EUGENE — Football fans driving toward Autzen Stadium this fall will see a medieval-style stone wall running along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard until it meets a six-story, obsidianlike outcropping that is the new University of Oregon Football Operations Center.
As fans drive along — depending on the light — they'll see the dark new building eclipsing the giant yellow "O" on Autzen Stadium that for years has branded the sports complex.
"Architects don't leave a lot of things to chance. They probably were very cognizant of the fact that (the O) would get obscured," said Randy Nishimura, a Eugene architect and devoted Ducks fan.
"It's Darth Vaderish Death Star. It's this ominous or intimidating dark empire that Oregon has created."
What is the image-conscious Phil Knight — the Nike co-founder whose money is behind all the work — his architect Gene Sandoval and the UO football program trying to project with the expanded and revamped complex that construction crews are pushing to complete as the football season approaches?
And how does that fit the winningest football program in the Pac-12 since 2010? Those questions will come to the fore this summer as the buildings near completion — in time for the Aug. 31 season opener against Nicholls State.
The change to the Autzen complex is radical.
"It's going to be very similar to the federal courthouse," UO architecture professor Michael Fifield said, referring to the metal-clad structure that opened on the edge of downtown Eugene in 2006. "It's going to be something people are going to talk about."
Architects certainly are talking about it.
The basalt wall along MLK Boulevard is one of the most striking elements. It's 3 feet thick and made up of stacks of columnar basalt. On the west end it's 61/2 feet tall, stepping up to a dozen feet high at the east.
There's not a chink anywhere for the public to glimpse the practice fields that lie behind it.
The "long, massive black basalt wall leads the eye towards the über-geometry of the building, as it appears to be an obsidian outcropping resting on the bedrock foundation of the football program," Eugene architect Paul Dustrud said.
The new operations center consists of two buildings — joined with a double-decker sky bridge — and they appear to be made of black, shiny rectangular blocks. Their black glass is a throwback to the '70s and '80s.
"It was a fad or a trend back then to have a sleek and uniform appearance," Nishimura said. Today it's "almost a video game mentality.
"Oregon has become known as a program that's intimidating and sleek."
The designers created a cohesive motif, Dustrud said, by painting the adjacent Moshofsky and Casanova centers black; until recently, they were light-colored and adorned with green O's. Last week, workmen in cherry pickers hung black metal grilles — all fashioned with tiny O's — all over the blackened buildings.
"A little elitist"
While eye-catching to people driving or walking by, there remains a hush of secrecy over the complex. Athletic Department officials decline to say anything about the new buildings going up around their ears.
Phil Knight's Phit Too company leased the site from the university for the duration of construction, and he has pledged to donate the buildings to the UO when construction is done. Just how much Knight is spending on the work is unclear, although a figure of $68 million often is quoted.
"There will be a media availability when the football operations building opens in early August," spokesman Andy McNamara said.
The coaches' offices in the new building are four stories high. Sandoval has said that he was thinking of a "cloister" concept.
Under former head coach Chip Kelly, practices were closed; he disclosed little about player injuries and often was reluctant to talk to reporters. Players say they must get department approval before saying anything to the news media.
The new construction seems to reflect and intensify that black-ops approach.
From the sidewalk in front of the "teaching box" building, black glass obscures the view inside, except for the flicker of a winged O across an enormous video screen inside.
Coach Mark Helfrich will be stationed in the master sky suite, six stories up, with a commanding view of the Autzen complex.
"It does feel like it's a little elitist," said Will Dixon, architect and president of the American Institute of Architects of Southwestern Oregon. "It's like if you are in the club, then you can get to the nice rooms up there."
It reminds Brian Libby, an architecture blogger and author of "The University of Oregon Football Vault," of the design of Nike's headquarters in Beaverton. There, a berm obscures the public's view of the company's "beautiful architecture," Libby said.
"When you're standing outside, you know there are beautiful buildings there, but you feel like it's turning its back to the community.
"The Football Operations Center can be beautiful and very environmentally impressive," Libby said. "I hope it won't seem like a castle that's telling its neighbors across the street or down the street to keep their distance."
"Some pimpin' facilities"
The new center targets many audiences, including talented football prospects who come to visit the UO before deciding where they will attend college.
And who better knows the taste of teenage males than Nike?
"Recruits will see the ambition that building communicates," Libby said. "This is a complex that aspires to demonstrate that Oregon is at the top of the top when it comes to football programs and their facilities."
"It's strange to think of building a multimillion-dollar building like this so 17-year-olds will be impressed. But at the same time, if you're going to compete at the high levels of college football, this is the arms race that you sign up for."
Check YouTube to see how football players like the Knight-built facilities, and especially the video titled "The University of Oregon Has Some Pimpin' Facilities." (Beware, however, of the rap sound track that features language some might find objectionable.)
Dustrud likes the look.
"Some people may say that it is too imposing. But I would say that on the scale of the work — in relation to the rest of the facilities and stadium — it is inspiring and not particularly out of scale, especially when the new forest flanking the northern slope of Autzen is installed," he said.
Part of Knight's plan is indeed to build a forest on that slope, called Zen North. The forest will feature hundreds of trees.
Workmen have finished pouring three broad new stairways, on the east, north and west sides of Autzen Stadium. Brooks are set to babble over moss-covered stones along the stairs.
Building an empire
Libby, who counts the Star Wars movies among his favorites, said the design of the football center might signal a change in narrative for the Ducks. In the movies, Luke Skywalker was a fighter in the rebellion against the repressive empire.
"I always think of Oregon as the rebels, the underdogs," said Libby, watcher of games at Autzen since childhood. "Coming on the heels of so much success under coach Kelly, this building does give us reason to ask: Are we the rebels anymore? Or are we becoming the empire?"
The Ducks and their fans have long sported an aggressive streak.
The new soccer-lacrosse stadium next to Autzen features black garbage cans. On the top is a logo that features a big green Duck tossing a small, dead or unconscious orange Beaver into a trash can.
The ring around the logo says "Trash. Garbage. Beavers."
Football fans turn up at Autzen Stadium wearing black "Sons of Oregon" sweat shirts, a take on the popular cable television series about a violent motorcycle gang. The logo features the Duck as the grim reaper, complete with scythe.
As interpreted by some national observers, the Oregon Ducks are going from underdogs to excess.
Oregon players "enjoy every imaginable creature comfort, technological advance and fashion indulgence," ESPN said.
"Nobody needs a 130,000-square-foot football operations center; that is more than 1,500 square feet per scholarship player," Sports Illustrated wrote. "But you better believe that recruits will love it."
As part of the current upgrade, the football Ducks have for the first time a full-size, outdoor synthetic practice field.
With little fanfare, other Duck athletic teams have gained two new buildings on the Autzen perimeter.
One was the PK Player Development Center, an indoor artificial turf field practice area and outdoor batting cages for baseball. The women's soccer and lacrosse teams got a 1,000-seat stadium named for Randy and Susie Papé and paid for by Phil and Penny Knight.
The 12,000-square-foot structure features maple lockers for each player, and a team room with 55-inch flat screen televisions and leather easy chairs for every athlete.
A larger-than-life rendering of Puddles, the Duck Mascot, graces the team room's wall. In one of its pupils, subtle images of Phil and Penny Knight are reflected.
"The ring is the thing"
Fans are waiting to see what Knight does next for the Ducks. Do the new, expansive, forested corridors of egress from the north side of Autzen Stadium presage the long-anticipated major expansion, adding up to 12,000 seats to the 54,000-capacity stadium (now 60,000 counting standing room)?
Will the softball team get a facility to match its national standing? Will there be an indoor track? What else will fit at the 72-acre Autzen area?
"There's actually a lot of open space over there," Fifield said.
Knight is rich enough and powerful enough to get it done.
Last year, he persuaded Gov. John Kitzhaber to call the Legislature into special session to pass a measure financially benefiting Nike. He's chairman of a company that has $25 billion a year in sales. His own wealth tops $14 billion, according to Forbes magazine.
The Knights' largesse has helped make several Duck programs into perennial national title contenders, Nishimura said.
"His whole goal, probably, is to set Oregon up so it's bigger than any one person. It's one of the blue bloods of the college football world — like an Alabama or a Michigan or Ohio State."
More traditional Duck fans, less enamored with Nike, might set their qualms aside, just as they did when the UO turned the Ducks' green-and-yellow uniforms into varying shades of gray and black.
"The blackness of the Ducks, be it their uniforms or now in their buildings, is going a little bit too much in the intimidating direction for me," Libby said.
"I'd rather see a transparent building and green-and-yellow uniforms. But if you ask me what I want most of all, it's a national championship.
"The ring is the thing."