Late one spring afternoon last year, a mystery man sat in the back of a creative-writing seminar at Stanford. Evidently a student, he was much older than anyone else in the room. He was wearing a black blazer and white Nikes. He said his name was Phil.
As the days passed, the man's identity gradually came into focus. The instructor "made several vague allusions to Phil taking off in his private jet," recalls André Lyon, an English major enrolled in the class. And tales about Michael Jordan found their way into the man's literary discourse.
After a couple of weeks, a rumor began to circulate that the old dude in the Nikes was Philip H. Knight, the billionaire founder of the world's largest sportswear company.
The rumor was true. For four decades, Mr. Knight, who is now 69 years old, built the Beaverton, Ore., company into the industry titan while maintaining a personal reputation for seclusion and secrecy. As chief executive, he received visitors in a small conference room, only rarely allowing executives into his inner sanctum. Since leaving the top job in 2004 to be company chairman, Mr. Knight has lowered his profile further, stepping into the public spotlight only when one of his CEO successors was ousted in early 2006.