If you follow college sports, you’re bound to hear about boosters. Sometimes they’re mentioned in hushed tones as shadowy figures whose contributions to a program might not be totally above board, but they’re often just regular fans who like to give their teams some extra cash. (In some cases, lots of extra cash. Wheelbarrows full of it.) In return for this funding, boosters often get access to coaches, practices, and players. Although you often don’t hear about boosters until one of them breaks a rule by paying a player or giving a team member illegal gifts, most boosters are upstanding financial backers of their squads. Some, though, go well beyond the call of duty and give gigantic gifts that can help a team or athletic department thrive for decades. Here are a few notable extravagant boosters:
Pickens made a $3 billion fortune in the oil and hedge fund industries, and he’s also risen to fame as an outspoken advocate of alternative energy sources. Oklahoma State fans know Pickens as one of the most generous donors of all time, too. Pickens has given over $400 million to his alma mater, and the bulk of his donations have gone to the Cowboys’ athletic department. His January 2006 gift of $165 million to OSU was the most generous donation in NCAA history. Even though this gift was later criticized because the cash went directly back into a hedge fund managed by Pickens, it’s hard to sneer at what Pickens has done for the school’s teams; his total donations to the athletic department total over $265 million. (And after all, someone needs to manage $165 million. You can’t just stick it in a checking account.)
So what does all that dough buy you? When Pickens goes to see his beloved Cowboys play football now, he takes a seat in Boone Pickens Stadium.
Nike co-founder Knight has made a killing in the sneaker game; he owns 35% of Nike, which gives him a net worth in the $10 billion range. As a Portland native and University of Oregon graduate, he loves the Ducks, for whom he once ran on the track team. Most fans know that Knight has forged a strong connection between Oregon athletics and Nike, if only because of the football team’s odd trademark Nike jerseys. He’s given more than threads to the school’s athletic department, though; he’s forked over some serious cash as well. Knight’s given around $230 million to the university, most of which has gone towards athletics. He and his wife recently announced a $100 million pledge to another athletic fund at the school. Knight is relatively private about his sports philanthropy, though, and some fans suspect the actual number could be even higher; they often attribute anonymous donations to athletic programs to Knight. On top of that, he’s been extremely generous to the university’s academic side as well.
Knight’s donations don’t make him universally beloved, though. Some fans think he might wield too much influence within the athletic department. He’s got his own locker in the Ducks’ locker room, and he apparently helped influence the school into hiring his pal Pat Kilkenny as its athletic director despite Kilkenny’s lack of degree or relevant experience. When Knight pulled his donation from the track program following personal and philosophical clashes with the team’s head coach, the coach resigned despite having led the team through a strong season, a move some suspected Knight forced. That’s one of the downsides of boosters, though. Get on their bad side, and you’re pretty much gone.
The late Engelstad sounds like quite a character. He was a self-made man as an independent owner of casinos in Las Vegas and Biloxi, Mississippi, and he periodically fell under criticism for his large collection of Nazi paraphernalia, including a painting of himself dressed in full Nazi garb and murals of Hitler. He also loved his alma mater, the University of North Dakota, and held a special place in his heart for the hockey team. Engelstad was a long-time booster of UND’s Fighting Sioux teams, and he provided the funds for a new $104 million arena on campus.
There was just one hitch, though: Englestad was extremely wedded to the Fighting Sioux nickname. As teams around the country started changing offensive Native American nicknames, Engelstad threatened to withdraw his financial support for the arena unless the name stayed. To help make sure the nickname would stick, Engelstad had the school’s Sioux logo stuck in thousands of places around the plush new arena. The state’s Board of Higher Education eventually agreed to table discussion of the nickname, but at present, the school has until 2010 to convince the state’s Sioux tribes to agree to let the nickname stand, or Engelstad’s beloved teams might have to change their names.
You might think that the most powerful man in Auburn’s football program is head coach Tommy Tuberville, but that might not be completely true. Lower, a 1964 Auburn grad, throws around a good deal of weight as well. While most boosters are tied only to a university’s athletic department, Lowder, the founder of The Colonial BancGroup, also sits on school’s publicly appointed board of trustees. From this chair, Lowder can exercise huge influence over the school’s athletics, even if his $20 million or so in financial donations don’t rank up there with the big boys like Knight and Pickens. Lowder allegedly has used his influence at Auburn to convince coaches to quit and then exercised some degree of control of the hiring of their successors. When Auburn nearly dumped Tuberville in an effort to lure Louisville coach Bobby Petrino to the sidelines, the school’s president and athletic director secretly flew to Louisville to chat with Petrino. How did they travel in secret? By taking Lowder’s private jet. Now that’s influence. No wonder ESPN named him college sports’ most powerful booster.
Ethan Trex co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet’s undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys.
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