COLLEGE PARK — — On Sept. 12, 2010, the University of Maryland needed a plane for a men's basketball recruiting trip, and Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank delivered.
Fifteen weeks later, the sport was different but the situation the same. As athletics officials raced to interview football coaching candidates, Plank paid for $31,735 in charter flights.
The flights — Plank loaned or chartered a plane five times for Maryland's use in a recent two-year period at a cost of $123,906 — represented only a fraction of the contributions to his alma mater by the Under Armour founder, who helps Maryland keep pace in the ever-escalating athletics arms race. Plank, his foundation and the company have collectively donated more than $1.4 million to Maryland athletics since 2007, according to documents obtained from the athletic apparel and footwear company and through a public records request with the university.
But if Plank, 38, has increasingly become Maryland's go-to guy, most of his gifts have come with little public attention. In an era when the term "booster" can carry unwanted connotations of unchecked activities and egos, Plank seems wary that his donations could be misconstrued.
"I don't like being the centerpiece or a portion of the story," he said in an interview. "I don't want to be characterized as the big booster guy." He said he agreed to be interviewed because "I want to be extremely forthcoming."
His role is significant.
"People have been loaning planes forever, but they are probably much more needed now because the landscape has changed," said Paul Swangard of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center of the University of Oregon.
Nike co-founder and alumnus Phil Knight has contributed heavily to Oregon athletics. His $100 million gift in 2007 was used to back bonds to build a 12,500-seat arena for Ducks basketball and other events.
"It's becoming so hyper-competitive to be playing for the big revenue, you need almost every resource you can come up with to be competitive," Swangard said.
After former Maryland football coach Ralph Friedgen suffered through a 2-10 season in 2009, fans speculated on message boards that Plank might buy out the final two seasons of Friedgen's contract.
Plank, a former Maryland special teams player before Friedgen became coach, said he never considered it.
For one thing, he and Friedgen are friends. For another, Plank said, it would not have been his role. "Let me be more than crystal clear," he said. "If an athletic director asks me to buy out a contract, that is not my job. That is not my job to make that decision on behalf of the university."
According to both men, Plank and Friedgen attended a Ravens-Steelers game together at M&T Bank Stadium in November 2009 with Friedgen's job in the balance. Plank said he told Friedgen — who had a trying relationship with former athletic director Debbie Yow and could have opted to step down — that "I would be happy to support you, Coach, with whatever decision you make."
Friedgen kept his job for another season before being ousted last December by athletic director Kevin Anderson.
Trying to compete
Soon afterward, Plank paid for a charter plane to help Maryland athletic officials interview candidates to replace Friedgen. Anderson said Plank "has been very supportive of me" but that "at no time did Kevin tell me who to hire. I want to make that very clear." Plank did not pay for all of the coaching-search travel.
The high-energy Plank, who keeps an arduous travel schedule, did not accompany Maryland officials on the coaching-search trips that ended with the hiring of Connecticut's Randy Edsall, according to Plank and Anderson. But — just as he often is on recruiting trips — Plank was a financial player.
"Maryland doesn't have the resources of planes that many others we compete against do," Plank said. "There's no conspiracy here. I have a plane. It's not being used. [Maryland men's basketball coach] Gary Williams says 'We need it because we need to be in three cities in two days, can you help us out?' "
It's the same with football, Edsall said. "Donors are essential to helping with the success of the program," he said. "If we can get on a private plane and do recruiting, you can see so many more kids in a day than you could if you flew commercially."
Plank has a dual relationship with Maryland. In September 2008, Maryland announced a five-year, $17.5 million agreement for Under Armour to become the official outfitter of all 27 sports teams. More recently, the university has been working with the Baltimore-based company on updating the marks and logos used on teams' uniforms and at campus athletic facilities.
Plank is also a member of the Board of Trustees. "I keep a very clear delineation between what I'm allowed to do as [an alumnus] and what I'm allowed to do as CEO of Under Armour," he said.
That means being vigilant of NCAA rules. "We have a full consulting firm that just advises us on NCAA issues," Plank said.
Within the rules