Some of Tennessee’s biggest athletic boosters say they learned firsthand the value of sports on the gridiron or wrestling mat.
Jim Haslam II, the founder of Pilot Oil Co. who gave the University of Tennessee at Knoxville $32.5 million last year, credits his business success to what he learned playing football under Gen. Robert Neyland.
“I don’t think my wife and I can ever truly repay what we received from the university,” the Knoxville millionaire said last week. “Football taught me the value of recruiting good people, putting people in the right position with the right coaching and playing hard every Saturday. That’s what makes for a successful business or any organization.”
Fourteen years after Mr. Haslam helped UT win a national championship in 1951, James “Bucky” Wolford came to the University of Chattanooga to play football. For Mr. Wolford, who g rew up in rural Kimberly, Ala., a football scholarship in 1965 provided him with his first home with indoor plumbing. After playing as a defensive back and studying math in college, Mr. Wolford went on to help develop dozens of shopping malls across the country.
“I know a lot of Tennesseans bleed orange, but I bleed blue and gold,” said Mr. Wolford, a Chattanooga developer and one of the biggest donors to UTC’s athletic program. “Football at the University of Chattanooga gave me an opportunity that I might not otherwise have had for someone from a tiny town like Kimberly.”
The football players-turnedphilanthropists are among a growing number of major donors to University of Tennessee athletic programs. UT associate athletic director John Currie said the number of donors who had ever given $1 million or more to the school’s athletics was only four in 2000. The list of milliondollar-or-more givers since has grown to 25.
Many of the major donors to the University of Tennessee didn’t graduate from the school. Allan Jones, founder of the nation’s third-largest payday lending company — Check Into Cash — attended Middle Tennessee State University when at age 20 he came home to help manage the Cleveland Credit Bureau Services founded by his father.
But Mr. Jones credits his high school wrestling and football experiences for shaping his tenacity to work and win.
“Athletics can sometimes teach a person as much as academics,” Mr. Jones said. “In wrestling, I learned that you have to work hard to succeed, and when you step on the mat only one person is going to win.”
From his father, Mr. Jones said he learned “I should always give more than my fair share.”
Mr. Jones has been a frequent contributor to wrestling programs in Cleveland and at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. In 2002, the former wrestler gave $4 million for a UT facility in a sport he never participated in: swimming. Mr. Jones gave the lead gift to help build the $24.3 million Allan Jones Intercollegiate Aquatic Center named in his honor.
Another Cleveland, Tenn., business leader, Brenda Lawson, has been a multimillion-dollar contributor for UT athletic facilities in Knoxville and Chattanooga. Ms. Lawson and her former husband, Toby McKenzie, helped pay off the debt on the former UTC Roundhouse, which then was named the McKenzie Arena. Ms. Lawson also was a major donor to the new Pratt Pavilion in Knoxville.
The man who helped talk both Mr. Jones and Ms. Lawson into giving to UT athletics was John “Thunder” Thornton, another UT sports fan who didn’t attend the university. Mr. Thornton, a Chattanooga developer who has served as UT trustee and chairman of the university’s athletic fundraising program, grew up in Maryville and graduated from Tennessee Wesleyan College.
But he says he was always a fan of UT football.
After selling his rug company two decades ago, Mr. Thornton gave $1 million to Tennessee for the chance to run with the football team through the “Power T” formed by the marching band before a game at Neyland Stadium. His contribution was the lead gift in a campaign he led to build a $4 million athletic student life center that bears his name.
Mr. Thornton was chairman of the fundraising campaign for athletics from 1999 to 2004 when more than $50 million was raised for athletic facilities. For all of UT’s fundraising success, Mr. Thornton said it still is a challenge to raise money for collegiate athletics with more than a million other nonprofit groups in America also asking for contributions.
“I’m not sure it’s ever easy to pry a million dollars away from somebody when they really don’t get anything material in return,” Mr. Thonton said. “But there are a lot of people who love Tennessee athletics.”
Mr. Haslam, who previously headed UT’s athletic fundraising campaign, said raising money for Vols athletics is probably the easiest part of fundraising at the university. For its size, Tennessee raises as much money for its athletic program as any school in the country.
“We have some great seating opportunities and skyboxes for donors, and most everybody in this state loves Big Orange,” he said.