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Big Buck Donations: Do They "Buy" College Championships?

Tuesday, 21 Aug 2007 | 11:59 AM ET
Phil Knight
Phil Knight

The University of Oregon announced yesterday that Nike founder Phil Knight will pledge to donate $100 million to the Ducks’ athletic department. It ties the second-largest single donation ever made to an athletic department (with University of North Dakota booster Ralph Engelstad), following the $165 million check Boone Pickens wrote to Oklahoma State in Jan. 2006.

There’s no doubt that donations like this put these schools at a significant advantage. Better facilities. Better coaches. A better experience for athletes.

So my question is, how long should it take for these donations to equal championships? Oklahoma State has already won 48 championships--which leaves them behind only UCLA (100), Stanford (94) and Southern Cal (84). Oregon has won 13 championships in their history. But the two schools actually have similar profiles.

The Cowboys only have won two championships in the so-called revenue sports and the Ducks have only won one. They all came in men’s basketball and they all came before the sport was a revenue sport. Oregon won the NCAA basketball tournament in the very first year it took place (1939) and there wasn’t any revenue to be had in the sport when Oklahoma State--then named Oklahoma A&M--took the basketball title with Henry Iba in 1945 and 1946.

I think these big donations will bring championships in both football and basketball, but I’m giving it three full recruiting classes. That’s right, I think that within the next 15 years, Oregon and Oklahoma State at least will win a title in either men’s basketball or football.

Why is my timetable like that?

I think that’s about how long it takes for enough of the money to be donated and enough of the facilities to be built. I’m putting my bet on Oklahoma State first. The number one reason is because they reinvested that money with Pickens. And second of all, because of their precedent-setting booster life insurance strategy--which will ensure that the athletic department gets a donation every time one of its top boosters passes away.

Like anything, I have to put a disclaimer on this. Winning championships in any sport come down to personnel decisions. Just like the New York Knicks in the NBA and the Washington Redskins in the NFL, spending huge amounts of money along does not a championship make. More impressive facilities could get Oklahoma State and Oregon the recruits that they think are the best, but if the coaches have evaluated wrong and what they perceive to be inferior players light it up at Oklahoma and Oregon State, then their big money advantage is gone.

Questions? Comments? SportsBiz@cnbc.com

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