Each summer, The Oregonian/OregonLive sports columnist John Canzano ranks the Top 25 most influential people in Oregon sports. This year, there is a new No. 1. Check out his 2019 list and post your reaction in the comments thread.
25 MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE IN OREGON SPORTS 2019
25. Wayne Tinkle (2018 ranking: 25): Oregon State men’s basketball coach feels poised for an encouraging season. Is this OSU’s breakout year? Tinkle’s son, Tres, is coming back for another year in Corvallis and it feels like the Beavers should again be a top-four team in conference play. The fourth-place finish last season was a bright spot. Tinkle made the NCAA Tournament in 2015-16, and feels positioned for another possible run.
24. Craig Cheek (NR): The founder of the Portland Diamond Project has done all the right things when it comes to the MLB to PDX effort. Cheek says the group has financial commitments that stretch beyond $1.5 billion. He’s also fostered a positive working relationship with state and city politicians. The former Nike executive is now at the whim of MLB’s front office. Is it serious about expanding? Because if so, he has Portland positioned as the West Coast’s No. 1 option.
23. K.L. Wombacher (23): The Hillsboro Hops general manager has engineered what might be the area’s most family-friendly sports product. Wombacher has turned 4,500-seat Ron Tonkin Field into the best-kept sports secret in the region. Wombacher is a strong community-minded leader who has the Hops’ sponsorship machine humming. Doesn’t hurt, either, that they’ve been good on the field. But Wombacher has done a terrific job building a sponsorship base and winning culture.
22. Mike Golub (NR): Timbers President of Business is a powerful no-ego, all-business, behind-the-scenes player. He would be much higher on this list if he weren’t so interested in giving credit to others. Golub, who has vast experience in sports management, was the Chief Operating Officer of the Trail Blazers and, among other stops, served as the Senior Vice President of Business Operations and Chief Marketing Officer for the National Hockey League’s New York Rangers. He also worked in Major League Baseball Productions. Golub has been key in helping the Timbers change the sports landscape in Portland. He’s a two-time MLS Executive of the Year and his fingerprints are all over anything that has to do with franchise business. That includes the Timbers’ stadium expansion and the addition of 4,000 seats.
21. Jim Etzel (NR): The CEO at Sport Oregon — formerly known as the Oregon Sports Authority — has done some encouraging things for an entity that appeared toothless before he arrived. Etzel has been visible and active since taking over more than a year ago. He’s rebranded the organization, and has his eyes on bringing large sports events to our state. Sport Oregon is currently working with Oregon State and Moda Center on a bid that could bring a Women’s Final Four to Portland as soon as 2025.
20. Dana Altman (15): The Oregon Ducks men’s basketball coach took his team to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament last March in a pleasant surprise. He has top-20 influence in this state’s sports world. Altman appears content to recruit five-star players and replace them after each season. He lost underclassmen Bol Bol, Kenny Wooten and Louis King to the pros in the latest cycle. But Altman recently landed a commitment from five-star recruit center N’Faly Dante, who could be a short-timer himself. The 6-foot-11, 230-pound center from Sunrise Christian Academy (Kansas) is going to reclassify and will join the UO program for the 2019-20 season.
19. Terry Stotts (24): The Trail Blazers’ 61-year old head coach had one of his best NBA seasons, navigating catastrophe, overcoming a league of stacked rosters and getting a lot out of a team that many left for dead near the end of the regular season. The season-ending injury to Jusuf Nurkic was a killer, but Stotts cobbled together a lineup that made the Western Conference finals before being clobbered by the Warriors. He got a lot out of Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter. Frankly, Stotts is at his absolute best when wringing every drop of talent out of his roster or creatively finding ways to win. The organization rewarded the coach with a contract extension that carries him through the 2021-22 season.
18. Scott Leykam (22): University of Portland athletic director broke the department fundraising record in the 2018-19 fiscal year, bringing in $3.25 million. UP is now fourth in its league in revenue behind BYU, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s. It’s also third in the conference in sponsorship cash, trailing only BYU and Gonzaga. If UP men’s basketball pivots toward winning next season, Leykam will sail higher on this list. If it doesn’t, Leykam will be forced to make a difficult decision with coach Terry Porter. Keep an eye on that.
17. Valerie Cleary (20): Portland State athletic director opened the Viking Pavilion with resounding success and is now exploring a solution for PSU football’s long-standing stadium problem. Build something new in Portland? Find a permanent solution in Hillsboro? Or partner with a local high school on a multi-use stadium? Cleary is a problem-solver who is known as a strong internal leader. She’s smart, and willing to trust her staff and delegate. All this makes Cleary a rising star in the college athletics administration world, so include keeping her on staff among Portland State’s top priorities.
16. Jerry Schumacher (NR): The 48-year-old head coach of the Bowerman Track Club’s professional team and one of the most accomplished distance running coaches in the world had a really good year. He’s coaching the country’s best middle-distance runner of either gender at the moment in Shelby Houlihan. Schumacher coaches an extraordinary volume of runners, and has the respect of his pupils. In a track and field state, he’s got growing influence where it counts — with the runners themselves.
15. Justin Herbert (6): Oregon Ducks quarterback announced after last season that he would return to play one more campaign in Eugene. And because of his size, arm and play, Herbert has been installed by most as a first-round pick, possibly the top pick, in the next NFL draft. He dropped on this list, mostly because he won’t be on the field this season trying to do it by himself. Coach Mario Cristobal had an unprecedented recruiting season and surrounded Herbert with vastly improved talent. Herbert’s season opens against Auburn in a much-anticipated game, and he could soar with a great performance on national television.
14. Neil Olshey (17): Trail Blazers president of basketball operations got his team to the Western Conference finals utilizing solid role-player additions such as Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter. He deserves credit there. The offseason became challenging, however, as the Western Conference again featured a massive shuffling of the deck. Did the Blazers get better vs. the top competition? Or did they slip? That’s the question to ask and Olshey’s influence waxes and wanes accordingly. He traded this summer for Hassan Whiteside and drafted Nassir Little in the first round. But will that be enough to stay with the best of the West?
13. Scott Rueck (18): Oregon State women’s basketball coach reached the Sweet 16 again last season, marking the fourth consecutive appearance for his program. He took over a losing program and got it to a Final Four. Not sure if those outside of the OSU family understand the degree of difficulty that Rueck navigated to get where he is. Rueck’s team split the regular-season series with Oregon last season, and is well positioned to challenge for a conference championship again. OSU is a relentless winner. But that’s what Rueck does, right? His contract now runs through 2027, giving him solid staying power on this list.
12. Kelly Graves (19): University of Oregon women’s basketball coach skyrocketed up the list here after taking his team to the Women’s Final Four in Tampa last March. Oregon pushed eventual national title winner Baylor to the final few possessions. Not long after the season ended, Graves learned his star player — National Player of the Year winner Sabrina Ionescu — would be back for another season. He’s made women’s basketball a shining source of pride on a campus that focused manically for years on football, men’s basketball, track and field and maybe softball. Now, Oregon is a women’s basketball school, too. Graves will go much higher on this list if he delivers a national title.
11. Brenda Tracy (5): Brenda Tracy has emerged as the loudest and most influential national voice on the issue of sex assault and violence against women on college campuses. Tracy survived a gang rape in 1998 at the hands of four college football players. She’s become a powerful lobbyist who has changed laws, conference policy and minds. She’s called for a ban of transfer athletes who have violent offenses in their past. Her national #SetTheExpectation campaign has been adopted by multiple universities and conferences. The SEC, ACC and Big Ten will host their first-ever #SetTheExpectation games this season. Tracy has shared her message and influence with 86 college campuses. Portland State has been a strong partner on several fronts with Tracy, but Oregon and Oregon State can do much more in utilizing her as a powerful partner and resource.
10. Sabrina Ionescu (16): Oregon Ducks star women’s basketball player carried her team to the Final Four and would have been the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft had she declared and left Oregon early. She decided to come back and has marketing appeal that goes beyond others in her sport. It won’t just be interesting to see if Ionescu, now 21, can deliver a national title next season, but also, whether Nike capitalizes on her influence. The sneaker company could turn Ionescu into a powerful international endorser. So many college stars in women’s basketball seemingly disappear from the spotlight after turning pro. Ionescu has potential staying power.
9. Damian Lillard (12): Trail Blazers 29-year-old star player agreed to a “super max” deal this summer, cementing him in Portland for the foreseeable future. He’s the most influential athlete in the state of Oregon. Lillard will become the NBA’s first $50 million-a-year player. He hit a 37-foot jumper in Paul George’s face that destroyed the Oklahoma City Thunder and catapulted the Trail Blazers into the second round of the playoffs. Then he helped push his team into the Western Conference Finals with a seven-game series win against the Denver Nuggets. Lillard has solid staying power on this list, and could move higher if the Blazers’ can surround him with complementary players in an era that makes it challenging for a small-market team.
8. Jonathan Smith (8): Oregon State University head football coach makes $1.9 million a year and is in the second year of a five-year contract. He went 2-10 last season. A key provision in Smith’s contract states that each season in which he wins six or more games, an additional year will be added. No Beavers coach has reached that six-win milestone since Mike Riley in 2013 and Las Vegas has put the over/under win total for this season at 2.5 games. But the 40-year-old Smith feels like he has some early momentum, along with some key returners. The Beavers open the season Aug. 30 at Reser Stadium against Oklahoma State. The offense will score points this season, and if the defense is improved, he will find some serious traction sooner than expected.
7. Scott Barnes (11): The Beavers’ athletic director really needs football and men’s basketball to trend positive in the next cycle to climb on this list. That short-term success becomes more important as the university president who hired him (Dr. Edward Ray) announced that he will retire in June 2020. Barnes is the former chair of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament selection committee. He made a big bet on Jonathan Smith, hiring the former OSU quarterback as his football coach, and men’s basketball coach Wayne Tinkle looks poised to have a solid season. Barnes got a tricky baseball hire right, I think. But he needs success in the major revenue-producing sports ASAP.
6. Rob Mullens (9): The University of Oregon athletic director was not just the chair of the College Football Playoff selection committee but also popped up on the short list of candidates for the AD vacancy at Texas A&M. Mullens removed himself from consideration. After Mark Helfrich and Willie Taggart, Mullens needed a favorable football outcome. His football hire, Mario Cristobal, won nine games in his first season and the Ducks’ women’s basketball program made the Final Four. Mullens really needed that momentum. The AD is now a couple of months into year No. 4 of an eight-year contract that ends in summer 2024. Mullens received a $100,000 retention bonus on June 30. If he stays at Oregon, Mullens will make $717,500 a year through the end of the deal and collect retention bonuses that escalate to $200,000 in 2020 and $300,000 from 2021-23. If Mullens is the AD at Oregon in June of 2024, he’ll collect a $1 million bonus.
5. Mario Cristobal (7): Oregon Ducks head football coach went 9-4 in his first season on the job, including a Red Box Bowl victory over Michigan State. Rumors swirled that Miami, his alma mater, might come calling and Cristobal was promptly rewarded with a one-year extension that keeps him under contract in Eugene through 2024. The deal boosted his annual average base salary to $2.6 million per year and cemented the 48-year-old coach as Oregon’s leader for the foreseeable future. Cristobal has already recruited better than any head coach in Ducks history, but faces a more challenging regular-season schedule than a year ago. The sports books opened UO’s 2019 over/under win total at nine victories. The Ducks have talked a lot about physicality and building a championship contender. Cristobal gets a chance on national television on Aug. 31 against Auburn to flex some of that muscle in a litmus-test game that is either going to catapult Cristobal’s profile into another stratosphere or bring him temporarily back to Earth.
4. Reser family (NR): Oregon State’s top donor family and the owner and operator of Reser’s Fine Foods has big-time clout in the state. The late Al Reser and wife Pat graduated from OSU in 1960 and attended games together, becoming season-ticket holders in the mid-1960s. After building an Oregon-based empire in the business world, the Reser family ramped up financial support of Oregon State, which now plays football games in the aptly named Reser Stadium. A long line of Reser descendants have graduated from the campus in Corvallis. Al and Pat’s grandchildren have either attended, or currently attend Oregon State. Said their son, Mark Reser: “Higher education benefits go beyond the students to include communities and industry, and we think that’s important to support.”
3. Merritt Paulson (2): The 46-year-old Portland Timbers and Thorns owner has absolutely crushed it with his successful soccer franchises. I miss his rants on Twitter (he’s on hiatus) but the results on the field are doing the talking for him now. He’s enjoyed championship success on the field with both his men’s and women’s teams, and recently expanded Providence Park by 4,000 seats in an $85 million expansion. At a time when some sports franchises are cutting costs and restricting growth, Paulson is making a big investment and building his empire. Remember, Paulson once worked for one-time NBA commissioner David Stern and alongside now-commissioner Adam Silver in New York at the league offices. That little tidbit — and his father’s deep investment connections — make Paulson the prime candidate to someday lead a group into the purchase of Trail Blazers Inc. No doubt, Paulson has vision, influence and juice. Does he want an NBA team to go with it?
2. Phil Knight (1): 81-year-old Nike co-founder and Oregon Ducks booster has a net worth estimated at $33.8 billion. In March, UO athletic director Rob Mullens told me: “If I’m drafting in any kind of competition, I’m drafting Phil and Penny Knight first.” Mullens isn’t dumb. There’s no arguing the financial support the Knights have offered the University of Oregon over the years. $27 million for the Knight Library. Another $10 million for The William W. Knight Law Center. Another $15 million for 27 endowed chairs and professorships, and $500 million for a science research center. Whether it’s $30 million for the original renovation of Autzen Stadium, or $41 million for an athletic tutoring center, or $100 million for Matthew Knight Arena, Penny and Phil’s fingerprints are all over the operation. Oregon isn’t Oregon without them.
1. Jody Allen (NR): Upon the death of longtime Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen on Oct. 15 of last year, Jody assumed the decision-making power over the state’s top professional sports franchise. It’s why she currently stands as the most influential person in Oregon sports. Keep the Blazers? Or sell them? And if it’s a sale, to whom? Jody, on a sabbatical from her post as CEO of Vulcan, now holds the keys to a pivotal decision that many think will unfold in the coming year or so. The Blazers’ lease at Moda Center expires in 2025 and is said to be “iron clad.” The Blazers aren’t going anywhere. But there are a lot of unknowns, which only amplifies her juice in state. While Jody, 60, hasn’t indicated her plans for the NBA franchise and NFL franchise (Seahawks), her late brother installed her as the trustee of the estate, so at some point, it’s her call. Paul Allen’s holdings included a complex web of interests ranging from philanthropy to sports franchises to real estate and venture capital. His net worth was estimated at $17 billion and he was interested in everything from space to climate change to NBA playoff victories. He may have passed away, but his influence has been passed to his younger sister.
OFF THE LIST
Who dropped out from the 2018 rankings: Paul Allen (3), Bol Bol (10), Jim Leavitt (13), Pat Casey (14), Gavin Wilkinson (21).
Influential Oregon sports figures who were under consideration: Barret Peery, Chris McGowan, Pat Casey, Tobin Heath, Russell and Ciara Wilson, Brian Fernandez, Bruce Barnum, Andy Avalos, Marcus Arroyo, Lopez Lomong, Zack Lassiter, Michael Schill, Dr. Edward Ray, Pat Kilkenny, Gavin Wilkinson, Niels de Vos, CJ McCollum, Mitch Canham, Mark Wasikowski, Larry Scott, Shelby Houlihan, Adley Rutschman, Destiny Slocum, Aleah Goodman, Diego Valeri, Terry Porter, Giovanni Savarese, Marcus Mariota, Payton Pritchard, Ashton Eaton, Jusuf Nurkic, Brian Grant, Jake Luton, Peter Jacobsen, Mark Massari, Terry Porter, Bill Schonely, Michael Lewellen, Mike Barrett, Dan Floyd, Tres Tinkle, Nick Carlin-Voigt.
2018 rankings: Phil Knight No. 1
2017 rankings: Phil Knight No. 1
2016 rankings: Phil Knight No. 1
2015 rankings: LaMarcus Aldridge No. 1
2014 rankings: Paul Allen No. 1
— John Canzano