He just does it. Sara Germano of the WSJ has the story here:
The new buildings come at a critical moment in Nike’s history. The company’s co-founder and chairman Phil Knight—who traditionally has had the last word on who receives the honor, according to the person familiar with the process—is planning to step down next year.
“When we first started out, the idea was not so much to name buildings after specific athletes, but there was the question of how do we identify these buildings?” says Robert Thompson, the architect hired to design Nike’s headquarters in 1987. “Phil Knight was very excited about the idea of paying respect to athletes who helped shape the company’s early success.”
Early building honors went to athletes such as Steve Prefontaine and Alberto Salazar, famous runners who first connected with Nike through Mr. Knight.
… There are quirks: the sports represented by building names aren’t proportional to the amount of revenues they bring in for Nike. There is just one building named after a basketball player, (his Airness, of course), even though basketball is the biggest team sport category at the company. Four buildings are named for baseball players, despite the fact that Nike doesn’t break out sales for the sport.
I’m no expert on charitable giving, but given our tight budget constraint, universities are careful to get as much as they can for “naming opportunities”. Then there’s Nike’s approach to de-naming:
A common worry, according to several employees, is whether Nike again will be embarrassed by a sports hero’s undoing. Nike took down building names for cyclist Lance Armstrong and late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno after their legacies were tarnished by scandals. The facades of both buildings haven’t been renamed for athletes.
Nike didn’t respond to questions about those employee concerns, but said that “building naming is an internal process with our leadership team.”
C. Vivian Stringer, the longtime Rutgers University women’s basketball coach, isn’t sure how Mr. Knight decided in 2008 to dedicate a child-care center in her honor, but says she is determined not to disappoint Nike. “Most times when you get that kind of honor, that’s after a person is dead, and they don’t have to worry about you messing up,” the 67-year-old coach says. “I’m not going to let anything happen to mar my name.”