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Big Men on Campus

Loyal, high-powered boosters support university athletic programs with hearts, minds and wallets
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
William Shatner, Sept/Oct 2006

There must have been better places to be on a chilly Saturday evening last October than the flat expanse of Stillwater, Oklahoma, an hour's drive west of Tulsa, where an overmatched Oklahoma State University football team was playing the University of Texas, undefeated and ranked second in the nation. Dinner meant a chicken breast on a plastic plate in what is euphemistically called a luxury box, but was actually no more luxurious than a doctor's waiting room. And the chattering between supporters of the two teams, themselves dressed in clashing shades of orange, was hardly scintillating.

So why was T. Boone Pickens, one of America's richest men, someone who could have been anywhere in the world (and with almost anyone in the world), positioned in his customary spot above the 50-yard line, urging on Oklahoma State as it stumbled against the Longhorns? Why had he flown in from Dallas, as he does for every OSU football home game, most of the away games, and many basketball games, too?

And what could he have been thinking before his wedding in 2005 when he made it abundantly clear to his fiancée, Madeleine Paulson—an urbane, fiercely intelligent woman who was raised in Europe and owns thoroughbred racehorses—that Oklahoma State would be his priority on fall Saturdays? Especially since she was scheduled to have one of America's top thoroughbreds, Rock Hard Ten, running in the Breeders' Cup on the day of the Texas game.

"We talked about it before the wedding," Pickens confirms. "She said, 'Boone, I'm so excited for the Breeders' Cup. I can't wait for you to get involved in horse racing and meet some of these people.' And I said, 'Wait a minute! Is that a Saturday in October?' I looked at the schedule and said, 'Sorry, honey. I'll be in Stillwater.'"

Pickens' behavior exemplifies the improbable hold that collegiate athletics has on some of America's most successful businessmen, show-business personalities, politicians and lots of other people who would seem to have better things to do with autumn weekends and winter nights than watch amateurs play football and basketball. Winning team or losing team, it hardly matters; what Pickens and others like him are doing has nothing to do with jumping on any bandwagon. "He's here every week," says David J. Schmidly, the OSU president. "We keep getting beat and he keeps coming. It gives you hope."

These men have spent some of the best years of their lives on campus, integrating themselves into the fabric of a university in a way that isn't possible with professional teams. They're as much Oklahoma State, or whatever the institution may be, as the player who has it written across his jersey.

But old college ties aren't all of it. Another OSU graduate and former football player, the highly successful auto dealer Jim Click, moved to Tucson and became a devoted backer of the University of Arizona. Or consider Sam Rechter, who owns mining and construction companies, restaurants and other businesses from Alabama to the Midwest. Rechter grew up beside the Indiana University campus in Bloomington, served as a ball boy under the great basketball coach Branch McCracken, then played at Purdue. Yet he has devoted his leisure time to University of Louisville athletics for almost four decades, since moving to Louisville for business reasons and deciding Cardinals basketball would be an enjoyable way to get integrated into the community. "Now I'm completely integrated," says Rechter. He has chaired the local airport commission, served on the visiting committee for the university's medical and engineering schools, and held many other positions in town. But he rarely misses a game.

It wouldn't have been the same with a professional team. Sure, a pro fan might feel as if he has a vested interest in his favorite franchise. He can buy season tickets, put the team's logo on his credit cards and license plates, subscribe to the newsletter. But unlike college programs, that team will have an ownership group, and unless our fan happens to be part of it, fan will be short for fantasy.

Owners and fans of pro teams have interests that ultimately diverge. Despite the team's thousands of dedicated loyalists, the Cleveland Browns blithely left for Baltimore in 1996 when a better offer presented itself. They were a business and existed—like businesses in other industries—to make money. By contrast, college teams truly represent their community. They can't move, they employ thousands of locals from laborers to executives, and—in nearly all cases—they're owned by a state, a municipality or a nonprofit governing board. Standing on the sidelines at an Arizona football game, a privileged position afforded him not because of his donations but because of the enthusiasm he shows for the school, Click might be forgiven if he considers the Wildcats his team. He has lived in Tucson and followed Arizona for decades, outlasting several athletic directors, numerous coaches and countless players.

Pro sports may seem to operate on a grander scale, what with the price for a commercial on the Super Bowl telecast and the stupendous salaries, but that isn't necessarily so. Pickens has given more than $250 million to the Oklahoma State athletic program and "I'll give a lot more," he says. (In January, Pickens gave $165 million to OSU, the largest single gift given to an NCAA sports program. Joe Jamail, perhaps America's top trial attorney, is said to have given an estimated $30 million to the University of Texas. Like Pickens, he was rewarded with a football stadium named after him.)

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