Shatel: For Nike’s Phil Knight, Nebraska is one that got away

Nebraska picked Adidas in 1995 and hasn't looked back. “I thought going with Adidas would be what was best for the university and football program,” Tom Osborne said Wednesday afternoon. “We were their first college football team, and in 1995, it was a pretty big deal.”

As he settles into his Memorial Stadium box on Saturday, you can imagine Phil Knight soaking in 90,000 Adidas-wearing Husker fans and breathing a deep sigh.

What if?

Nebraska plays Oregon on Saturday, but there’s a game within the game here. This is Team Adidas vs. Team Nike. May the best logo win.

Oregon is Nike U. The Huskers are Adidas’ longest-running client in college football, a relationship that goes back to 1995.

But what if Nebraska had been in Knight’s Swoosh stable all this time?

That was Knight’s wish. And that was Bill Byrne’s aim.

Byrne was the athletic director at Nebraska in 1995. Before coming to Lincoln, Byrne had been the A.D. at Oregon from 1984 to 1992 and had developed a close relationship with Knight.

I spoke with Byrne on Wednesday from his home in Bryan, Texas. I wanted to know how Nebraska came to choose Adidas, especially with Byrne’s close ties to Knight and Oregon.

The answer: Tom Osborne made the call.

“Nebraska had been with Converse, and then Converse went out of (the college football) business,” Byrne said. “Nike wanted Nebraska. They made us a great offer.

“I went to coach Osborne and told him that Nike wanted to sign with Nebraska. Instead he signed with Apex. Then Apex went out of the (college football) business.

“Then Tom signed a contract with Adidas. That’s how that happened.”

According to Byrne, NU coaches back then had complete control over the individual shoe contracts for their sports. Byrne would later change that so the athletic director had control.

What did Knight say when he heard that Osborne had chosen another company?

“You can’t print it in a family newspaper,” Byrne said.

Why did Osborne pick Adidas over Nike? Byrne said you’d have to ask Osborne.

“I thought going with Adidas would be what was best for the university and football program,” Osborne said Wednesday afternoon.

“We were their first college football team, and in 1995, it was a pretty big deal. They really had quality material and were very eager to partner with us and work with us. They made a very good offer. It’s worked out great.”

Osborne spoke with Nike in 2013, when he was athletic director and Nebraska re-signed with Adidas for $15.53 million over five years. But the Adidas deal, which offered a slight raise over the previous contract, was the best deal NU could get.

Nobody in Lincoln is complaining. Adidas stood by Nebraska during some down times the last 15 years, when the program had fallen off the college football map. That sort of loyalty has made Adidas and NU a good fit. And it goes both ways, as Adidas has seen schools such as Michigan and Tennessee leave for Nike and Notre Dame for Under Armour.

“Adidas was very good to Nebraska,” Byrne said. “Their service was very top-notch. We were one of the original Adidas schools, with Notre Dame, UCLA and Tennessee. I’m not surprised they are still with Adidas. They treated us well.

“I thought enough of them that I went to Adidas when I was at Texas A&M.”

Those were the early days of the shoe wars in college football, before most people dreamed of the big money schools would rake in to wear a logo from head to toe — or that recruits would one day be swayed by brand names of shoes, not just schools.

“It was funny, one of our first games with Adidas was at Oklahoma State,” Byrne said. “And just before the game, the NCAA said that the (logo) marks had to be a certain size or it was a violation.

“Well, the Adidas marks on the jerseys were huge. So Steve Pederson (director of football operations) and I stood by the locker room and were pulling off the marks from each player’s jersey with a pair of pliers.”

Two decades later, Knight’s signature is all over college football. A Samford University study in 2015 showed that Nike sponsored 79 of the 128 FBS schools — including 20 schools in the preseason top 25. The study showed Adidas with 30 and Under Armour with 15.

Nebraska is the flagship of the football programs living the “three-stripe life,” including Miami, UCLA, Texas A&M and Louisville. And it didn’t take long for coach Mike Riley, a former Nike guy at Oregon State, to see why.

“This is my first experience with Adidas and I’m really appreciative,” Riley said. “The service is the best we’ve seen. I mean, they put a guy here on site.”

That’s right. Adidas has a representative who lives in Lincoln full-time and has an office in the football building, working with Riley and equipment manager Jay Terry every day.

A personal shoe contract guy? John Parrella, NU’s defensive line coach who played here from 1990 to 1992, can’t imagine it. Then again, Parrella couldn’t remember what shoes he wore back in the day.

“I think it was ...wait a minute ... it was Converse,” Parrella said. “But we didn’t have any of the other stuff, the shirts and sweatshirts.

“When I was 14, the shirt that said ‘Nebraska’ on it was a cool shirt. Now my kids say the shirt that has ‘Adidas’ on it is a cool shirt. Times have changed.”

Think it can sway recruits? Consider that Calabasas High School in California has a contract with Adidas.

Maybe Osborne was onto something back in 1995.

Riley may be an Adidas guy now, but he has nothing bad to say about the Swoosh. Even with Oregon alum Knight helping fund the Duck Dynasty, Nike had plenty left to help the competition in Corvallis.

“When I got (to Oregon State), our kids had no common workout gear,” Riley said. “They would come and work out in flannel shirts.

“We had a shoe deal with Nike but no gear. I called a rep and asked her to help and I said, ‘I don’t have any money.’ A week later boxes showed up. Nike was really great to us.”

The Nebraska-Oregon-Nike connections go deeper, though.

Byrne arrived in Eugene in 1984. That next fall of 1985, coach Rich Brooks’ Ducks went 5-6 — including a 63-0 loss at Nebraska. The Ducks returned to Lincoln in 1986 and lost 48-14.

By then, Byrne had seen enough.

“I called Bob (Devaney) and canceled the last two years of our contract,” Byrne said. “I started putting Pacific and Long Beach on the schedule. Instead of getting our rear ends handed to us, we started winning. In 1989, Oregon went to its first bowl since 1963.”

And that was right about the time that Knight, a former middle-distance runner at Oregon — and the genius behind Nike — started taking a bigger interest in Duck football.

“We developed a great relationship,” Byrne said. “Phil had always tried to be neutral, because he was taking care of so many schools. But as we got better, he got more involved. The big thing was when he bought a skybox. Other people said, ‘I better get one, too.’

“He started coming to every game, on the road, too. And, of course, he contributed in a lot of other ways, too.”

Oregon football took off under coach Mike Bellotti. But ask Byrne if the Oregon program that visits Memorial Stadium on Saturday was created in large part by Knight, he says, “Absolutely.”

Imagine what sort of impact Knight and Nike money may have had on Nebraska all these years. Byrne says, “It’s hard to say.”

But I wonder if Knight will think about it this week. Will he want to win this one even more?

“No,” Byrne said. “He’s very competitive. He wants to win them all.”

On Saturday, he’ll see 90,000 reminders of one of the times he lost.

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