By Austin Meek • The (Eugene) Register-Guard

BEAVERTON — Phil Knight was ready to walk away.

Roughly 18 months after the University of Oregon went public with plans to renovate Hayward Field, Knight had grown disillusioned with the process. So in May 2017, he pushed back from the table, threw up his hands and said, “I’m out.”

Knight knew exactly what that meant. Without his support, there would be no Hayward Field renovation and no IAAF World Track & Field Championships in Eugene. Though Knight said he cared deeply about both, his frustrations with the process had reached a tipping point.

“I said, ‘I walk away. I’m not doing this,’” Knight told The Register-Guard.

Those comments represent the first time Knight has spoken publicly about the saga unfolding around the fate of Hayward Field. During the course of a 45-minute interview Wednesday at Nike World Headquarters, the billionaire and Nike co-founder spoke about the controversy surrounding Hayward Field, the issues that led him to walk away from the project, and the feelings that ultimately drew him back in: specifically, his desire to ensure the future of the Oregon track program and that of Hayward Field, which he considers the birthplace of Nike.

“You look around this place,” Knight said, “and it all began there. It’s a hugely emotional place for me.”

When Knight came back to the table a month later, he did so with the understanding that things would have to change. Tinker Hatfield, the Nike designer credited with some of the company’s most influential ideas, no longer had a role on the project. Howard Slusher, a longtime Nike consultant and Knight confidant, became the de facto project manager, executing a vision far different from the one represented in Hatfield’s original designs.

The result was the design unveiled publicly in April, which calls for the demolition of the stadium’s historic East Grandstand and the construction of an enclosed bowl around three sides of the track, accompanied by a nine-story tower on the stadium’s northeast corner. With a reported cost of $200 million, the design has encountered strong opposition from supporters of the East Grandstand, who continue their public and private appeals to preserve the structure.

The criticism has not gone unnoticed by Knight, who said he has been surprised by the intensity of the backlash. Though he showed no signs of reconsidering his position, he is aware that, in the minds of some, he might as well be swinging the sledgehammer that brings Hayward Field to the ground.

“There’s both sides, and both sides are dug in,” Knight said. “I’m sure of one thing: When those bulldozers in July knock that East Grandstand down, I am the most reviled man in Eugene.”

Out of the starting blocks

Knight’s connection to Hayward Field goes back to 1957, to a dual meet against Washington and his first varsity race as a miler on the Oregon track team. The Seattle Times form chart projected a one-point Husky victory, while The ­Register-Guard projected a one-point win for the Ducks.

“Neither paper had Phil Knight placing in the mile,” he said. “I figured if I could get a point, I could win the meet for my school.”

As the runners made their final pass in front of the East Grandstand, Oregon’s Jim Grelle surged into the lead. Knight followed close behind, drawing a roar from the crowd as Oregon runners finished 1-2-3. The Ducks went on to win the meet, and Knight felt like a hero.

“Those roars in my ear are bigger than Andrew Wheating (in the 800 meters) at the 2008 Olympic Trials, at least in my mind,” he said.

At age 80, Knight still hears those roars when he visits Hayward Field. He has witnessed some of the stadium’s greatest moments — Steve Prefontaine’s final race, Ashton Eaton’s world record in the decathlon, national titles for the Duck men and women — and said he wanted those memories to have a home in the new Hayward Field.

Knight was an enthusiastic supporter of Eugene’s bid for the world championships, though he said he provided no financing for the bid. As part of the deal, it was understood that Hayward Field would need to be updated and expanded to meet the specifications of the International Association of Athletics Federations, which awards and sanctions the meet.

Hatfield, a former UO pole vaulter who holds the title of vice president for innovation design and special projects at Nike, worked on the presentation that was delivered to the IAAF Council when Eugene submitted its bid for the 2019 meet. At the time, Hatfield also was consulting with ­TrackTown USA’s Vin Lananna on designs for an indoor track facility and a renovated Hayward Field.

“He’s showing me all that stuff, and I’m like, ‘Hello? I’m right here. I’m a former architect and a designer. Why don’t you let me help you a little bit?’” Hatfield said, recalling his initial conversations with Lananna. “He said, ‘Absolutely.’”

Eugene’s bid for the 2019 world championships came up short, but a few months later the IAAF announced it was awarding the 2021 games to Eugene without a formal bidding process. Thus began the six-year buildup in Eugene, a key part of which was the Hayward Field renovation.

Hatfield said he met with Knight several times to share design concepts he was discussing with Lananna. But when Oregon released those designs publicly in 2015, Knight said he was blindsided.

“I knew they had to have a new stadium to get the worlds,” Knight said. “I figured they would come to me at some point, which is why it surprised me when they announced it before I’d had any conversations.”

Knight said the project was being controlled by a five-person committee, whose members he declined to identify. He described the group as “dysfunctional” and said its lack of architectural experience became apparent as the project progressed.

In an email, Oregon spokesman Kyle Henley said the university had no formal committee guiding the renovation, adding that UO Foundation president Paul Weinhold has been the project’s point person throughout.

Despite his reservations, Knight said he went along when asked to contribute $50 million toward the project’s $75 million price tag.

“Six months later they came back and said, ‘It’s going to be $100 million,’” Knight said. “And about three months after that they said, ‘It’s $125 million.’ I said, ‘What the hell’s going on?’ and I began to delve into it.”

Hatfield had been working with various stakeholder groups to refine his design, which focused on preserving as much of the original East Grandstand as possible. The architecture firm SRG Partnership was hired to carry out the project, but Knight’s uneasiness with the cost was becoming apparent.

“We got bids and the bids came in too high,” Hatfield said. “Phil was questioning the numbers, so we kept working at it, got the numbers down a little bit.”

One of Knight’s objections involved the multiphase approach, which would allow Oregon to host the NCAA championships without interruption but, according to Knight, added 25 percent to the construction costs. He saw those decisions as evidence of the committee’s inexperience when it came to executing a project of this scale.

“Those mistakes were every place that I could see,” he said.

Hatfield sensed that Knight was dissatisfied with the team’s fundraising efforts, which netted roughly $30 million — $16 million of that from Nike — in addition to Knight’s contributions. Hatfield also sensed that Knight was growing disenchanted with the design concepts they had been discussing since the inception of the project.

All of that came to a head in 2017.

“I don’t know how to describe what happened next,” Hatfield said. “I was abruptly disinvited to the meetings with the team I’d assembled. Howard Slusher was installed as the new leader of the project.

“I was not given a reason for it, which was somewhat upsetting. I’m not used to failure, not used to being treated like that.”

‘The great Slusher’

In Knight’s mind, Slusher was the ideal person to steer the project back on track. As the agent who helped to bring about free agency in the NFL, he is a controversial figure in sports circles, nicknamed “Agent Orange” because of his shock of orange hair and his scorched-earth negotiating style.

In 1983, Slusher even caught the attention of a young Donald Trump, who owned the New Jersey Generals of the fledgling (and soon to be defunct) United States Football League.

“He does play people against each other and bid up the price of his players, but that’s good for the new guy on the block,” Trump told The New York Times. “In three years, we’ll have parity with the NFL, and it will be largely due to the Howard Slushers of this world.”

At Nike, Slusher was known primarily as a fixer. He oversaw three Knight-funded projects on the Oregon campus — the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex, the Jaqua Center for Student Athletes and the Marcus ­Mariota Sports Performance Center — as well as a billion-dollar expansion at Nike Headquarters. Each was finished on time and under budget, Knight said.

Sensing the Hayward Field project needed a shake-up, Knight said he lured Slusher out of retirement to take the reins.

“The great Slusher, right?” Knight said with a smile. “Slusher’s got his pluses and minuses, but he can build things, as opposed to the committee.”

Initially, Knight said, he agreed with Hatfield and others who wanted to preserve the East Grandstand. But as he dug into the project further, he came to view the grandstand as a losing proposition.

Knight dispatched his own team to inspect the grandstand and came away convinced that the structure was failing. He described it as a safety hazard and a potential liability, requiring expensive annual maintenance with no long-term guarantees.

“We came to the conclusion, which I had then and have to this day, that it was really not economical to patch that thing together,” Knight said. “You would not find an economic man anywhere who would donate to keep that as part of the Hayward Field that you want for the world championships.

“I started where a lot of those guys are now, but I just don’t think (saving the grandstand) is rational at all.”

Hatfield strongly disputed those conclusions, citing a structural analysis that showed the grandstand to be in sound condition, requiring only minor repairs to address dry rot.

Jim Petsche, Nike’s director of corporate facilities and the official project manager for the Hayward Field renovation, told The Register-Guard that a 2016 analysis concluded the grandstand could be repaired at a cost of $7 million. Hatfield said he believes Knight has been willfully misled about the grandstand’s condition in order to justify the change in design philosophy.

“I believe personally that Phil Knight is intentionally misinformed,” Hatfield said. “I feel like that is an injustice to the building and to Hayward Field that someone colored the picture inaccurately. That’s what Phil Knight has chosen to believe.”

Without problems, there is no business

Hatfield continues to plead his case, holding out hope that a compromise can be reached to save the East Grandstand. He sent Knight a letter detailing his concerns, including fears that the horseshoe design will create swirling winds that inhibit the record-setting performances that have become the norm at Hayward Field. He has also circulated new drawings with a revised roof designed to extend the life of the grandstand.

Knight has listened to Hatfield’s appeals, but he has shown no signs of changing his mind.

“He’s a personal friend of mine, and I have great respect for him,” Knight said. “The opening conceptual drawing was one we tried to follow. He thinks the East Grandstand can and should be saved, so he doesn’t agree with the direction.”

As collaborators in so much of Nike’s success, Knight and Hatfield are unlikely adversaries in the dispute over Hayward Field. In his latest letter, Hatfield described Knight as a “visionary, a mentor and a tremendously kind and generous person,” pointing to a relationship that goes deeper than their current disagreement.

Hatfield recalled another exchange that occurred the last time he and Knight met in person.

“I said, ‘Phil, I love ya, but I’m still pissed about this whole project,’” Hatfield recalled. “He looked up at me and goes, ‘Tinker, without problems, there is no business.’”

In five decades at Nike, Knight learned to see disagreement as a healthy part of the creative process, and often the catalyst for innovation. He views the Hayward Field project in similar terms, though he admits the debate has touched a raw nerve.

“This one is tougher because it’s so personal to everybody,” Knight said.

That includes the man sitting at the head of the conference table, recalling details of his first varsity race on the Hayward Field track in 1957. Though he retired as Nike chairman in 2016, Knight is still the boss, and his vision still prevails.

Knight is aware of how the tear-down of Hayward Field will be perceived in Eugene. But he hopes that, in time, fans will come to see the new stadium as he does, as a place where great performances of the past can intersect with great performances of the future.

“Those are ghosts that will be there forever,” he said. “I think they’ll be there in the new stadium as well.”

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