Big Men on Campus
Loyal, high-powered boosters support university athletic programs with hearts, minds and wallets
From the Print Edition:
William Shatner, Sept/Oct 2006
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For $100 million down, leveraged to a multiple of 10 by a friendly banker, these men could easily buy their own sports franchises. In time, they'd get a sizable return on their investment, unlike donations to an academic institution, which get you a tax write-off and little more. From that perspective, professional sports is the far smarter way to go. But this story isn't about money. It's about love.
Ask a major contributor such as Pickens to show you his school's campus, and you'll get a man bursting with pride. This isn't because he has helped pay for it. In Oklahoma State, Pickens sees an academic institution on the rise, and his diploma—or, in other cases, the local connections—makes him a shareholder. "It's easier to raise money for a school if you're winning in football," says Pickens, who graduated from OSU in 1951 with a degree in geology. "But I don't want this school to be identified as a sports school only."
At 78, Pickens is as active as ever. After making his name by building Mesa Petroleum into the largest independent oil and gas company in America, then gaining a reputation as a corporate raider, he's now buying up water sources. One watchdog group cautions that he and his partners will soon control the pumping rights for tens of billions of gallons a year to Texas's largest metropolitan areas, which will doubtless make Pickens far wealthier than he is already.
But for all his money, Pickens hasn't created an entity bigger than himself. As his mortality looms, it makes sense that he wants to leave his mark on an institution that is likely to thrive for centuries. Americans may one day be driving electric cars and heating homes with solar power, and oil will be a distant memory on the order of steam-powered trains. But if all goes well, OSU will still be playing games at Boone Pickens Stadium—and perhaps even winning them by then.
Pickens likes to be involved in what the teams are doing. Whether it's a coach to be hired or a recruit considering the school, "I get consulted," he says. When that consultation interferes with business, business has to wait. "He'll be in his office, meeting with his investment committee, and a call will come in from someone in the OSU athletic department briefing him on something," says Jay Rosser, who handles public affairs for Pickens' BP Capital holding company. "He always takes the call."
In some psychological sense, Pickens identifies with the university. OSU isn't Texas, a perennial contender and occasional champion in most sports. It isn't even in-state rival Oklahoma, which has won seven national titles in football. Instead, it occupies roughly the same cosmic space in its endeavors that the scrappy Pickens does in the financial world. "I don't mind being the underdog," he says. "I've been there before. I've played with my back against the wall." Hearing a characterization of Oklahoma State as the striving outsider competing against the established powers, Pickens smiles. "That looks like me," he says.
Such motivations help explain why Pickens is so generous to OSU, not just with money, but time and energy, too. He enjoys seeing friends and family in his stadium box on Saturdays, but cautions that what he's doing in Stillwater isn't about a good time. "It's about fulfilling a commitment," he says. "Doing what you say you'll do. I want to establish something with the students and the alums. I want to see us be more loyal to our school."
Clearly, Oklahoma State is fortunate to have him. Yet on a lesser scale, there are Pickens types at nearly every major university, and most of the minor ones, too. Though they might not be known nationally and internationally, they're nearly always community leaders. Though few have $250 million to spend, their contributions are no less important. And their motivations are equally complex.
Without Jim Click, Arizona's athletic director Jim Livengood says, "I'm not sure we'd make it. Financially, spiritually, any other way." The son of an Altus, Oklahoma, auto dealer, Click played college football under Sammy Baugh, the legendary pro and college quarterback who briefly served as the OSU coach. He came to Tucson in 1971, a young businessman with little money but plenty of ambition, and spent his savings on a Ford dealership. "When I came here, I was 27," he says. "I didn't know anybody. The first thing I did was set up a scholarship program at the U. of A."
Since then, he has become the most visible merchant in town, from his high-energy television commercials—in which he takes a starring role—to his ubiquitous presence at galas, openings and other community events. A natural salesman, he has a smile and a friendly word for everyone. On the street, it's one wave and handshake after another. "You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone in Arizona who doesn't know Jim Click," Livengood says. "Should he want to, he could easily be the governor of Arizona."
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