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Knight's $100 Million Comes With Questions

Oregon Duck fans are flying incredibly high today. That's because the University of Oregon announced that it had received the largest private donation in state history — specifically earmarked to the school's sports programs. Ethan Lindsey reports that a new arena is one project that's already in the works.

In pro football, if you second-guess your team's decisions, they call you a Monday morning quarterback. In college football, since they play the games on Saturday, its probably more accurate to call it "Sunday morning quarterbacking."
Phil Knight
 Either way, looking back at the last year in the University of Oregon athletics department, it seems impossible not to have predicted a major announcement was coming. University President Dave Frohnmayer made it official at Monday's press conference.

Dave Frohnmayer: “We're here today to announce an act of philanthropy that is unprecedented in the history of Oregon, as well as the University of Oregon. We're here to announce a gift to the University in the amount of $100 million.”

The bread crumbs leading up to the $100 million check began to appear when the University hired long-time sports booster Pat Kilkenny to be the school's athletic director. Kilkenny famously had no administrative experience — in fact, he has no college degree whatsoever. But what he does have is Phil Knight's ear. 

That is Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, and the man who, along with his wife, just made the $100 million promise to fund University of Oregon athletics from here until eternity. Or at least that's what Frohnmayer says he hopes. 

Dave Frohnmayer: “This gift will serve as the lead donation to the Oregon Athletics Legacy Fund. We hope this fund will reach $150 million in the future and is the key to moving Oregon athletics from being self-supporting on an annual basis to being sulf-sustaining on a long term basis.”

When the Ducks football and basketball teams have good seasons, as they have over the past few years, the athletics department can fund itself. But university spokesman Phil Weiler says now the school won't have to live or die based on those wins-and-losses. 

Several U of O professors expressed disappointment with the nature and size of the gift. 

The University's relationship with Knight has come under fire over the past few years. Many question why his philanthropic gifts have been spent on sports-only projects, while academic programs have suffered through budget cuts. 

Phil Knight, as is his custom, would not comment today. He received his bachelor's degree from the U of O, and he famously ran track under legendary coach Bill Bowerman, where both designed the first Nike shoe.
Other clues that had many fans hoping for a cash infusion of this sort include Phil Knight's 2005 sale of a billion dollars in Nike stock. Also, many at the university seemed shocked when Knight's buddy Jim Bartko left U of O last year to take a seemingly equivalent job at the University of California, Berkeley. Then, Bartko returned to Oregon earlier this year with little indication as to why. 

Athletic Director Pat Kilkenny says Bartko was instrumental behind-the-scenes. 

Pat Kilkenny: “Jim Bartko did an incredible amount of work over a number of years to get to this point on developing that relationship.”

Kilkenny's title is an interim one - he took the job for two years only, he says. And many fans in Eugene and online predict Bartko is now the frontrunner to lead the athletics program after Kilkenny leaves. 

Weiler, the University's spokesman, says when Frohnmayer offered Kilkenny the job he charged him with two tasks: One was to make the athletics department financially independent. And two, was to make progress on building a new arena to house men's and women's basketball.

The project has been in the works for five years but had stalled when the university did the math and found the ticket money and revenue from a new arena would not make up for the cost of the facility. Frohnmayer says all that is now changed. 

Dave Frohnmayer: “The arena construction itself will be supported by the arena revenues that are generated. And the overall existence of this fund acts as a backdrop, that then permits the athletic department to do the funding with the security that it will occur on budget and on time.”

Frohnmayer surprised many when he also signaled that the construction of a new arena, likely across the street from the U of O campus, would probably mean historic MacArthur Court would be torn down. The ivy-covered basketball arena was built in 1926. 

This new donation means Knight has now given close to $200 million to the University, including the money for the Knight Library, the Knight law school, a renovation of the football stadium, and fifteen endowed professorships. 

The $100 million is the largest private gift in state history — and it's tied for the second-largest athletics department donation in American history.

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