- Associated Press - Thursday, January 6, 2011

SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. (AP) - One is a publicity-shy 72-year old who has made billions selling athletic gear. The other is a 60-something multimillionaire who turned a local bank into a colossus and may have helped cause its downfall as well.

While most see Monday night’s BCS title game between Oregon and Auburn as a matchup of two powerful offenses led by LaMichael James of the Ducks and Cam Newton of the Tigers, those who cherish the art of the deal in college football might look at it as megabooster Phil Knight of Oregon vs. his Auburn counterpart, Bobby Lowder.

Knight and Lowder are deep-pocketed alumni of their respective schools and very possibly the two most powerful boosters in the nation. Knight, the founder and chairman of Nike, is said to have given more than $200 million to Oregon athletics over the last quarter century. Lowder, the founder and former CEO of Alabama-based Colonial Bank who also sits on Auburn’s board of trustees, has written checks to the school over the past three decades totaling well into eight figures.

Those who worry that big-time athletics saps resources might embrace these men for helping turn their respective schools’ football programs into profitable enterprises. But those who decry the big-money extravagance of college sports and its booster-as-powerbroker reality say the Knights and Lowders of the world only exacerbate the problems, not solve them.

“Like most of these things, it’s a complicated matter and there’s no easy answer,” said John S. Nichols, a retired professor from Penn State who co-chairs the reform-minded Committee on Intercollegiate Athletics. “So much of this is based on the individual, on the local university and the local donor. It depends on whether megaboosters or megadonors, whether their activities enhance the academic mission of the university _ or at least don’t undermine the academic mission of the university.”

Lowder is the more divisive of the two megaboosters, more of a lightning rod, and there is ample evidence that his zest for football has indeed undermined Auburn’s academic mission.

He made his millions by building Colonial Bank from a local entity into a gargantuan Southern enterprise. But after the housing market tanked in 2008, Colonial ended up as the sixth-biggest bank failure in U.S. history, according to Money Magazine, which said Lowder built Colonial into a $26 billion entity largely by capitalizing on the real estate bubble. Lowder’s role in the failure is under investigation, though his role as a power player at Auburn has been seldom challenged since he was appointed to the board of trustees by Gov. George Wallace in 1983.

Lowder’s most noteworthy _ or notorious _ moment in athletics came in 2003, when school officials went on a clandestine trip to Louisville to gauge Bobby Petrino’s interest in taking over as coach for Tommy Tuberville, even though Tuberville was still under contract.

Though not everyone involved believes Lowder was directly pulling the strings behind that deal, it was his corporate jet that the school president, William Walker, athletic director David Housel and two trustees used for the trip. When details of the trip went public, it embarrassed the university and Walker and Housel left their jobs soon after.

But the most significant repercussion came when the accrediting Southern Association of Colleges and Schools put Auburn on probation. The SACS found that Lowder, in part through his lucrative bank ties, had undue influence over the board, and that he and other trustees had become micromanagers of the football program.

“Our problem here was they were mixed in, indirectly running the university,” said journalist Paul Davis, a longtime critic of Lowder who writes a column for the Opelika-Auburn News. “They’re hiring and firing coaches, hiring and firing presidents and that’s when it all got out of hand.”

That’s an opinion shared by former Auburn coach Terry Bowden, who, along with Housel, declined to be interviewed for this story. But Bowden did conduct an interview with Davis in 2001, detailing what he called Lowder’s overreaching role in the week-to-week operation of the program. “Nothing was done without Lowder knowing,” said Bowden, who resigned in 1998.

Lowder did not respond to interview requests sent to him through Auburn.

“Who’s paying? That’s the important question,” Nichols said, though not referring specifically to Auburn or Oregon. “Many universities have been able to manage that, both on the academic and athletic side. But you’d have to be a Pollyanna not to recognize that along with large amounts of money comes either subtle or real dangers to autonomous decision-making for universities, including their athletic departments.”

Though Knight’s donations to Oregon are far larger than what Lowder gives to Auburn, his influence has been much more gently applied and evoked much less of a backlash around the Oregon campus.

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