There are those who call Phil Knight the "best owner in college athletics." Nike's co-founder and chairman emeritus has given fortunes to his alma mater, the University of Oregon, a large portion of it to the UO athletic department. That has transformed the Ducks from one of the Pac-12's also-rans to a veritable powerhouse with some of the best facilities in the country.
Only one college has a sports benefactor on par with Knight. Oklahoma State — which visits Corvallis Friday night to take on Oregon State in the season football opener for both schools — boasts T. Boone Pickens, an energy magnate who made his early fortunes in petroleum and then through corporate takeovers.
Pickens, the former chairman of BP Capital Management, has donated more than a half-billion dollars to Oklahoma State athletics and academics. Since 2003, Cowboy football has been played in T. Boone Pickens Stadium.
"I think athletics is the front door to a university," Pickens, whose total philanthropic giving has exceeded $1 billion, said via email from his home in Dallas, Texas. "Faculty members don't like to hear that, but it's the truth. It's critical for academic and athletic recruiting, and for longer-term fundraising with alumni."
Pickens, 91, no longer conducts interviews since suffering a series of strokes in late 2016. But through his vice president/public affairs, Jay Rosser, Pickens answered a plethora of questions posed by the Portland Tribune, shedding light about Oklahoma State's transformation from lightweight to heavyweight on the college football scene.
Oklahoma State was historically a weakling on the gridiron, with the exception of a four-year run under Pappy Waldorf from 1930-34, two World War II years under Jim Lookabaugh (a 17-1 record and Sugar and Cotton bowl wins) and back-to-back 10-2 seasons under Pat Jones in 1987 and '88.
The Cowboys had one winning season and played in one bowl game from 1989-2001, losing 33-20 to Purdue in the 1997 Alamo Bowl. They made three straight bowl games under Les Miles (2002-04), then went 4-7 in Mike Gundy's first year as head coach in 2005.
By that time, Pickens already was a major donor. He'd grown tired of watching his Cowboys lose to run-of-the-mill opponents on the gridiron. Like Knight — who after Oregon lost 38-6 to Colorado in the 1996 Cotton Bowl, provided the bulk of the $14.6 million necessary to build the Moshofsky Sports Center, the first indoor practice and training facility in the Pac-10 — Pickens had begun to offer major financial support to raise the bar with Oklahoma State football.
"Years and years ago, I went to a homecoming game," Pickens said. "We lost to Kansas, and I was so depressed, I walked out staring down at my shoes. That's when I decided I needed to do something and start giving and making a difference where I could."
Shortly after Gundy — an Oklahoma State quarterback in the '80s — was hired, Pickens bestowed a $165 million gift to Oklahoma State for athletic facilities. It was by far the biggest financial contribution in the history of college athletics at the time. With help from a $31-million kick-in from the Oklahoma State golf foundation and wise investing (the money was placed in Pickens' hedge fund and he waived all fees), the pot grew to more than $300 million.
Football got more than $120 million for new offices, locker and training rooms, additional seating for the stadium, a multipurpose indoor practice facility and three outdoor practice fields. Over a five-year period from 2003-08, upgrades to the stadium totaled $220 million, roughly two-thirds underwritten by Pickens. Prior to that, the school's annual athletic giving was $7 million to $9 million.
"I contributed $125 million for two straight years," Pickens wrote via email. "My team suggested we give away the required 5 percent a year — that would be $12.5 million — and ensure my legacy for decades. I said, 'No, I want the money given away now, so I can see the good that's done with it today and not have to worry about how it's being used long after I'm gone.'"
Pickens is still around, and he can see what his contributions have done, especially in football. Beginning in 2006, Oklahoma State has made it to 13 straight bowl games, winning nine, and finished seven seasons among the nation's top 20 teams. Gundy has posted 13 consecutive winning seasons and a record of 117-52 over that span.
"Boone gave us hope in football when there was none," Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder said.
Pickens was born in 1928 in Holdenville, Oklahoma — 100 miles from Stillwater, where Oklahoma State is located — the son of middle-class parents. In high school, he was "a great basketball player," he said.
"Our team at Amarillo High — the 'Sandies' — went to the (state) semifinals and played Jefferson High out of San Antonio. I got to guard the legendary Kyle Rote (who was runner-up for the 1950 Heisman Trophy and went on to selection to four Pro Bowls as a halfback and receiver with the New York Giants). For decades, I held the state record for making the longest shot in high school."
Pickens landed a scholarship at Texas A&M and played as a guard on the "B" team in 1947-48. In the school yearbook, he is listed as "Tom Pickens Jr."
"Right now I'm 5-7 and weigh 158," Pickens said. "I used to be 6-foot tall, but once I quit basketball in college, I started shrinking."
Pickens said after his freshman year, Texas A&M chose not to renew his scholarship.
"So I transferred to Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State)," he said. "Years ago, Texas A&M's alumni magazine said that was one of the top mistakes the Aggies ever made."
Pickens isn't suggesting he deserved to have his scholarship renewed.
"College was a wake-up call for me," said Pickens, who said one of his Texas A&M coaches told him, "Pickens, you can't run fast enough to scatter leaves."
Strictly a student at Oklahoma A&M, Pickens got his undergrad degree in 1951, but it took some prodding from his father to get it accomplished in four years.
"I was planning on a fifth year of college when my father paid me a visit during my SAE fraternity pinning," Pickens said. "He said, 'Son, your mother and I have talked.' When he invoked my mother, I knew things were getting serious. He said, 'A fool with a plan can beat a genius without one any day.' My dad went on to say I didn't have a good college plan and I needed to speed things up. There was a lot of cramming in that fourth and final year at OSU."
After graduation, Pickens worked for Phillips Petroleum until 1954. Two years later, he founded a company that would later become Mesa Petroleum. By 1981, Mesa had grown into one of the largest independent oil companies in the world.
Through the '80s, Pickens shifted his focus toward leveraged buyouts and merger and acquisition activity. By 1997, when he founded BP Capital Management, Pickens was one of the richest men in America.
Until the strokes impaired his health three years ago, Pickens was in amazing physical shape for a man his age.
"My longtime trainer showed up at my doorstep every day at 6:30 a.m. for our workouts," he said. "That lasted until I was 88. I credit exercise for my longevity and the influence it had on my mental and physical attitude throughout my career."
Pickens was always a sports fan, and he has been a loyal alum, following the Oklahoma State football and basketball teams. Through the years, the Cowboy teams had pockets of success but nothing sustained.
Pickens also had great interest in golf, both as a player and a follower of Oklahoma State's teams.
"Golf was a big part of my life," he said. "I got down to a six-handicap, but it was over in a blink of an eye. My proudest moment? Making an eagle on No. 11 at Augusta National. I was 78 years old at the time. I've given up golf since then. My eyesight isn't great. But I'm a big fan of OSU's golf program, and I follow all the great players on the tour, in particular my friend Rickie Fowler."
"(Pickens) shot a 1-under-par 69 in our pro-am one year in the late '70s," Holder said. "He was good enough to take your money if you wanted to play for something."
Before he became athletic director, Holder was Oklahoma State's golf coach from 1973-2003. He became acquainted with Pickens shortly after taking the job and cultivated a relationship that remains close to this day. When he spoke with me for this story, Holder was in the midst of the four-hour drive from Stillwater to Pampa, Texas, to visit Pickens at the 68,000-acre Mesa Vista Ranch he owns in the Texas Panhandle. It's the place where Pickens spends "99 percent of his weekends," according to Rosser.
"A friend brought him to a pro-am fundraising we started that fall (of 1973)," Holder said. "He never missed one after that."
Holder has spent much time with Pickens since then and holds him in the highest regard.
"You start down the list of the most admirable qualities a person could have, he's going to check every box," Holder said. "He's the best friend you could have. If you're in business, he's the best partner you could have. If you need a leader, he's the best you could have. He probably should have been president of the United States, but he never got around to it."
Pickens also has developed a friendship with Gundy, whom he'd enjoyed watching as a quarterback for some of the best Oklahoma State teams in the late '80s, featuring future Hall of Fame running backs Thurman Thomas and Barry Sanders. In four years, Gundy threw for 7,997 yards and 49 touchdowns, quarterbacking the Cowboys to wins in the 1987 Sun Bowl and the 1988 Holiday Bowl.
"I didn't know Mike when he was our quarterback, but I certainly knew of him," said Pickens, who recommended Gundy to Holder when he hired the coach in 2005, shortly after taking the AD job. "He was a great quarterback.
"Since Mike has been the coach, I don't recall a single game where I've left staring down at my shoes. I've pressured him a time or two over the years. I'm in it to win a national championship. And at 91, I'm not buying green bananas."
Gundy first met Pickens when he was offensive coordinator for Miles, then got to know him better as head coach.
He was extremely appreciative of the initial $165 million gift, but appreciated just as much that Pickens kept on giving.
"His funding over the next six to eight years after that never gets talked about," Gundy said. "Our brand has become recognized across the country because of all the success we've had. It would have been difficult without (the continued funding) to go with the original gift. We're in a sport where, if you don't have money, it's hard to be successful."
But through much of its history, Oklahoma State was in a similar situation to Oregon State. Small town (Stillwater 50,000 today, Corvallis 58,000). Underfunded athletic department in a Power Five Conference.
"We didn't have the luxury of being a so-called 'blue blood' with unlimited funds in athletics," Gundy said. "We had to fight for everything we got. We had to do what's feasible. We had to balance the books. Until he was able to give the large gift and essentially redo our facilities, Oklahoma State was struggling.
"After he revamped our stadium, the money he continued to put into the program gave us resources that we'd never had before. That gave us a chance to be put on the map."
Pickens has proved a sage to those at Oklahoma State for his acuity of vision. Experience makes the difference.
"He has great awareness of the business world," said Gundy, adding with a chuckle, "Only so many people become billionaires.
"He's a very intelligent, structured type of personality. He has lived so much life and made so many mistakes and then corrected them. He has so much value to younger people, because he can say, 'I've already done this. This is not good. You need to change.'
"The other amazing thing about Boone, he doesn't forget anything. He has a photographic memory. You can sit down with him and he can tell you stories of things that happened in the 50s. He can tell you all the details."
Despite the considerable influence he carries around Stillwater, Pickens said he'd rather let Holder and his athletic department associates call the shots.
"I've never weighed in on any athletic department decisions or hiring," he said. "I don't have the expertise. I'm more of a big-picture guy."
Pickens wants to provide facilities that allow all of the Oklahoma State sports teams to achieve success.
"I helped champion the need for one of the finest athletic villages in all of college," he said. "We're almost there. A new (baseball) park is under construction. We have a new soccer stadium. There is a new tennis complex and indoor work facility.
"When I began my giving, I figured things would go one of two ways. Either people would sit back and expect me to foot the bill for everything, or it would stimulate new and major giving. Thankfully, more big donors stepped up."
Pickens' foundation contributes significant funding to other sources.
"We have some pretty defined core giving areas," he said. "Medical, military, higher education are the biggest buckets outside of (Oklahoma State)."
But the Cowboys are his baby. Where would the athletic department be without Pickens' considerable largesse?
"It wouldn't be a pretty place," Holder said. "(Oklahoma State) probably wouldn't be in one of the Power Five conferences.
"(Pickens' contributions) are unquantifiable. It's not just what he has given monetarily, but what he has done to change the image of the institution, and the self-esteem he gave to all the graduates of Oklahoma State. He gave us hope in football, which was a sport we'd never had much luck in."
Holder, 71, said he always enjoys being in the company of the man he considers a father figure.
"I've seen him in the best of times, and he's a lot of fun to be around," Holder said. "I've seen him in the worst of times, and he's just as much fun to be around.
"He's the ultimate optimist. When things are going bad in business or in life, he helps keep things in perspective and makes you think tomorrow's going to be better than today."
Pickens has led a full life. He has been married five times, the latest marriage ending in divorce in 2017. He has five children and 11 grandchildren. The strokes have slowed him down, though he continues to have speech and physical therapy sessions three times a week.
For many years, Pickens attended every Oklahoma State football game, home and away, transported in his 18-seat, $50 million Gulfstream G550 private jet. He attended "about half" of the Cowboys' games last season, he said.
"I hope it's better this year," he said.
Pickens won't be attending the OSU vs. OSU affair in Corvallis.
"He'll be glued to the TV, though," Rosser said.
Knight, 81, surely will be in the Dallas area to attend the Oregon-Auburn game at Cowboys Stadium. He and Pickens have never met, though both were at the 2008 Holiday Bowl, won by the Ducks 42-31.
"We tried to make a meeting happen then, but it wasn't in the cards," Pickens said. "There's no doubt he has had a great and positive influence on the Oregon athletic program. I hope we get to play them again — and soon. I'd like another cut at them."
My last question for Pickens was about his ethic in life and in sports.
"Play by the rules," he wrote. "It's no fun to cheat and win. I never wish the competition does poorly. I just want to play harder and beat them."
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