometown affixed, just like the players.

What bought him such esteem? In 1994, he donated some $27 million to the renovation and expansion of what is now the Knight Library at the university. Two years later came $25 million to the William W. Knight Law Center on campus.

Then there was roughly $8 million to the Moshofsky Center, Oregon's indoor football facility, and later an estimated $40 million to a 13,000-seat expansion of Autzen Stadium. (He also is contributing $105 million to the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where he earned his MBA in 1962.)

The blend of continuity and competence has proven as successful at Oregon as it is elsewhere. Oregon's Mike Bellotti, asked if Knight is a reason he has stayed to become the dean of Pac-10 coaches, says, "Certainly. No question."

Bellotti has told the story many times. The night of Jan. 1, 1996, in Dallas, just after Rick Neuheisel's Colorado team had pasted Oregon in the Cotton Bowl, Bellotti and Knight were at a postgame gathering and the coach was in a hangdog mood.

"What do we need to go to the next level?" Knight asked him. Bellotti told him Oregon needed an indoor workout facility and began an explanation of a long process with considerable fund-raising.

"No, how long would it take?" Knight interrupted, meaning from groundbreaking to finish.

Bellotti, who had just finished his first year as Oregon coach, has had a brighter outlook ever since.

You'd love to ask Knight what he was thinking in the '80s, when Oregon used to hold position meetings at the end of the tunnels to Autzen — drawing X's and O's on the walls like Neanderthals — or in cramped storage rooms with chairs stacked next to mops and buckets.

Finally, in 1994, Oregon went to the Rose Bowl. Coach Rich Brooks left for the NFL, Bellotti succeeded him from an assistant's position, and the Ducks went to a second straight New Year's Day game in his first year.

So ... Phil Knight, front-runner?

"My sense was that when the football program got a little better in the mid '90s, early '90s, like so many of our alumni, he began to get more interested in what was going on," says Dan Williams, retired vice president of the university. "It was around that time he began to be more interested in the university generally, and the athletic program."

Bellotti has a similar take, while Bartko says, "I think that had more to do with the time in his life as much as not being a fan. Nike was really growing [in the 1980s], and I think there wasn't a lot of flexibility, and there was a lot of responsibility."

Perhaps it had to do, too, with Knight's sense of Oregon's vision in the '80s.

"If he doesn't believe something is going in the right direction to be successful, he won't be involved," says Salazar. "He won't waste his time, energy and finances. Somebody can go ask him for $5,000 to do something and he'll say no because he thinks it's a bad idea.

"Somebody could go ask him for 10 times that much, and if he sees a good plan for it, he'll support it right away."

No doubt Knight's intransigence was dramatically shaped by his original partner in Nike, Oregon's legendary track coach Bill Bowerman, under whom Knight was a 4:10 miler.

"Any time you went into partnership with Bowerman to do anything, you knew he'd have a certain set of standards as to how you should proceed," says Kenny Moore, writer and former Oregon runner. "Knight had to accept all that. Knight accepted it so much, he made it the conscience of the company."

Maybe it's the hard-headed Bowerman's influence, or maybe it's the life of a corporate mogul. But Knight's relationship with Oregon athletics seems to be an undulating ebb and flow of conflict, followed by resolution and reconciliation, followed by more head-butting.

• In the '80s, Oregon track coach Bill Dellinger did the unthinkable, signing a contract with Adidas, the German shoe company, affronting Knight.

"There was kind of a rift there, absolutely," says Salazar.

• In 2000, just as Oregon was trying to mount momentum for the expansion of Autzen, the school made a colossal gaffe, affiliating itself with the Workers Rights Consortium, a group with which Nike was at odds over Asian "sweatshops" producing shoes with cheap labor.

Not only did the Ducks act, they didn't give Knight the courtesy of a heads-up.

Says Williams: "If anything could have been done differently, we probably would have been more thorough, done more due diligence on the nature of the [WRC]. I wouldn't say it was ill-organized. We were kind of under siege. Student leaders were advocating strongly for us to affiliate."

Oregon eventually parted ways with the WRC, and 17 months later — after students wore green-and-yellow T-shirts at football games emblazoned with "PHONE HOME PHIL" — Knight ended an estrangement with his alma mater. Soon came his major gift to the stadium expansion.

"I think we always knew he'd come back," says Bartko, who moved to the University of California over the summer. "I just knew what the school meant to him."

• Knight warred in 2005 with Oregon athletic director Bill Moos over his handling of the ouster of ex-track coach Martin Smith, taking particular offense at how Nike was left to be perceived as behind the dismissal. Smith had done little to further Oregon's deep distance-running tradition.

Asked for a comment then by the Oregonian newspaper, Knight sent it a statement saying, "Bill Moos had 10 chances to make the right decision ... and missed every one of them. It's hard to be that perfect."

It was Bartko who played effective liaison between Moos and Knight. When Bartko left for California, Knight left open the fate of his pivotal donation to Oregon's proposed $160 million basketball arena, saying, "This doesn't help it."

• Even Moore's recent book, "Bowerman and the Men of Oregon," bears the scars of a Knight-related tempest.

"He wrote a wonderful forward for the book," Moore says, "even to the point where he had a writing coach and Stanford professors [involved]. He took it that seriously."

So, unfortunately, did attorneys for both sides. Moore's publisher, Rodale, failed to get his signature on a permission form authorizing use of his name in advertising.

Attorneys for both sides began slinging mud, and this was the result: Rodale had to physically slice out the forward from 15,000 books — at a cost of $4 apiece — and Knight's poignant words on one of the beloved figures in his life were trashed.

It was the partnership with Bowerman that eventually brought the 68-year-old Knight to a station in which he is worth $7.9 billion, putting him No. 30 on the latest Forbes 400 list of richest Americans, richer than Rupert Murdoch, Ross Perot, Donald Trump, T. Boone Pickens.

Knight is ever the maverick, succeeding more by feel than by formula. Salazar cites a talk he heard him give recently.

"The main point was emotion," Salazar says. "People make decisions all the time, and when you make good decisions, usually emotions are involved. If you become too analytical, you're not going to succeed."

So Knight has become sort of a mythic figure, around which swell unconfirmed legends. A Nike tattoo on his left calf. A night he showed up in drag at a company party. A headset in his skybox at Oregon, linking him to the Oregon coaches during games.

Bellotti says he can't authenticate that last one, adding, "He's never called a play or suggested a strategy."

He has, however, fallen hard for Oregon athletics, particularly football, learning the names of walk-ons, keeping abreast of recruiting, flying to many games and getting an annual visit in Portland from Bellotti and the coordinators to brief him about the next season.

"He loves the University of Oregon in all respects," Moore said. "He looks 10 years younger when he shows up on this campus."

One can entertain a quixotic debate on whether his is all money well-spent. As Williams, the former vice president, says, "The charge now and then is, have we got our priorities out of balance? But when you look at it, fund-raising for academics far exceeds what's done on behalf of athletes."

Besides, it's Phil Knight's money. And his school. And clearly, his passion.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

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