CBS: Nike’s fiercely competitive Phil Knight

Phil Knight, 78, sat down for an in-depth interview with Lee Cowan of CBS Sunday Morning

Nike's Phil Knight talks with Lee Cowan of CBS News, April 2016 (CBS News)
Nike's Phil Knight talks with Lee Cowan of CBS News, April 2016 (CBS News)

(CBS) — Not far from Portland, Oregon, sprawling across some 350 manicured acres, you’ll find a cathedral to sports — and a castle, in a way, to capitalism.

It’s the home of the swoosh: the world headquarters of Nike, the largest athletic shoe and apparel company on the planet, with sales topping $30 billion last year alone.

It took to the starting line over 50 years ago, the brainchild of a young track athlete named Phil “Buck” Knight.

He’s now 78, and one of the richest men the world.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story originally appeared on CBS Sunday Morning, reported by Lee Cowan. You can read the full CBS story here

“There are times when the sun goes down and I look out the buildings and I get pretty choked up,” Knight said.

“An empire is kind of a funny word, but it kind of is,” said Cowan.

“Well, we don’t use that word about ourselves, but it’s gotten pretty big!”

Knight is a curious character: controversial, unpredictable, and fiercely competitive, possessing a “Just Do It” style of business that sometimes rubbed people the wrong way.

“You almost bristle at the suggestion that you’re a businessman,” said Cowan.

“No, not at all. I’m proud of that. But we do business the way we do business.”

How the Nike name came about

At first, Knight wanted to call the company Dimension Six. “Well, there was a 5th dimension right? So we wanted it to be an extra dimension.”

But nobody liked that idea. Mercifully, an employee proposed another name: Nike, the Greek goddess of victory.

But Knight wasn’t crazy about it, nor did he like the logo. The “wing” as it was called then (a design he paid a college student just $35 to draw) was supposed to symbolize the sound of speed. Knight thought it looked like a big fat checkmark.

“Nothing ever stands out and says, ‘Boy, that’s it!’ There’s not a ‘Eureka!’ moment, for me. In almost all these things, I just say, ‘Okay, that’s the best we can do, let’s go.'”

Marketing was never Knight’s thing. In fact he hated advertising. But he soon realized that well-known athletes wearing his shoes could speak and sell volumes.

What he plans to do with his personal fortune

Knight has softened in his later years. His personal fortune is now estimated to be around $25 billion.

Money, he says, was never the reason he started selling shoes, but now that he has it, he intends to use it.

“By the time, you know, the lives of my children and their kids run out, I will have given most of it to charity,” Knight said.

Together with Penny, his wife of 48 years, they’ve already donated well over a billion dollars to various causes. They pledged $500 million for cancer research at the Oregon Health & Science University.

At Stanford, where he drew up that blueprint for Nike, they’ve given more than half-a-billion dollars and counting.

But it’s at the University of Oregon where Knight’s mark is most obvious, from the law school named after his father, to the gleaming new basketball arena, named after his son, Matthew, who died tragically in a diving accident.

“I can get pretty emotional about this place, too,” he said at Hayward Field. “After all, I was born here.”

The University of Oregon has given Nike something back, too — a high-profile platform to launch uniforms, helmets and, of course, shoes.

Phil Knight wanted to make history as an athlete himself. But instead he ran a different race — one that has put that “big fat checkmark” on the face (or at least the feet) of athletics forever.

Cowan asked, “Can you imagine yourself doing anything else?”

“No. I am blessed,” Knight replied. “I couldn’t imagine a better life.”

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