s
s
Sections
Sections
Subscribe

SONOMA -- I had heard the name often. In fact, I even read it in a New York Times article Aug. 2, when a University of Oregon official admitted school recruiters use the name when trying to impress high school athletes.

"We embrace it," was what the school official said of the name.

So I thought I wasn't being offensive Monday when I asked Casey Martin a question using the name.

"So what is it like coaching at the University of Nike?"

Martin, the golf coach at Oregon, grimaced, shook his head, took a few steps back in the lobby of the Sonoma Golf Club and raised his hands in front of him as if to repel the question.

"I coach at the University of Oregon," said Martin, clearly irritated. That's all he said in response. There will be no discussing the matter. His intent was obvious. Martin wanted to make sure I knew he was being paid by a NCAA Division I university, which sounds a bit more lofty and intellectually pleasing than getting his paycheck from a company that does a great job of selling running shoes.

Martin was in town with his Oregon golfers, one of 16 NCAA teams competing in the two-day Alister MacKenzie Invitational, named after the designer of the golf course. As well-appointed and designed as the Sonoma Golf Club is, the clubhouse would look like a tool shed if it was placed next to a Phil Knight-approved and paid-for structure on the Eugene campus.

Knight is co-founder and chairman of Nike, the sports apparel company that has placed Knight's net worth in 2012 at $14.4 billion. Knight, an Oregon alum, has donated more than $300 million to the university, which includes the $68 million, six-story Football Performance Center, 145,000 square feet divided among three buildings. Ventilation systems exist in each locker. Stones from China make up the ground floor plaza. Extra-large furniture was tested to withstand 500 pounds. Coaches have their own locker room with a hydrotherapy pool.

I could go on but let's get to the point.

"We don't have any excuses (not to win)," said Martin, referring to any and every Oregon team.

Knight has furnished the athletic department at Oregon with everything except the final score. In that respect, a golf coach at Eugene feels as much pressure to win as any golf coach in the country, including the ones who coach the PGA Tour players.

One doesn't receive what the Oregon players receive without expectation. And what do the Oregon players receive?

"Everything," said sophomore Sulman Raza. Everything means exactly that — Nike shoes, Nike hats, Nike shirts, Nike shorts, Nike pants, Nike pullovers, including Nike rain gear and Nike clubs. Martin did say some of his troops furnish their own drivers and irons. Didn't ask if Nike dental floss was part of the deal.

"By the time a golfer finishes four years here," Raza said, "he'll have 36 pairs of shoes."

Phil Knight, the Imelda Marcos of golf.

Though certainly not requiring as deep a wallet to fund as football, college golf still is no free lunch. Outfitting the 10-man Oregon team for a season costs around $30,000.

"If you add clubs," Martin said, "then it's probably $40,000-$45,000."

While Martin is right to defend the University of Oregon as an institution of higher learning and not a Phil Knight marketing tool, his name nonetheless blurs the line between proud college alum and narcissistic benefactor who desires to shape his school into his image. And it's quite an image.

In the Football Performance Center, chairs are upholstered with the same material that cloaks the interior of a Ferrari. Brazilian hardwood, Italian couches and Nepalese rugs in the building certainly speak to the tastes and extravagances of Knight rather than, well, this is how Vince Lombardi used to do it.

"He is like a rock star to us," Martin said of himself and his players.

As he should be. Knight is the complete, desirous picture of American wealth — a rich man who can drop $300 million on a college by figuratively gathering the loose change in his pocket.

"You can trace the rise in Oregon athletics with Phil Knight's generosity," Martin said. "To be one of the elite Nike schools in the country, all the sports have a strong affection to Phil Knight."

How can Knight do this? For the same reason a dog can scratch himself. Because he can. And if that creates an advantage for Oregon — what teenager is not impressed by grandeur and excess and wood imported from South America — so what? The competition in collegiate athletics is not always on the field.

"You don't think there's wealthy alums at Stanford? USC? Washington?" said Martin, who played at Stanford.

The University of Michigan in 2006 spent $12 million on a 38,000-square-foot athletic complex. The University of Miami has one with $13.6 million filling out 30,000 square feet.

It's all about impressing teenagers, be they shoes or individual PlayStation consoles in the football building. Knight always has been ahead of the curve on that one. It's about building things that would make a hot-shot teenage running back with big dreams walk into a room and gasp, "I wonder if the 49ers' facility looks this cool."

It doesn't.

"We're pretty spoiled," Raza said.

I provide the sizzle, Phil Knight says. You provide the steak. Deal, say the athletes. You had us at hello.