In the spring of 1985, University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith was driving by the construction site for the school’s new basketball arena, which would be named for him when it opened the following January. “It will have more than 21,000 seats,” Smith said. “I have a feeling I’m going to miss Carmichael.”
Carmichael Auditorium was the relatively cozy 10,000-seat arena where North Carolina had played home games for the previous 20 years. Knowing how strongly Smith felt about social causes and helping those in need, I (a proud graduate of archrival Duke University) played the devil’s advocate: “How do you feel about raising $38 million to build a basketball arena?”
“I wish we had raised the $38 million for a new pediatrics wing for our hospital,” he replied without hesitation. “Or for cancer research. Or both. But the fact is, if we tried to raise that kind of money for those things, we wouldn’t get it. That would be true at Duke too, or any other school. All I can do is hope that if we play basketball well enough, it will lead indirectly to raising more money for things that are more important.”
Arguably, no great coach enjoyed mixing with donors, alumni, and the media less than Smith, who passed away last year. “Dean would have been happy if he could have been beamed from his home to the practice court and to games every day of his life,” famed Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski once said of his old rival. “But he understood that isn’t the way the game works.”
That’s because the games aren’t just games—they are part of the multibillion-dollar business that is college athletics. Smith accepted that raising $38 million for a basketball arena had intangible benefits for North Carolina.
“I would prefer to play our games in a smaller, more intimate arena,” he said back then. “But if we can double the number of people who have a chance to see our games, that means more people will feel they’re part of the university. And if they feel pride because of that, it benefits the whole school.”
Excellence breeds excellence
The geology school at Oklahoma State University was the beneficiary of a $1 million donation in 1982 from oil magnate T. Boone Pickens. It was his first contribution to that university, his alma mater. Pickens was a geology major, so that was a natural place for him to share his wealth, express his thanks, and pass on the tools of success to another generation.
But his most prominent stamp on campus is the football stadium, whose renovation and expansion he launched with a $165 million donation in 2005. “I was tired of walking from my seat to my car staring at the ground all the way after football games,” Pickens, who graduated in 1951, says with a laugh. “I went quail hunting a lot with [athletic director] Mike Holder and he came out one time and showed me a spreadsheet for a plan he had. He said, ‘this is what it’s going to take to be competitive.’ I didn’t ask what it took to win because you can’t guarantee wins, but I wanted to be competitive. There was talk that if we didn’t improve our facility we might get kicked out of the Big 12. I looked at all the numbers and said, ‘what’s the bottom line—how much do you need?’ He told me $200 million. I said, ‘well, I’m not going to give you $200 million.’ Eventually, though, I did. Of course through the years, I’ve given about a billion dollars to the school and only about 25 percent of it has been for athletics.”
A signatory of the Giving Pledge, Pickens estimates he’s “given away about half of my net worth—to date. I’m very comfortable with that, especially since a lot more of my money has gone to cancer research than to sports.”
The renovated stadium now seats 60,000 fans—up from 46,000—and has state-of-the-art locker rooms, offices, and weight-room facilities. Since the project was completed in 2009, Oklahoma State’s football record is 67-24, including a couple of nearly undefeated seasons.
And Pickens argues that the success has spread far beyond the green grass of the football stadium. “It’s a fact,” says Pickens. “Oklahoma State has become a better school academically by doing better athletically. We get more applications and our applicant pool is smarter and deeper. And more people feel pride in the university and are willing to give money in other areas too.”
“I would say I got my money’s worth,” Pickens concludes. “I definitely got my money’s worth.”
Supporters, not owners
“I’ve always believed that athletics is the social glue at many, if not most, colleges in this country,” says NCAA president Mark Emmert, who is also a former college president. “It’s also a distinctly American thing. Very rarely do colleges overseas field teams, especially the kind of teams we field here. The feeling of pride that Americans have in their schools because of sports teams doesn’t really exist in other places. I’ve always said that if you see someone walking around Paris in a ‘Sorbonne’ sweatshirt, you can be certain he’s an American.”
Emmert remembers taking the president of the Sorbonne to a Saturday night football game while he was the chancellor of Louisiana State University, a football power with an 100,000-seat football stadium. “At one point, I said to him, ‘so what do you think of American college football?’” Emmert recalls. “He looked at me and said, ‘My dream is to someday hear thousands of people scream, ‘Let’s go Sorbonne!’”
“I definitely got my money’s worth,” says Boone Pickens. “Oklahoma State has become a better school academically by doing better athletically.”
That distinctively American dream takes gobs of money for most colleges to achieve—money in large part supplied by enthusiastic donors. Some critics worry this enthusiasm can cross over into undue influence. “You have to make it clear to donors that you appreciate their money,” but “there is very definitely a line,” Emmert says. “What you can’t have is donors not liking the outcome of a game or a season and saying, ‘Let’s go have a word with the coach.’”
“There are donors who confuse philanthropy with ownership,” he goes on. “If you give money to the business school, that doesn’t mean you get to pick the dean. Sports are different because of the passion, and because there’s always a scoreboard that tells you who won and who lost. People who have given money, especially those who have given a lot of money, believe they should be listened to. Some believe it more than others.”
In 1983, Duke’s basketball team ended its season with a 109-66 loss to Virginia in the ACC Tournament. The Blue Devils finished with a record of 11-17, making Mike Krzyzewski’s three-year record as coach 38-47. When athletic director Tom Butters returned to the team hotel, he was besieged by members of the “Iron Dukes,” the athletic department’s fundraising arm.
“I was told in no uncertain terms that I needed to fire my basketball coach,” Butters remembered years later. “By the time I got home, I had letters from many of the same people who had attacked me in the lobby telling me that if the basketball coach wasn’t fired their support would be withdrawn. I didn’t fire him. Seven years later, when the Boston Celtics wanted to hire him, I got letters—many from the exact same people—telling me they would donate whatever money was needed to ensure he stayed at Duke.”
Krzyzewski is now Division I men’s college basketball’s all-time winningest coach and has led Duke to five national championships, most recently last year. “If the Iron Dukes had been making the decision, I would have been fired after three years,” he says.
Uncle Phil’s locker
The University of Oregon raised eyebrows not long ago with a seemingly donor-directed hire. No one has given more money to an athletic department than Phil Knight, the 78-year-old co-founder of Nike. Knight has donated to many other causes, including $500 million to the Oregon Health and Science University for cancer research. He has also put up more than half a billion dollars to Stanford, where he got his MBA.
But he has spent more money on Oregon athletics than anyone has ever spent on athletics at any school. Oregon’s $200-million basketball arena, opened five years ago, is the Matthew Knight Arena, named for Knight’s oldest son, who died in a diving accident 12 years ago. Oregon’s three-year-old state-of-the-art $68-million football training facility was paid for by Knight, who also contributed $100 million several years ago to the Oregon Athletics Legacy Fund. Even before those contributions, Knight had given close to $200 million to the Oregon athletic fund through the years.
Oregon football players call him “Uncle Phil.” He has a locker in the football facility and can often be seen prowling the sidelines at games. As one non-Oregon coach noted, “he owns the damn sideline, why shouldn’t he be on it?”
Has Knight crossed Emmert’s line in terms of booster influence? In 2006 Knight’s good friend and fellow Oregon booster Pat Kilkenny was named athletic director. Kilkenny, who previously made millions in insurance, had no experience in athletics. He did manage to secure a $100 million donation almost right away to get construction started on the long-stalled basketball arena project. The donation, of course, came from Knight.
Thanks in large part to Knight’s involvement, the size of Oregon’s athletic program tripled within a decade—growing faster than any major football school ever. In seven of the last ten years, the Ducks’ football record is 10-3 or better, and most games sell out. There’s a palpable buzz surrounding the campus, and the school is experiencing a rise in applications. (See the previous sidebar on the “Flutie Effect.”) Some professors complain that the football hype has distracted the school from its educational focus and commitment to academic integrity (for more on the perceived perils, see “Are College Sports Out of Control?” on page 57). In the world of college athletics, Oregon is known as “University of Nike.”
Underwritten by the Under Armourer
Meanwhile, on the opposite coast, another fortune in athletic gear is being reinvested in athletic programming. Under Armour, the underdog of sports apparel companies, has taken jock-world by storm in the last 15 years. Kevin Plank, the 43-year-old CEO, took inspiration from perspiration. He drenched so many uniforms with sweat as a football player at the University of Maryland, College Park that he decided to make clothing that would wick fluid away from the skin for evaporation. Soon after graduating in 1996, Plank started his company with $17,000 he made during college through a business he called “Cupid’s Valentine.” He turned that into a net worth, 20 years later, of $3.3 billion. To say that Plank is now rich beyond his wildest dreams is inaccurate, though, because he not only dreamed of being wealthy but sees Under Armour as still in its nascent stages.
“I never believed it couldn’t happen,” Plank says on a stiflingly hot morning, sitting at a table in his office with a spectacular view of the Baltimore harbor. “I don’t know why more people don’t begin the day with more hope. Maybe that’s trite, but I’ve always thought ‘why can’t anyone be great and do great things?’
Plank has also long dreamed of being a donor, returning the favor to institutions that help others succeed. He gave Maryland $25 million in 2014 to launch its campaign for a new $90 million football practice facility. “If you want to play with the big boys, you have to have the same chance to prepare, to recruit, to compete,” he says. He could have given more, and Maryland would have gladly taken more, but he told the school’s fundraisers they needed to find additional donors.
“I don’t mind being the first one in, but I don’t want to be the only one,” he said. “To me, Maryland is the ultimate bandwagon school. It’s easy to say, ‘well, I’ll give when you start winning.’ I think there’s a better story to be extracted from the school than we are getting right now, but other people out there need to get involved.”
He smiles. “Look, my life doesn’t change if Maryland wins or if Maryland loses. But I do like walking into a bar in Chicago and saying, ‘hey, put the Maryland-Indiana game on!’ I feel better when Maryland wins. I want my school to be great. But I have no intention of trying to do it alone.”
Fundraising is at least as important a part of an athletic director’s job as hiring coaches or understanding athletics. Even with all the television money that has flowed into football and basketball in recent years, many athletic departments are still strapped for cash. Recently, Maryland left the Atlantic Coast Conference to join the Big Ten because the new league, anxious for an East Coast presence, offered what amounted to a financial bailout. Having been forced by rising costs to cut seven non-revenue sports, Maryland almost had no choice but to accept.
“I understood why people were upset with leaving the ACC,” Plank says. “It was an emotional decision. But in the end it was the right thing to do. You have to be practical.” He bridles when he reads that university athletic officials consult with him before making major moves—whether jumping to the Big Ten or firing or hiring a coach. “I tell people the football coach is my football coach and so is the basketball coach—and he’s theirs too. I will back them in every way I possibly can. But I don’t want to be consulted on things like that.”
Plank’s giving is informed by Andrew Carnegie’s The Gospel of Wealth. Of the three ways Carnegie outlines for the very rich to use their money, “the worst way is to leave it all to your children,” Plank says. “If you do that you deny them the chance to be self-made—to do what you did. The second way is to set up a foundation—let someone else decide how to handle your money. The third is to commit to giving away more than half the money you’ve made in your lifetime and be able to see it at work. I believe in that way.”
Are college sports educational?
A common criticism of college athletics is that in its modern incarnation it has become entirely divorced from a school’s academic mission. The biggest sports operate in a parallel universe, with different admissions and sometimes academic standards—occasionally including fluff classes created specifically for players, a willful disregard (or even enabling) of cheating, and a distasteful culture of entitlement and nonexistent expectations that leaves some of the athletes hardly qualified as “students.” Coach salaries have grown to an order of magnitude greater than any other university employee (including the president). Hundreds of millions of dollars are lavished on sports amenities. Are college sports teams still features of a school’s larger educational enterprise? Or are they competitive, for-profit businesses?
That largely depends on the school. There remain many havens where the teamwork, discipline, and leadership developed by athletics are genuinely integrated into the school’s mission, the players are not segregated, and the sports programs are not unduly commercialized.
One obvious example is the United States Military Academy. In the late 1990s, Lieutenant General Daniel Christman, the superintendent, knew that the school’s facilities were horribly outdated. Contrary to popular belief, the athletic departments of the three military academies—Army, Navy, and Air Force—are not government-funded. They are philanthropically funded entities that must raise their own support.
Enter AOL founding CEO Jim Kimsey, whose early involvement in the Internet made him, as he put it, “stupid rich.” I had the chance to speak with him before he passed away in March. “I felt an obligation to give something back to West Point,” the Class of 1962 alumnus said. He was semi-retired, living in Virginia right down the block from the Kennedy estate, with a grand view of the Potomac River. “Funny thing is, I didn’t like West Point when I was there. I was a bad cadet. But I enjoyed being in the Army.” He smiled. “Believe it or not, back then, a lot of us thought the idea of going to Vietnam was cool.” Kimsey served in Vietnam twice.
“I’d rather see my school win than lose,” he continued. “But I also feel an obligation to the cadets. Like I said, I had stupid money, so why not help out if I could? Dan showed me the athletic facilities, and they were completely outdated in every way. That was really the way he sold it to me: I’d be helping cadets who were athletes. It was a good sales pitch.”
The Kimsey Athletic Center cost $40 million—about half of it paid for by Kimsey’s initial donation—and opened in 2003. It now houses a 20,000-square-foot weight room, a massive football locker room, meeting rooms, Army’s sports Hall of Fame, and comfortable football offices that overlook the stadium and the adjacent Lusk Reservoir.
Unfortunately, the new facility hasn’t done much to reverse Army’s football fortunes. Since the Kimsey Center went into use, the football team has had one winning season and hasn’t beaten arch-rival Navy a single time.
“Money can’t buy happiness or wins,” Kimsey told me with a wry smile. “I like winning, but I don’t live and die with the outcomes of games.”
Sport as an alternate path to success
Plank, Pickens, and Kimsey all dealt with failures early in adulthood. Kimsey and Plank were both asked to leave D.C.-area private schools—Kimsey from Gonzaga, Plank from Georgetown Prep. In a twist, both ended up graduating, nearly 35 years apart, from St. John’s, another D.C. private school. Pickens went to Texas A&M on a basketball scholarship. But at the end of his freshman year, his coaches informed him that they had recruited guards more talented than him and were pulling his scholarship. He transferred to Oklahoma State, and “to this day I have Aggie [Texas A&M] friends who tell me that if I’d stayed there I might have made something of myself.”
Plank readily admits he had not yet “gotten my act together” when he was at Georgetown Prep and only became a good student after leaving. “Still, every time I write a check to St. John’s, there’s a part of me that’s saying, ‘Hey Prep, could have been you,’” he laughs. He recently donated $16 million to St. John’s.
Kimsey said he was never a good student anywhere. He was just stubborn. “One of the reasons I managed to graduate from West Point was because people kept saying to me, ‘you’ll never graduate.’ I didn’t make it by much, but I did make it.” He went on to a legendary career in the Special Forces.
Plank long dreamed of being a donor. The worst thing you can do with a lot of money, he says, is “to leave it all to your children.”
All three men admit to still being bothered by these long-ago low expectations. Plank played Maryland football as a walk-on and eventually became captain of special teams. Former Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams, who is now the school’s chief athletic fundraiser, believes not being on scholarship and not being especially talented athletically drives Plank to this day. “As much money as he’s made, as successful as he’s been, I think he’s still trying to prove himself,” Williams says.
Plank agrees. “I think having a chip on your shoulder that way is a good thing,” he says. “I know I have it and I hope I keep it. As well as we’ve done, I still plan on catching Nike in total sales and going past them someday. Five years ago their sales were 19 times our sales. Now they’re nine times our sales. We’re going to pass them—and there’s nothing they can do to stop us.”
Plank thinks there is too much focus on donations to big-name schools with big-time athletic programs. “I rarely hear people talk about the fact that we are supplying gear now for every public school in Baltimore,” he says. Or his support for entrepreneurship in the funding he gave to the University of Maryland. And “frankly, I would rather see other people give money in order to help people in this city rather than to the University of Maryland.”
He smiles. “But I’d like to see them give to Maryland too.”
Teaching about life
Back to Chapel Hill. It’s February 2015, and players and fans are gathered in the “Dean Dome” to celebrate the life of Dean Smith. The floor is packed with lanky men in chairs, and player after player recounts the lessons and contributions of his former coach, suggesting that what transpired on the hardwood in front of Smith’s steely gaze somehow involved more than basketball. A statement from Michael Jordan perhaps summarizes it best: “Other than my parents, no one had a bigger influence on my life than Coach Smith. He was more than a coach—he was my mentor, my teacher, my second father. Coach was always there for me whenever I needed him and I loved him for it. In teaching me the game of basketball, he taught me about life.”
Ideally that’s what donors to college athletics are supporting—a combination of character training and stress-testing and life lessons and community that is palpable even if it resists measurement. While the hospital down the street saves lives, a sporting team that competes at a high level without losing its soul sprinkles local citizens with hope and pride and indelible images of bravery, excellence, and loyalty.
Months after Dean Smith’s death, every letterman who played under him received an envelope from his estate lawyer. Enclosed was a check for $200 and a note. “Enjoy a dinner out compliments of Coach Dean Smith.” Though he worked in a dome in front of 20,000 strangers, this coach and teacher never lost his personal touch.
John Feinstein is a sports commentator for ESPN, NPR, the Washington Post, CBS Radio, and other outlets. His tale A Season on the Brink is the bestselling sports book of all time. He has also written other acclaimed works on college basketball (The Legends Club is his latest), and on college football (A Civil War).
This article has five sidebars: