Phil Knight Built Two Empires: Nike and the Oregon Ducks

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Phil Knight grinned from ear-to-ear as he exchanged handshakes with well-wishers on the rain-soaked turf of Levi’s Stadium last December.

I watched as Knight, in the aftermath immediately ensuing the Oregon Ducks’ Pac-12 Championship Game deconstruction of Arizona, the Nike co-founder was congratulated as heartily as if he was a member of the team. Really, Phil Knight truly is a member of the Oregon athletic program as a whole, and the football team specifically.

Knight announced Tuesday, at age 76, he will step down as head of his company in 2016. He’ll remain active in Nike operations from a new standpoint, and you can bet he’ll still be a fixture on the sidelines of Duck football games.

Successful teams have a way of attracting wealthy and/or famous hangers-on, but Phil Knight is anything but that. He’s played a part in the success, using his company’s place as the preeminent athletic shoe and apparel manufacturer to elevate his alma mater into college football’s elite.

Oregon was successful before building its reputation as “Nike U.,” reaching the Rose Bowl under Rich Brooks in the 1994 season. Brooks began a line of succession that extends to the current regime, headed by Mark Helfrich. In the interim, Mike Bellotti and Chip Kelly were both successful, as well.

Helfrich credited Oregon football’s infrastructure for the program’s continued success prior to last December’s conference title game, and consistency in the coaching ranks contributes to that. But Knight’s obviously played his part, too, and Helfrich recognized it.

Oregon and Phil Knight truly became synonymous in the public eye during the Ducks’ Pac-10 championship season of 2001, when a billboard of Heisman hopeful Joey Harrington, decked out in a black-green-yellow Nike uniform unlike anything seen in college football, overlooked Times Square.

Those threads started a trend that remains part of the Oregon tradition, as the Ducks routinely sport new looks to stay fresh and intriguing to recruits. That trend has spilled over to all of college football, where the alternative uniform is no longer an alternative, but a requisite.

But the cool gear — “bells and whistles,” Helfrich called it — is just the superficial embodiment of Knight’s place within Oregon.

Phil Knight’s signature is all over the university, both on the athletic and academic sides. The basketball arena honors the memory of Phil’s late son, Matt. A $60 million academic center was one of his many gifts to the university.

Just last week, via the Oregon Health and Science University, he committed half-a-billion dollars to cancer research. That fulfilled his obligation after he challenged donors last year to raise an initial $500 million.

That’s $1 billion in funds. Incredible.

As Knight became more ubiquitous within the Oregon athletic community, Nike underwent its own facelift. Knight’s company had become as synonymous with unjust labor practices overseas, as Knight is now synonymous with the Ducks. The man known affectionately in some circles as “Uncle Phil” faced backlash from his alma mater.

If Oregon’s response to Nike’s labor practices at the turn of the century had a hand in the company enacting comprehensive changes, then perhaps this is a much more symbiotic relationship than it’s given credit for.

Ultimately, though, the relationship between Oregon and Phil Knight will also be encapsulated by the rise of Duck football. When folks congratulated him on the soggy turf of the Pac-12 Championship, it was an expression of the whole of Uncle Phil’s place in the University of Oregon.