​Nike's fiercely competitive Phil Knight

The name Phil Knight may not be exactly familiar to everyone. But the sporting goods brand he created almost certainly is. Lee Cowan has our Sunday Profile:

Not far from Portland, Oregon, sprawling across some 350 manicured acres, you'll find a cathedral to sports -- and a castle, in a way, to capitalism.

It's the home of the swoosh: the world headquarters of Nike, the largest athletic shoe and apparel company on the planet, with sales topping $30 billion last year alone.

It took to the starting line over 50 years ago, the brainchild of a young track athlete named Phil "Buck" Knight.

He's now 78, and one of the richest men in the world.

"There are times when the sun goes down and I look out the buildings and I get pretty choked up," Knight said.

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Nike's Phil Knight with correspondent Lee Cowan.

CBS News

"An empire is kind of a funny word, but it kind of is," said Cowan.

"Well, we don't use that word about ourselves, but it's gotten pretty big!"

Knight is a curious character: controversial, unpredictable, and fiercely competitive, possessing a "Just Do It" style of business that sometimes rubbed people the wrong way.

"You almost bristle at the suggestion that you're a businessman," said Cowan.

"No, not at all. I'm proud of that. But we do business the way we do business."

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Scribner

When he announced he was stepping down as Nike's chairman last year, Knight decided to reveal what he called his "crazy idea" of a business plan, in a memoir called "Shoe Dog," published by Scribner (a division of CBS' Simon and Schuster).

"It was a crazy idea to the outside world, but it never really was to me," Knight said. "It was always a big hope."

That hope first flickered at storied Hayward Field at the University of Oregon, where Knight was a mid-distance runner.

Did he like roar of the crowd? "Very much! I didn't get that many..."

He wasn't the fastest, but he just might have been the smartest. "I came here as a 17-year-old, just very uncertain of everything, and I met Bill Bowerman, and I've often said if there's no Bill Bowerman, there's no me."

Bill Bowerman was Knight's coach. He was obsessed with tearing apart track shoes and reassembling them, creating a sort of "Franken-shoe" of his very own.

"He would make 'em out of goat skin, so there would be almost no form in the upper, and then he'd get a spike plate off another shoe and glue it on," Knight said. "They were pretty ugly, but they were light, and I was one of his guinea pigs, and that kind of planted a seed."

That seed took root while getting his MBA at Stanford. Knight wrote a paper outlining a strategy of manufacturing running shoes in Japan, where the labor was cheaper.

"Ever since I wrote it, it was sort of ticking away in there," he said. "It just kept kind of growing."

After graduating, Knight put his paper into action, convincing a Japanese company to let him distribute their brand of running shoe, called Tigers, here in the U.S. He began selling them out of the trunk of his car.

His initial investment? A thousand bucks, that he split 50/50 with his new partner and former coach, Bill Bowerman.

"People used to say, 'Oh did you hear what Knight is doing with a Stanford MBA? He's peddling Japanese track shoes!' That was a pretty big joke at the time," Knight recalled. "But I wanted it, so I said, I gotta try, I gotta try it."

By 1971 their little shoe company had sales of $1.3 million, and a new innovation, thanks to Bowerman's unlikely experiment with his wife's waffle iron.

"He put urethane in there and said, 'Maybe that's the pattern, it's a different pattern that breaks up and should give you more traction and more cushioning,'" Knight said.

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Phil Knight explains the role of a waffle iron in the history of Nike to correspondent Lee Cowan.

CBS News

The result was the "waffle trainer," a new kind of sole that Knight wanted to manufacture under his own brand, one he initially wanted to name "Dimension Six."

"You'd have a hard time fitting that on a heel tab," Knight laughed.

Why Dimension Six? "Well, there was a 5th dimension right? So we wanted it to be an extra dimension."

But nobody liked that idea. Mercifully, an employee proposed another name: Nike, the Greek goddess of victory.

But Knight wasn't crazy about it, nor did he like the logo. The "wing" as it was called then (a design he paid a college student just $35 to draw) was supposed to symbolize the sound of speed. Knight thought it looked like a big fat checkmark.

"Nothing ever stands out and says, 'Boy, that's it!' There's not a 'Eureka!' moment, for me. In almost all these things, I just say, 'Okay, that's the best we can do, let's go.'"

Marketing was never Knight's thing. In fact he hated advertising. But he soon realized that well-known athletes wearing his shoes could speak and sell volumes.

Romanian tennis pro Ilie Nastase was the first big name signed. John McEnroe would soon follow.

But then came a 21-year-old basketball phenom from the University of North Carolina.