ASU plays footsie with Nike

Arizona State University interim basketball coach Don Newman is swept out of Tempe as suddenly as he arrived, blown to points unknown by a dust devil of dollars, courtesy of sports-apparel marketing mogul Phil Knight, chairman of Nike Incorporated.

In comes Rick Majerus, plucked from the University of Utah, where he pockets more than $1 million a year and enjoys godlike status at the helm of the Running Utes, a highly successful basketball team.

Knight steals Majerus from Nike's archrival, Reebok, which is said to pay Majerus more than $500,000 annually as its chief collegiate spokesman.

Knight increases his exposure in the Valley's booming market by signing a nine-year contract with ASU worth more than $5 million while affixing the Nike logo to what could be the nation's largest university within a decade.

Such are the dreams of influential ASU athletic boosters who are tired of playing second fiddle to the University of Arizona's powerhouse basketball program.

It's no secret that ASU athletic director Kevin White wants a "big-name" coach to lead ASU's basketball program into the top 10 in the country, and White has his eye on Majerus. But ASU can't match Majerus' salary at Utah without substantial help.

But from whom?
The most likely source is Nike, a company that each year throws tens of millions of dollars in cash and merchandise at university athletic departments to promote its latest lines.

For more than a year, ASU and Nike have engaged in unorthodox contract negotiations that fall outside the university's normal procurement policy.

A December draft contract calls for Nike to provide sports apparel worth more than $400,000 a year to nearly all of ASU's sports teams, and to contribute $125,000 to the salary of the men's basketball coach.

But that contract hasn't been signed, and Nike could up the ante, especially if ASU lands a coach of Majerus' stature. ASU is expected to name a permanent head coach soon after the NCAA basketball tournament ends later this month.

ASU's negotiations with Nike are expected to continue for at least another 60 days.

How important is the pending Nike contract?
"It obviously is the main player because it would take well over a million a year to attract a Rick Majerus," says a prominent ASU booster and director of the Sun Angel Foundation, an ASU athletic fund-raising arm.

"And there is no way ASU coffers can do that," the booster, who asked not to be identified, continues.

ASU paid former hoops coach Bill Frieder a base salary of $165,000 a year. Other benefits, including a shoe contract with Nike, pushed Frieder's package to more than $600,000.

But that's a far cry from the $1 million-plus commanded by Majerus.
Nike, the booster says, would have to pony up more than $125,000 for Majerus before the deal could fly.

"It would take extreme cooperation with Phil Knight of Nike and Majerus," the booster says.

While it is unknown how friendly Knight and Majerus have become, there is no doubt that ASU's White is willing to move mountains to land an "all-school" deal with Nike, including painting a giant Nike symbol--it's called the Swoosh--on the roof of the University Activity Center, and a couple more on the track at Sun Angel Stadium.

The sun is creeping over the Superstition Mountains, casting a glare across a table in the clubhouse at ASU's Karsten Golf Course.

Athletic director Kevin White sips his morning coffee and scans the paper. It's 6:45 a.m., and White, nattily attired in suit and tie, is ready for the first of many meetings that fill his day.

He's a salesman and promoter. He knows how to raise money. And White loves what he sells--ASU sports.

"My job is to market and sell our school," White, a former track star and coach, says.

Judging him on that basis, White seems to be going gangbusters. Since he left an identical post at Tulane University less than two years ago, White has erased a budget deficit of nearly $3 million and revamped the athletic department, adding personnel and boosting salaries.

His top marketing goal is to convince Nike to sign an agreement that would put ASU in the company of 18 other universities that have all-school agreements with one of three major sports-apparel manufacturers--Nike, Reebok and Adidas.

If it struck such a pact with Nike, ASU would join the ranks of universities known for powerhouse athletic programs, including Michigan, Ohio State, Stanford, Penn State, Alabama, Georgia, Miami, Florida, Colorado, North Carolina, Southern California and Oregon.

While Nike already provides shoes and apparel to ASU's men's basketball and football teams and women's tennis, White says securing an all-school Nike sponsorship is essential if Arizona State wants to consistently field athletic teams ranked in the top three in the Pacific 10 Conference and the top 10 nationally.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty