Oregon, Nike And The Future Of College Football

SEATTLE - NOVEMBER 05: Running back LaMichael James #21 of the Oregon Ducks rushes against the Washington Huskies on November 5, 2011 at Husky Stadium in Seattle, Washington. The Ducks defeated the Huskies 34-17. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Yeah, you know about the jerseys. But take a closer look at Oregon football and Nike, and what's really turned the Ducks into a powerhouse over the past 15 years.

Have you ever been to South Bend, Indiana? It's the hallowed home of Notre Dame, yes, but on the ground it seems like less a college town utopia than a lifeless rest stop of a community with a college dropped in the middle. As an added bonus, the only thing more dependable than the bitter cold is the stiff breeze that comes with it.

In other words, if you're not going to school there or going to a football game or stopping for gas on the way to Chicago, there's really no reason to ever visit South Bend.

That's the same reaction I had to Eugene, Oregon, where off in the distance you have beautiful mountains and evergreen trees and it seems exactly the way you'd imagine the rural Northwest. Then on the ground, you have gas stations and motels and a highway, and it's slightly less charming.

That's less a criticism of Eugene than a credit to what Nike and Oregon football have done over the past 15 years. Without football, Eugene would be Corvallis, and you'd never have a reason to go there. Fifteen years later, Eugene's the cold, rainy town at the center of college football's future.

So I went there. This past weekend, I flew out with a group of writers as guests of Nike, the principal catalyst for that 15-year transition. And through conversations with people from Nike and people from Oregon and then watching the Oregon-USC game, I got the chance to see what's behind those crazy uniforms everyone seems to love so much.

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But really, everybody always wants to talk about the jerseys. I'll later realize this is by design, but in any case, my first day at Oregon, a man answers the question before we can even ask it. His name is Jim Bartko. He's the "Executive Senior Associate," which sounds like a job title from a Saturday Night Live sketch, but actually means he has his hand in just about everything related to Oregon athletics.

"Our pitch," he tells us, "is that every three years, each recruit who comes here will have a chance to work with Nike, and not only design the colors, but the product, and the look. Some of 'em get really into it, and some of them are actually working at Nike as designers."

At once, he a) completely confirms everyone's suspicions and b) spells out what makes Oregon so controversial among fans. It's not just that Nike's a silent benefactor writing checks behind the scenes; the relationship is an active selling point for some of the best college football recruits in America. Not technically illegal, but one of many recruiting tactics that seems like it should be.

But look up close, and you see athletes designing Nike uniforms is only the beginning -- that's what the fans see, and as another Oregon official put it, "that's what gets us in the door." It makes for compelling essays on branding and economic psychology as it relates to college sports, and it's kinda cool for everyone to think of Oregon as the college team that wins because of their jerseys.

But Nike's tentacles run much deeper in a relationship that's more complicated. You don't pull a powerhouse from thin air with flashy colors and cool helmets.

You say you did, so people won't look closer at how you really did it.

Oregon2_medium

It all began with 1996 Cotton Bowl, when an Oregon team (pictured above) got blown out by Colorado on New Year's Day. The final score was 38-6 in a loss that was punctuated by a late fake punt, with Colorado already leading 32-6. Afterward, Oregon tight end Josh Wilcox said, "maybe Coach Neuheisel should learn a new song by Aretha Franklin, `Respect.' It [angered] us."

But more importantly, it angered Phil Knight, the CEO of Nike and godfather to Oregon athletics. The Ducks' football team had made the Rose Bowl the year before (a 38-20 loss), but if there had been any delusions of grandeur, they were destroyed against Colorado. So as Sports Business Daily reported, Phil Knight called a meeting at Nike centered on a simple question: "how can we help the University of Oregon attract better students and better student athletes?"

Just like that, Oregon football became a priority for Nike. It began with design teams led by guys like Tinker Hatfield, but what's ultimately materialized is a program that serves almost like a mascot for the most innovative sports corporation on the planet. Walk around town in Eugene, and there are swooshes everywhere. Like there's been an oil spill of corporate branding.

But as generous as Phil Knight seems, he's not dumb, and if Nike was going to adopt a fledgling football program as its pet cause, then they weren't going to be conservative. So, while walking around Oregon's football complex, you immediately ask two questions.

  1. Is EVERYTHING brand new around here?
  2. How much did all this cost?

After I left this weekend I did some research. Here's what I found: Within five years of Knight's first meeting in 1996, Oregon had engineered a $90 million renovation on their football stadium, they had a Heisman Trophy finalist thanks in part to one of the most aggressive marketing campaigns the country's ever seen, and sports facilities had been revamped all over campus. Phil Knight didn't pay for everything himself, but once he signed on as the principal donor, seeking out others wasn't nearly as difficult.

The most telling move of all: Knight helped build a $15 million indoor practice facility for the football team. Because if Oregon was going to be among the national elite, it'd mean drawing elite talent to rainy Eugene from all over the nation. And elite talent doesn't like practicing in the rain.

Since then, the spending's continued. In 2003, Oregon built a two-story football locker room that cost $3.2 million, and includes ventilated lockers that cost an estimated $26,000-a-piece. In 2007, the Athletic Medicine Center was built with another $10 million in donations. And then in 2010, there was the academic center for athletes that Knight built. As The Oregonian reports:

Inside the 12 1/2-foot front doors are stunning sights at each turn: A three-story atrium with a first-floor café warmed by stylish couches hugging an open-air gas fireplace. An auditorium paid for with a donation by former quarterback Joey Harrington with 113 blinding-yellow leather seats. And a room of bronze athlete-award statues commissioned by a Spanish artist whose sculptures are featured at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Most of one wall is consumed by a three-story etched-steel mosaic of Albert Einstein made up of thousands of photos of Oregon athletes taken by a photographer who followed them for a year.

See, while flashy jerseys make for a cool creation myth, the truth is more simple. When Phil Knight wants his alma mater to win, they're going to win. Or, when a corporation like Nike goes out on limb identifying itself with a major college football program, they won't leave much to chance. Colorado's gone 90-100 since that Cotton Bowl, while Oregon's 128-58.

On the way out of my tour in the two-story locker room—the one with lockers more expensive than my car—one of the guides told us that they've already got plans for a full-scale renovation.

And then there are these glasses...

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Pictured above is a product that hasn't been released yet. Nike calls them SPARQ Vapor Strobe Glasses, and they're every bit as surreal as the name suggests. They use strobe lights to reduce athlete's vision, forcing them to perform with less information, sharpening their cognitive ability. And it actually works. And when Nike becomes the official sponsor of the NFL, you have to think Vapor Strobes will pop up all over the NFL. But how do we know it works?

Just look at the colors. Oregon's been using them long before the NFL gets a chance. As Chip Kelly says, "Our players have worn 'em in practice, they warm up with them. Sometimes it's kinda like using a weighted bat."

"It's backed up with their performance," he adds. "Sometimes I think people will say we have a great idea, and if you wear this mechanical bracelet on your left arm then you become strong again. But they don't have science behind it. I can tell from the performance of our players when they go out on the field, which ones have actually trained and used it. It's one of those relationships we have with [Nike] being on the cutting edge of things. It's not just about, 'Does it look cool?'"

This is when it all clicked for me.

"We love the relationship," says James Harris, an assistant athletic director in his 30s, when someone asks about the training technology. "It's like an edge, and we wish it was more of a secret." He laughs when he says that, because he's talking to room full of writers Nike brought to visit.

It was never going to be a secret.

Oregon's not just a pet cause, but also a perfect marketing machine that allows Nike to test its newest technology, and then when it works, market it to America with one of the most exciting teams in college football. New shoes, new jerseys, strobe light glasses from the future, whatever.

This is also where it gets ethically complicated. On two, semi-related levels.

  1. Phil Knight's using his money to make Oregon football ubiquitous, but in so doing, he's really just making Nike ubiquitous. Because as every national broadcast takes pains to mention, "the Ducks got good because of those crazy Nike uniforms."
  2. That's not really true, of course. Oregon's football program got to the top thanks to Phil Knight's money, not Tinker Hatfield's designs. And as the football program becomes the biggest selling point for the school, the uniforms distract everyone from this: Knight's money is so valuable to Oregon that he can basically do whatever he wants. This is dangerous territory. As one AD asked in 2008, "When does input become influence and when does influence become interference?” Do we really think it's an accident that Oregon has an offense that makes football look twice as cool?

None of this is against the rules, and it doesn't have to be. But when we said "Eugene, Oregon is the center of college football's future", that wasn't about Chip Kelly's offense and Nike's uniforms.

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A lot of people instinctively see what's going on at Oregon and say it's unfair. They have a point. That was my first reaction, too. It's unfair for billionaires to control the direction of universities, unfair for college kids to be exploited for billion-dollar marketing schemes, and unfair for a university to house what certainly feels a lot like a pro football team.

But then I thought, isn't that the same as anywhere else in college football? The system's been strained more than ever in the past ten years, and as the profit opportunities multiply, competition for recruits and facilities will only intensify, schools will be more to desperate to appease donors, and tension between ideals and financial realities will get worse. Uniforms and otherwise, eventually they'll all look like Oregon.

Oregon's just the most transparent about it all.

And that's sorta refreshing. They play fast and make football look fun, players seem to love playing there, and they have some of the best fans in the entire country. If Oregon's a case study in college football corruption, then at least in this case, the conclusion is that a lot of what happens in Eugene isn't all that horrible. For the players who matriculate to the NFL or Nike when they graduate, for Phil Knight and Nike, and for the university itself. Just last year, applications rose by 30 percent out of state.

Again, nothing Phil Knight does for Oregon is against the rules. So while other programs hide behind piety, Oregon can just have fun, be honest, and keep being the most ridiculous program in America.

The same way the past glory of Notre Dame football could breathe life into South Bend, now Oregon football's boundless possibilities breathe life into Eugene.

It was freezing cold, wet, and windy for the USC game on Saturday night, but a crowd of 60,000 still exceeded Autzen Stadium's capacity. The fans got loud at the start, and then once Oregon began coming back from a 24-point deficit, loud gave way to ear-splitting. Toward the end, when it got close and the whole stadium came fully unglued as the Ducks went into kill mode on offense, there wasn't anywhere I would've rather been than cold and dreary Eugene. And for all its shady motivations, that's what college football can do. For towns, schools, and entire states.

Oregon wound up losing, of course, killing their hopes at a national title in 2011, and leaving the whole stadium to walk out in silence. The obvious conclusion is sobering: All the Phil Knight money in the world can't buy Oregon rings. But the other conclusion: It's a lot of fun watching them try.

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