A quick look at the championship history of college football will reveal an evolution of sorts.
In the early days of the sport, college football was dominated by some of the most prestigious academic institutions in the nation. Universities like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Georgia Tech, Michigan and Pennsylvania dominated the early years, largely due to the sport's infant stages.
Beginning around the late 1920’s, you began to see a trend where institutions with larger enrollments started claiming national titles. Many of these were state schools with lower admission standards and larger facilities, aimed at catering to a larger numbers of students.
Schools like Southern California and Minnesota flourished during this period, while Notre Dame and Army would still pop their heads up now and then.
By the 1950’s, a full transition had been made. Schools with large numbers of alumni, mostly state colleges, began dominating the game. The alumni from these institutions eventually evolved into boosters of their alma mater’s athletic programs, specifically football.
A university’s football program, for better or worse, often serves as the front porch or face of the institution. Success on the football field translated to revenue for the university. The revenue was often pumped right back into the athletic program via lavish locker rooms, first-class accommodations on the road, and upgraded stadiums. Those types of things were huge in luring recruits to the school and keeping the winning tradition at these universities going.
For over a half century, this process kept teams like Oklahoma, Alabama, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State and Texas on top of the college football world. Today, most consider those teams the “blue-bloods" of the sport.
The same process helped schools like Florida, Miami and even Florida State—an all-girls college until 1947—break through as perennially elite programs on the college football landscape.
In 2000, Phil Knight started changing that landscape.
It is estimated that he has donated over $300 million to the University of Oregon’s athletic program. In addition, Oregon’s football program has essentially become a test and marketing wing for Nike’s football uniform endeavors. The Ducks are always first in line to sport the latest and greatest in gridiron attire.
In addition to the $300 million, Knight is also paying out of pocket for a new football facility at Oregon. The state-of-the-art building will house a players lounge, dining facility, climate controlled lockers, two movie theaters and a football museum among other amenities. The price: $68 million.
In 2012, these are the types of things that you need to get recruits to come to your institution.
So far, it appears to be working. After totaling five conference titles in the 20th century, the Ducks have claimed five Pac-12 titles since 2000. Many are projecting them to claim their sixth and play in their second national title game in three years.
Knight may be the most well-known “super-booster,” but he is not alone. Guys like T-Boone Pickens and Kevin Plank are doing their part to help their alma maters become consistently relevant.
Pickens, an oil tycoon, has donated over a quarter of a billion dollars to Oklahoma State’s athletic program since 2005. The Cowboys have since become a relatively major player on the college football scene.
Plank’s impact has not yet yielded the same results in terms of wins and losses, but it is still early in the process.The Under Armour founder and former University of Maryland football player—though he has not donated the same type of money that Pickens and Knight have—uses Maryland’s football program as a test-bed of sorts for his company’s designs.
I assume Plank's goal is to have the effect on Maryland that Knight had on Oregon. However, he may find it more difficult given the number of programs Maryland competes with on the East Coast for recruits. Nonetheless, his uniform designs keep Maryland football in the public eye when it otherwise may not be.
Given the recent rise of these “super-boosters,” combined with the fact that the NCAA does not have any limit on monetary donations to athletic programs, it appears the sport is at a new crossroads.
We are in the midst of an era where one person with deep enough pockets can essentially wipe out legacies and create new ones with a blank check.
To an extent, the game has always depended on boosters, but nothing like what we see now. Never before have billionaires made it a point to leave their fortunes to universities, all in the name of gamesmanship.
This is an era where the marketing and athletic departments of universities may have to hire recruiters to sway the university’s most rich and famous alum to hand over one of those blank checks.
This person would be more important to the future success of the university and the athletic programs than any football recruiting coordinator.
This all might sound good to fans and alumni of schools currently profiting from these kinds of donations. However, unless the NCAA decides to create a limit in regard to donations, a real-game changer is going to come along and turn collegiate sports—specifically football—on its side more than Phil Knight has already done.
For what it’s worth, Warren Buffett has a degree from Nebraska.