Brother, Can You Spare … A Hundred Million?

Once I built a railroad, made it run
Made it race against time
Once I built a railroad, now it’s done
Brother can you spare a dime?

In 1995, the Oregon football program had a good season. The Ducks went 9-3 overall, finished third in the Pac-10 conference race with a 6-2 record, and earned a Cotton Bowl invitation.

Check that … In 1995, the Oregon football program had a great season … for, well, Oregon.

Finishing third in the Pac-10 was a pretty big deal for the Ducks. Behind head coach Mike Bellotti, the Ducks were coming off of their first Pac-10 championship in 1994 – their first solo conference title in … um … well, ever. Prior to 1994, Oregon had never before won the Pac-10 conference championship. Oregon never won a title as a member of the Pac-8, and had a grand total of four shared titles as a member of the Pacific Coast Conference … the most recent coming in 1957.

Back-to-back New Year’s Day bowl invitations? Pretty heady stuff … for Oregon.

The Ducks’ Cotton Bowl opponent on January 1, 1996, were the Colorado Buffaloes, led by first-year head coach Rick Neuheisel. The matchup on paper looked pretty good: No. 7 Colorado v. No. 12 Oregon. The two 9-2 teams seemed to be pretty evenly matched … and they were, for about a half.

The Colorado defense turned the ball over five times, with none more important than a record-setting interception return for a touchdown by freshman cornerback Marcus Washington.  With the Buffs up 7-6 in the second quarter and the Ducks driving, Washington picked off an errant pass from Oregon quarterback Tony Graziani and raced down the sideline for a bowl-record 95 yards and a touchdown. The Buffs never looked back, rolling to a 38-6 victory.

The fact that the Ducks laid an egg on that cold and blustery afternoon in Dallas on July 1, 1996, dropping Oregon from 12th to 18th in the final poll, shouldn’t have put a damper on the excitement for the program.

But the game had a profound affect on the future of Oregon … and, as it turned out, it was a turning point for the Colorado program as well.

The fake punt which altered the future of two programs … 

Up 32-6 with five minutes to play, Colorado faced a fourth-and-14 from its 43-yard line.  After seven consecutive running plays, and the game well in hand, a punt was certainly in order.  Instead, Neuheisel called for a fake punt, with punter Andy Mitchell hitting Ryan Sutter for a 28-yard gain and a first down.  The trick play led to the Buffs’ final score, and some hurt feelings on the Oregon sideline.

First-year Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti gave a stern “no comment” about the play, but Neuheisel was quick to explain.  “We faked the punt …. strictly because they were lined up to block the punt,” Neuheisel said.  “And if you have been following Colorado football, we’ve had five of ‘em blocked.”  Neuheisel concluded with an apology: “I apologize if there are any hard feelings.”

For Colorado … 

The big win over Oregon represented what the University of Colorado football program had become. A top ten finish despite a change in coaches … the fourth ten-win season in seven years … A national ranking in every weekly poll dating back to the beginning of the 1989 season … A national brand despite playing in the most difficult conference in the nation, with fully half of the Big Eight Conference finishing the 1995 season in the top ten (final AP poll rankings: No. 1 Nebraska; No. 5 Colorado; No. 7 Kansas State; No. 9 Kansas).

And yet, the 1995 season also marked the beginning of the end for Colorado as a nationally dominant program. The Buffs had one more ten-win season in them under Neuheisel, finishing the 1996 season with a 10-2 record. Neuheisel, though, wasn’t as successful playing his own recruits. The 1997 season brought the first losing record (5-6) for the program since 1984, and, two years later, Rick Neuheisel left for greener pastures in Washington (there is some controversy over whether Neuheisel actually wanted to leave, but the fact remains his salary more than doubled … $650,000 to coach at CU in his final season of 1999; $1.5 million per season to coach Washington).

Money … or the lack thereof … now becomes the common theme …

For Oregon … 

On hand for the Colorado/Oregon Cotton Bowl was Oregon alumnus and Nike founder Phil Knight. Knight certainly had every reason to be proud of his Ducks, with back-to-back major bowl appearances, but Knight wanted more.

He wanted his alma mater to be a national program. He wanted Oregon to be more like … pause for irony here … Colorado.

From a 2014 article in the USA Today … Phil Knight remembers drinking adult beverages with Mike Bellotti, then head coach of the University of Oregon football team, at a scheduled victory party that felt more like a wake.

Colorado had just buried the Ducks 38-6 in the 1996 Cotton Bowl, and Knight, the founder and chairman of Nike who ran track for Oregon in the late 1950s, had a question for Bellotti.

“What do you need to get the program to the next level?” he asked.

An indoor practice facility, Bellotti replied.

So Knight kicked in almost $10 million to build a facility that protected the Ducks from the elements in rainy Eugene.

“It’s kind of grown from there,” Knight told USA TODAY Sports, adding that he grew intrigued with the notion of helping the program in 1995 after Oregon reached the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1958. “I wasn’t really looking at a national championship. I thought we had a chance and could return to the Rose Bowl over a reasonable period of time instead of taking a while.”

Fast forward 25 years … 

Phil Knight has pumped over a billion dollars into the University of Oregon (yes, that’s “billion”, with a “b”), with a second $500 million contribution made this past summer.

You can’t walk 100 yards in any direction on the Eugene campus without hitting a building named after Knight or one of his family members. There’s the state-of-the-art Matthew Knight Arena for the basketball program; the William W. Knight Law Center; the Knight Library … you get the idea.

And that’s before we get to the outlandish football facilities.

Oregon recently announced that it would be building a new 170,000 square foot indoor practice facility, to be completed by 2024. This would be a supplement to the already existing 117,000 square-foot Moshofsky Center. Not as a replacement, mind you, to the Moshofsky Center, but as a supplement.

“It’s a testament to the fact that Oregon’s commitment to development, the innovation behind it, is at a very different level,” Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal said when reflecting on the impact it will have on the program. “If a student athlete’s gonna come here they’re gonna receive a level of investment and be surrounded by resources like no other place in the country.”

No shit.

Meanwhile, back in Boulder … 

Colorado opened the Champions Center in 2016. It was seen as huge step forward for the program, in CU’s vain attempt to keep up with the big boys. CU athletic director Rick George spearheaded the effort to raise $105 million to build the Champions Center and indoor practice facility. The money was raised in three years … no mean feat for an athletic department which had never raised more than $15 million in a single year prior.

But is it enough?

Of course not.

Rick Neuheisel left CU for more money.

Jim Leavitt, the architect of the defense for the 2016 Buff team which went 10-4, doubled his defensive coordinator salary when he left Colorado for Oregon.

Mel Tucker, who Rick George plucked from relative obscurity (Georgia defensive coordinator who had never been a collegiate head coach), got CU fans excited about the future. In 2019, the Buffs were only 5-7, but Tucker was recruiting at a level not seen in Boulder in decades. Michigan State saw Tucker’s potential, though, and doubled his salary to get Tucker to leave CU after only one season.

(Two notes from the previous paragraph … Yes, Rick George can identify and bring in a quality head coach to Boulder … and, Yes, Mel Tucker demonstrated that you can, even in this day and age, recruit quality players to Boulder).

And it’s not just the head coaches and coordinators the Buffs have been unable to keep.

Case in point: Tucker’s offensive line coach, Chris Kapilovic, turned down offers from Missouri and Auburn to stay at Colorado with Mel Tucker … but then left CU to join Tucker’s staff. Kapilovic’s replacement, Mitch Rodrigue – a coach whose last job was coaching at an Alabama high school – turned a decent offensive line into the Keystone Cops.

It’s not hard to figure out, people.

Fans argue whether football is about the X’s and O’s or the Jimmy’s and the Joe’s.

It’s neither.

It’s about the $$$.

Oregon’s football revenues last year were $127.5 million; Colorado’s football revenues were $94.9 million.

You want better recruits? You want a better offensive line coach? You want a better offensive coordinator? You want a better head coach?

Write a check … one with seven or eight zeroes behind it.

It’s that freakin’ simple.

It’s been 25 years since the Buffs humbled the Ducks on a cold and blustery day in Dallas in the 1996 Cotton Bowl.

But that game turned out to be a crossroads for the two programs.

Colorado went into a slow decline after the mid-90’s, and have yet to recover. The Buffs had only gone one calendar decade in school history without at least one conference championship (and that decade was the 1950’s, when Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma Sooners dominated the Big Seven – and the nation). It’s now been 20 years without a conference championship, by far the longest drought in school history.

Oregon, meanwhile, began to rise in the mid-90’s. When the Ducks won the Pac-10 title in 1994, it was the first solo conference title in school history … pause to let that sink in … And there is this: Oregon managed to play football the entire 20th century without a ten-win season. Hard to imagine now how irrelevant the Ducks were for the first full century of college football.

In 1996, the Buffs were in the Top 20 nationally in all-time wins and in the top ten in conference championships. The Ducks were a backwater school … with Donald Duck as their mascot.

And now …

Phil Knight’s millions haven’t bought Oregon a national championship – yet. But that won’t keep him from trying.

And at Colorado …

You tell me.

Once I built a tower to the sun
Brick and rivet and lime
Once I built a tower, now it’s done
Brother can you spare a dime?


20 Replies to “Brother, Can You Spare … A Hundred Million?”

  1. The crazy part is that Nike wanted to move their corporate headquarters to Boulder. The Billion dollars could have come to CU, but the administration and the city of Boulder shot it down. For some reason they didn’t want Nike to have it’s corporate headquarters next to the campus. Anyone that had anything to do with this administration decision should be fired. Lastly, it’s silly but there is something to be said about Nike’s fantastic fashion show with the Ducks uniforms each week. It sounds stupid but recruits love it. PPS. We should get out of Nike as sponsor for the Buffs and switch to Adidas. Phil hates CU and Boulder for turning down the opportunity to move to Boulder… ohhh and Nike using slave slave is gross

  2. Wilner strikes again
    Hopefully no one in here lost any money on Wilner’s picks for last week.
    He went 2 and 4….and the 2 he picked right were the no brainers over CU and AZ.
    Give it up Jaaaaahn you are just embarrassing yourself

  3. Great read Stuart! My question is how much of Oregon’s money is subsidized by Colorado?? It baffles me that people don’t understand every CU piece of apparel with the Nike swoosh on it results in another investment in Oregon. COLORADO IS HELPING OREGON! CU needs to get out of the Nike contract and sign with someone (anyone) else. Adidas, Under Armor, ANYONE!

  4. The pro game is better than the college game. This essay is another case in point. I’ll write that full story if you want me to.

    1. I would be interested to read it … having pretty much given up on the NFL when I started the website, and my Sundays became CU days …

  5. Spending 1B to win a National Championship?
    They’ve won games sure enough …but not the one that counts
    One could say that is a terrible return….lets call Night’s Ducks the worst $1B team in the country

  6. Barnett brought us back. He may of been our coach till 2020. But we fired him when the media lynched him. Barnett was made into a crash old man. After Barnett we have become Irrelevant.

    We need stability and have to stick with KD. Yes we need to spend $$ and I think Rick knows that. This season sucks. We don’t have a QB and can’t score.

    It will take a few years.

  7. The money thing is another piece that, like X’s and O’s Or jimmies and joes, plays a role, but I don’t think is the end all, be all. But it is definitely part of the stew (hey, see what I did there?)

    Is there a place that tells us donations to various institutions? We can see revenue, but that is a different bucket.

    But if money were the end all be all, what about uw and usc? Do they not have massive donations from wealthy supporters?

    How about osu? Not that one. Not the other one, but the t Boone pickenses? Perennial top 20 team lately, but no real breakthroughs to the elite tier. Texas? Lots o cash. Donations and revenue. Not elite results since mac left.

    And finally, I have to think CU has alumni, and other supporters, who could contribute on a massive scale, but for some reason just don’t.

    It is another interesting paradigm.

    Go Buffs

    1. I get it, but I think most CU fans would take the last 20 seasons of USC, Washington, Oklahoma State, or Texas over what CU has had …

  8. Great article Stuart.
    So we have a place like Oregon that gets $1B pumped into it by one dude and has struggled finding its way since Chip Kelley left, has unfilled stadiums on nice fall afternoons, and still no national championship. And then we have the SEC and B10 schools that make their money through multiple mid-size donors (this is a guess, but probably more of a wealthy cohort than one person) and TV revenue, stadiums are packed and a bonkers fan base. The Oregon example always annoyed me how one person can have such an outsized influence. Is one really better or worse than the other?

  9. Yes, Oregon is the best team that money can buy….but we did just get whipped by the Cal Bears who have it way worse than even our Buffs, so it’s all relative.

    1. Since 2016, Colorado is 31-33; Cal is 29-33.
      True enough, if you look at any one game, it’s all relative.
      If you are looking for consistently being a Top 25 team, and being a national brand, Cal is no better off than CU. Both are in dire straits when it comes to competing with Oregon’s $$$$$

      1. I have only one correction. Instead of saying “Oregon’s” money. It would be more accurate to say “Knight’s” money. Without Knight, the ducks are in no better shape than Buffs, Bears, Beavers and even the Bruins or Utes. No National Championships any time soon or likely ever. You are right, money is the only factor for sustainable success and it is what I think will ultimately ruin the sport.

      2. Exactly, my thought is that we should be able to beat the teams that have it ‘worse than us’ before worrying about the Knights.

  10. I have been harping on the money thing for a while now but you said it extremely well Stuart. Most people with unbelievable wealth try and turn the playing table vertical in other walks of life as well. It seems there never is enough money . Its as bad as heroin…..which makes Knight’s contribution really outside the bounds. A billion with a B. Holy crap! There must be something in his past about the school that got him started on his path to riches.
    I used to do a lot of running many years ago. My first pair of running shoes were he original Nike waffle’s. I recently discovered them in the garage a couple years ago. They are collector items now and worth, even in their well used condition at least 10 times what they cost originally. I switched to Addidas in the 70’s cause they fit better so you cant blame me a whole lot for contributing to the Duck domination.
    Which brings me to the Buff’s program. Do they still have a deal with Nike? How many teams in the PAC have a deal with Nike? Sheesh

  11. I was watching that 1996 Cotton Bowl with a close friend who was an Oregon grad and fan. I remember how angry he was at the fake punt and specifically that he said “Colorado had better hope they never play Oregon again…”

    I was in attendance at the Fiesta Bowl a few years later, and his words rang in my head, as they did again yesterday.

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