SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – One is a publicity-shy 72-year old who has made billions selling athletic gear. The other is a 60-something multimillionaire who turned a local bank into a colossus and may have helped cause its downfall as well.
While most see Monday night's BCS title game between Oregon and Auburn as a matchup of two powerful offenses led by LaMichael James of the Ducks and Cam Newton of the Tigers, those who cherish the art of the deal in college football might look at it as megabooster Phil Knight of Oregon vs. his Auburn counterpart, Bobby Lowder.
Knight and Lowder are deep-pocketed alumni of their respective schools and very possibly the two most powerful boosters in the nation. Knight, the founder and chairman of Nike, is said to have given more than $200 million to Oregon athletics over the last quarter century. Lowder, the founder and former CEO of Alabama-based Colonial Bank who also sits on Auburn's board of trustees, has written checks to the school over the past three decades totaling well into eight figures.
Those who worry that big-time athletics saps resources might embrace these men for helping turn their respective schools' football programs into profitable enterprises. But those who decry the big-money extravagance of college sports and its booster-as-powerbroker reality say the Knights and Lowders of the world only exacerbate the problems, not solve them.
"Like most of these things, it's a complicated matter and there's no easy answer," said John S. Nichols, a retired professor from Penn State who co-chairs the reform-minded Committee on Intercollegiate Athletics. "So much of this is based on the individual, on the local university and the local donor. It depends on whether megaboosters or megadonors, whether their activities enhance the academic mission of the university — or at least don't undermine the academic mission of the university."
Lowder is the more divisive of the two megaboosters, more of a lightning rod, and there is ample evidence that his zest for football has indeed undermined Auburn's academic mission.
He made his millions by building Colonial Bank from a local entity into a gargantuan Southern enterprise. But after the housing market tanked in 2008, Colonial ended up as the sixth-biggest bank failure in U.S. history, according to Money Magazine, which said Lowder built Colonial into a $26 billion entity largely by capitalizing on the real estate bubble. Lowder's role in the failure is under investigation, though his role as a power player at Auburn has been seldom challenged since he was appointed to the board of trustees by Gov. George Wallace in 1983.
Lowder's most noteworthy — or notorious — moment in athletics came in 2003, when school officials went on a clandestine trip to Louisville to gauge Bobby Petrino's interest in taking over as coach for Tommy Tuberville, even though Tuberville was still under contract.
Though not everyone involved believes Lowder was directly pulling the strings behind that deal, it was his corporate jet that the school president, William Walker, athletic director David Housel and two trustees used for the trip. When details of the trip went public, it embarrassed the university and Walker and Housel left their jobs soon after.
But the most significant repercussion came when the accrediting Southern Association of Colleges and Schools put Auburn on probation. The SACS found that Lowder, in part through his lucrative bank ties, had undue influence over the board, and that he and other trustees had become micromanagers of the football program.
"Our problem here was they were mixed in, indirectly running the university," said journalist Paul Davis, a longtime critic of Lowder who writes a column for the Opelika-Auburn News. "They're hiring and firing coaches, hiring and firing presidents and that's when it all got out of hand."
That's an opinion shared by former Auburn coach Terry Bowden, who, along with Housel, declined to be interviewed for this story. But Bowden did conduct an interview with Davis in 2001, detailing what he called Lowder's overreaching role in the week-to-week operation of the program. "Nothing was done without Lowder knowing," said Bowden, who resigned in 1998.
Lowder did not respond to interview requests sent to him through Auburn.
"Who's paying? That's the important question," Nichols said, though not referring specifically to Auburn or Oregon. "Many universities have been able to manage that, both on the academic and athletic side. But you'd have to be a Pollyanna not to recognize that along with large amounts of money comes either subtle or real dangers to autonomous decision-making for universities, including their athletic departments."
Though Knight's donations to Oregon are far larger than what Lowder gives to Auburn, his influence has been much more gently applied and evoked much less of a backlash around the Oregon campus.
Part of that could be because football isn't a 365-day-a-year obsession there the way it is in Alabama, where Auburn and the University of Alabama butt heads at almost every intersection.
It could also be, though, that the folks at Oregon simply know when to stay quiet.
Almost every time in the past two decades that Oregon's administration has done anything that might offend Knight — such as when the school president linked up with a workers rights group critical of Nike's labor practices — meetings have been held, policies and personnel have been shifted and the threat of losing the Nike money, whether it be real or perceived, has been removed. Not a bad way to operate, considering it costs more than $18 million a year to run the OU football program ($27 million at Auburn) according to statistics compiled by the federal government.
Unlike Lowder, Knight holds no official position at the university. But in 2007, he paid $100 million for a legacy fund to ensure sports will remain self-supporting. That's on top of the $45 million he gave toward a stadium renovation in 2002 and countless other major donations he's made over the decades. (He also gave a record-setting $105 million to his other alma mater, the Stanford Graduate School of Business.)
"My own opinion is that in university and intercollegiate athletics, he who pays the piper gets to call the tune, for better and for worse," Nichols said.
Nike, of course, provides millions of dollars to dozens of other schools via apparel deals. And, in fact, on Thursday, Knight endowed a prestigious National Football Foundation award in perpetuity, and attached former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden's name to it.
Still, nobody gets more out of the Nike founder than Oregon. It's no surprise that the Ducks were the first to highlight multiple uniform combinations, replete with the latest in "high tech," performance-enhancing technology.
Yet in Eugene, it seems Knight is no better known where his company's money is dispersed than anywhere else. He declined a request to be interviewed for this story.
"He works hard to be under the radar," said Oregon biology professor Nathan Tublitz, another member of COIA. "The guy is mercurial and he makes it his business to stay away from general university life."
For the most part, though, Knight is portrayed as a gentle and unassuming donor — "You'd never think he's a billionaire. Just a normal guy," says James, Oregon's star running back — albeit one with the best luxury suite in Autzen Stadium, the 59,000-seat monster that towers over the Willamette River.
Tublitz said in his perfect world, the financially struggling university would get to direct every donor's money to the area of greatest need.
Knight, however, is a sports fan who has made his fortune in the sports world, so the bulk of his money goes there. It's the blessing and the curse of having so much money coming from a single source.
"If you spread out the money to 100 people giving the same collective amount, you may reduce your vulnerability to the whims of one person, but you also reduce control," Nichols said. "The question then becomes, 'Which do you prefer?'"
For the foreseeable future at Oregon and Auburn, there won't be much of a choice.