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From student to Nike President: USU alumnus climbed ladder

staff writer

Published: Monday, December 2, 2013

Updated: Monday, December 2, 2013 21:12

Charlie Denson

Utah State Today

One would imagine an interview with Charlie Denson, president of Nike Brand, would take place in some high-tech room or security-guarded area. But for Denson, an open table in the middle of the second floor of the Merrill-Cazier Library was just fine.

Born and raised in the college town of Corvallis, Ore., Denson was a fan of the Oregon State Beavers. The oldest of four kids, Denson had opportunities to grow and also enjoy a normal childhood. Looking back at his early years, Denson said he had fond memories.

“We would go to school, work at the family business in the summer and play sports all year long,” Denson said.

That love for sports eventually landed Denson at Mount Hood Junior College, where he played football. But that was no easy task.

“When I graduated from high school, I was pretty small,” Denson said. “I actually grew about 4 inches and put on 35 pounds in college.”

Working hard, and thanks to an opportune growth spurt, Denson helped his team to an undefeated season during his sophomore year. Mount Hood ended the season ranked No. 2 nationally.

Once again, opportunity arose as team members began to receive scholarship offers to play Division I football. Terry Shea, who was Denson’s position coach, received a job offer to be one of the coaches at USU. Although he couldn’t offer him a scholarship, Shea invited Denson to walk on at Utah State.

“I didn’t even know where Logan was,” Denson said. “But that was my ambition. I really wanted to play Division I football.”

So Denson decided to take the chance. After lots of time spent in the gym and on the football field, things worked out again as Denson earned a scholarship the following spring to play free safety.

“When I got to Utah State I realized how big and how fast everybody was, and knowing that at the pro level they were even bigger and faster, and there comes a time when you have to deal with reality,” he said.

But Denson took full advantage of his time in Logan. Not only did Denson learn from sports, but also earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration.

“It was a great opportunity,” Denson said. “I learned a lot in athletics and I’m a big fan of athletics as a classroom. It’s interesting all the parallels I have found between sport, business and life in general. Competitiveness, teamwork and preparation, to name a few.”

After college, the doors continued to open for Denson. He ran into a long time family friend who tried to convince Denson to start working for a new and growing company. Nike, named after the Greek goddess of victory, was in its early years of development.

“I had heard of the company and in fact had purchased several pairs while in high school and college,” Denson said. “He asked me if I would be interested in a job, but the idea of attaching my fragile career plan to a small company run by a bunch of ex-jocks was not something I thought was a good idea.”

But eventually, Denson decided to try it out.

Starting in retail and through more hard work and taking given opportunities, Denson eventually became president of Nike Brand.

“34 years later I have lived and traveled all over the world, been to every major sporting event there is, met and worked with some of the smartest, most creative people on the planet,” Denson said. “I’ve met with presidents, prime ministers and world leaders, and call some of the greatest athletes of our time close friends.”

Denson will step down as president of Nike Brand in January. He said family played a big role in the decision.

“I have never missed track meets and cross-country meets and parent-teacher conferences, but I just want to spend more time with my 12 and 15-year-old boys,” Denson said. “I don’t like to say I’m retiring because I’m not ready to retire and love my job and will continue to work in another position, but I’m at a point in time in my life where that needs to be my priority.”

Since becoming president of Nike Brand, Denson has given a lot back to USU. Being a member of the National Advisory Board for Aggie Athletics, Denson suggested to USU Athletic Director Scott Barnes that USU should be rebranded. With the help of Denson and Nike, everything came together. In April 2012, USU unveiled its new logo and new Nike uniforms.

“Charlie brought it up,” Barnes said. “It wasn’t a big priority for us at the time, but Charlie made it all happen, and the outcome was great.

“He’s just a genuine, approachable guy. His family is important to him. Considering his position, he’s obviously a smart a skilled leader. But visiting with him, you’d never think he’s the president of Nike because he’s just so humble and real.”

Apart from helping USU Athletics, Denson has been actively involved in the business school and even was the commencement speaker for at the graduation ceremonies in May 2013.

“But I don’t like doing the big speech pieces,” Denson said. “I’d much rather just interact with the students and spend time with them.”

He took time to talk about his journey from a boy to USU to president of one of the most well-known companies around the world.

“When I talk to students, they seem to think that they have to jump into a career right away,” Denson said. “I would just advise everybody to keep all your options open and follow your passion. Do what you enjoy, and it will create a lot of opportunities for you in the years to come.”

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