A Boon(e) for Oklahoma State

Texas oilman donates $165 million for athletics facilities -- the biggest gift in college sports history.
January 11, 2006

The state legislature gave Oklahoma State University about $219 million to meet all of its needs in 2005-6, a nice little increase over the previous year. On Tuesday, the university's athletics department got nearly that much with one swipe of T. Boone Pickens's pen, as the Texas oilman -- an Oklahoma State alum -- announced a gift of $165 million in cash to build an athletics complex for the university's teams. The gift is the largest ever made to a college sports program.

University leaders were "absolutely ecstatic," as President David Schmidly, clad in a bright orange sport jacket in honor of Oklahoma State's orange and black colors, described himself in an interview Tuesday. "I can't imagine any president in the country being anything but thrilled to get a gift like this," which he said would help the university recruit students and professors as well as athletes.

But others on the campus, while appreciative of Pickens's generosity, saw the gift as evidence of how athletics continues to dominate Oklahoma State's image and, in certain ways, the priorities of its faithful. "His gift points out, in two ways, the weakness of Oklahoma State," said Bob Darcy, Regents Professor of Political Science and Statistics and chair of the university's general faculty. "First, the gift was not to education, and second, it makes it clear that education is not considered our strongest point."

Pickens, who made his fortune with Mesa Petroleum and his fame as a corporate takeover artist, is worth an estimated $1.5 billion, and his previous gifts to Oklahoma State, totaling about $150 million, put his name on the stadium he helped to rebuild and on the university's geology school, to which he also contributed.

At a news conference Tuesday, Pickens recalled going to a homecoming football game years ago in which Oklahoma State's team got thumped, which made him feel "so bad" that he spent a few years away from the university. But "I knew I had to come back," he said, "and I want to get more of our people back. And how do you do that? You win. You win, you fill up the stadium."

In today's hypercompetitive college athletics world, where spending is rising rapidly, how do you win? One way is through better facilities, and Mike Holder, Oklahoma State's new athletics director, pursued Pickens in the hope that he might help the university pay for the athletics portion of its $750 million master facilities plan. Two-thirds of the overall plan is for academic and campus life buildings that Oklahoma State is financing mostly with state-raised debt, according to Schmidly, but Oklahoma law prohibits universities from using state funds for athletics purposes.

"You don't compete at the highest level and get it at bargain basement prices," Holder said Tuesday in noting that Oklahoma State ranks ninth in the Big 12 Conference in the size of its sports and athletic facilities budgets, $45 million behind the first place University of Texas at Austin.

Schmidly pointed out that Oklahoma State has spent just $11.7 million on renovating or building new athletics facilities over the past 32 years, and "a lot of universities have been doing this stuff over a period of decades. We have no choice but to get caught up," he said, because "more and more, all across country, we're seeing young men and women make choices about where they're going to go to school" based on the facilities and how that will impact their ability to develop themselves as athletes."

Pickens's gift tops the previous biggest college sports donation of $100 million, which is how much the controversial Las Vegas casino owner Ralph Engelstad paid to build the ice hockey arena at the University of North Dakota. Pickens's gift will help build the west end zone at Boone Pickens Stadium, a multi-purpose indoor practice complex, new soccer, track and tennis facilities, a new equestrian center, a new baseball stadium and new outdoor practice fields. At the news conference, the university trotted out the women's soccer coach to say how much all the coaches appreciated Pickens's gift.

"It gives us an opportunity to get in the ballgame with everybody else," said Holder, though he warned that while the cash gift will build the facilities, other donors will have to chip in to cover the costs of operating the new facilities. "Whatever you've been doing, you've got to do more," he said. "You have to ask yourself how good do you want to be, and what are you willing to do, how much are you willing to sacrifice to do it."

While Holder and other sports officials basked in the triumph of the mammoth gift, faculty leaders at Oklahoma State wondered when it might be their turn. "The priority of this university for the past 30 odd years has not been education, and that priority has communicated itself to all kinds of people, including donors," said Darcy, who is also chair of the Faculty Council. He said he believed that Schmidly is slowly trying to change that perception, and that the president has begun raising faculty salaries, hiring more instructors to keep up with rising enrollments, and planning the new non-sports facilities.

"The help is on the way, but this gift shows that the priority continues to be athletics, not academics," he said.

Schmidly bristled slightly at the idea that athletics is dominating the university's priorities. "We're trying to build a competitive university, and to do that, we have to build all three legs of the stool: academics, campus life, and athletics -- that's the way higher education is in this country today."

Pickens understands that all three components are important, and "right now he's picked athletics for this gift," Schmidly said. "But he has said, 'This is not my last gift,' and I'm totally confident that we'll get more money from him later and that we'll look at other issues."

He added: "I can't tell a donor, 'Don't give us this money for this, because we really wanted to give it over here. I've got more sense than that."


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