Did Nike and Phil Knight Buy a National Championship?

Nothing turns a program around like a smart-as-hell booster with more money than God.

The question posed in the headline of this article sounds inflammatory. It isn’t. Purchasing glory may be anathema to everything American fans purport to love about sports, but it’s what people who actually work in sports do for a living. Winning a title is like having a meal at an impossibly hip restaurant: An enormous amount of strategy is involved in setting the thing up, but you ultimately pay with your credit card, not sweat equity. If the Oregon Ducks win the BCS Championship – and it looks like they will – they’ll have Nike CEO Phil Knight to thank for picking up the bill and, more importantly, for getting the reservation. It only took a decade.

Knight, an Oregon alum with a $66-billion sportswear empire based down an hour-and-half drive from main quad, got interested in working with the Ducks when the team made its way through the Pac-12 pack and to the Rose Bowl in 1995. The quackers lost that game to Penn State, but the consolation price was epic. Knight agreed to build a $70-million performance facility, spend $60 million renovating Autzen Stadium, and dropping another $60 million on an academic center. He also built a $100-million basketball arena because why the hell not. But that was only the start. The biggest thing Knight did was put Tinker Hatfield on the case.

Hatfield, Nike’s design guru, has done more to influence college and professional sports over the last decade than any athlete or coach. The man who gave us the cross-trainer, the Air Max, and Marty McFly’s shoes, was told to make the Ducks look cool – largely to facilitate recruiting. Ever since he was given that mandate, the clotheshorses of college ball have been the flashiest team on the gridiron. By taking a page out of Marquette’s playbook – the college got instant street cred after they debuted player-designed untucked uniforms in the eighties – Oregon became a viable non-USC option. Oregon put on a new identity.

After drubbing Florida State and her vaunted quarterback Jameis Winston, the Ducks have a new new identity: Favorite. This is in keeping with the arc of pretty much everything Phil Knight has ever done. He signed Jordan before he was Jordan. He created (to some extent) the myth of Bo Jackson. He birthed a culture in which winning became just doing it even as just doing it was really becoming a massive corporate undertaking.

Phil Knight just did what it took to make Oregon great. And that’s precisely why the Ducks are not just the team of now. Because Oregon can count on support from the savviest, richest booster in the land, the team is perfectly positioned to continue dominating college football even as the good old boys down south cry into their grits. And there’s only one catch: Phil Knight can’t play quarterback and Oregon is going to need to replace Marcus Mariota. Still, getting a top recruit shouldn’t be hard. Show him a trophy then show him next year’s uniform.

Photos by Alam Karben / Corbis