'I'm going to pop a million': What led ASU booster to make a huge donation to athletics

Ever wonder who wealthy athletic boosters are and what motivates them to give?

I have. So I asked one.

For some time, Nap Lawrence had been telling friends and family he wanted to make a sizeable donation to his alma mater, Arizona State. And when Lawrence says sizeable, he means sizeable.

Over the years, he and his wife Barbara have donated $300,000 to build two weight rooms and $250,000 to pay for the first hole when ASU was building a golf course. They have supported the football and wrestling programs. A room at ASU’s W.P. Carey School of Business is named after Nap.

The golf course has since closed and Lawrence joked that he’s going to tell ASU people to “find something over there, a tree or something, to at least dedicate to me so I can remember it in my old age.”

Lawrence said he and his Barbara typically donate between $25,000 and $50,000 annually to the university in one form or another. But their next donation, Lawrence had been telling people this year, would be more substantial.

Two weeks ago at a family birthday party, Lawrence’s grandson, Cohlton Kieffer, who recently took a job with ASU, called him on it.

“Grandpa,” he said, “don’t you think it’s about time?”

“Well,” Lawrence said, “I’m waiting for the right occasion.”

That occasion came a week later when ASU held a news conference to introduce Kenny Dillingham as its new football coach. Lawrence said he doesn’t get involved in hiring coaches, but his dream was that ASU would hire Dillingham, also an ASU graduate, as head coach, and that Dillingham would retain interim coach Shaun Aguano.

When the site and time of the press conference were announced, Lawrence hurriedly got into his car to drive over to Sun Devil Stadium to attend. What he didn’t know was Aguano’s status. Was he staying?

He called a source close to Aguano. The friend couldn’t go into details but said Aguano was “extremely happy with the results.”

Lawrence called that a dream come true.

At the press conference, Lawrence grabbed a seat next to Danny Kush, an ASU alum, son of former coach Frank Kush and Lawrence’s friend of more than 50 years. They saw Dillingham break into tears when he talked about his alma mater. They heard him ask ASU fans to get involved with the program.

This was the occasion Lawrence had told his grandson about.

“I thought, ‘jeez, that’s right. I’m going to pop a million,’” Lawrence said.

Lawrence, 82, had the million to pop. Lawrence started out with nothing, he said, just a kid from Eloy who started selling life insurance his senior year at Arizona State. He did that for 27 years, while also buying and selling farmland and other real estate, mostly throughout Pinal County, the closer to I-10 the better.

For years, Lawrence’s most important hobby has been ASU football.

So when he heard Dillingham’s plea for people to get involved, presumably through buying tickets and donating money, Lawrence raised his hand to get the moderator’s attention.

Calling on a booster is not the norm for such press conferences. Not with the school president, the athletic director, the new coach and dozens of reporters in attendance. Calling on a booster is risky, especially when the event is being streamed, especially when incidents and accidents live forever on the Internet.

But Lawrence had an announcement to make. And anyone who knows Lawrence knows that when he has something to say, he’s going to find a way to say it. So he became part of the press conference.

Lawrence wanted to give $1 million to the Sun Angel Collective, a booster organization that facilitates NIL deals with the school’s athletes.

“I just blurted it out,” said Lawrence, who graduated from ASU in 1962.  “Ray (athletics director Ray Anderson) started to say something, but I just talked over him. I wanted to cover the subject because the coach just mentioned it’s the No. 1 (way) we can get better.”

Dillingham stood and clapped.

“Everyone was appreciative, naturally,” said Lawrence, who asked those in attendance, including Anderson and ASU President Michael Crow, if the gift was tax deductible.

People laughed at the time, but Lawrence wasn’t really joking. The next day, he talked with his accountant and ASU employees to confirm that it was.

It was a needed boost to the collective’s coffers. Beginning in the summer of 2021, student-athletes have been able to make money off their name, image and likeness, but ASU was slow to embrace the concept. A source in the athletic department said there has been improvement over the last year, but more work needs to be done.

'I'm home': 5 takeaways from Kenny Dillingham's introduction at Arizona State

Kenny Dillingham speaks at his introductory press conference as ASU's 26th head football coach on Nov. 27, 2022, in Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, AZ.
Kenny Dillingham speaks at his introductory press conference as ASU's 26th head football coach on Nov. 27, 2022, in Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, AZ.

Dillingham’s hiring and Lawrence’s donation made a substantial impact in the last week.

The Sun Angel Collective was formed last summer and started with $1 million in donations and pledges. Brittani Willett, hired as executive director of the Sun Angel Collective two weeks ago, said 148 new people pledged support via contributions and subscriptions in the 24 hours after Dillingham’s news conference. After Lawrence blurted out his donation plan.

That includes one-time donations that are “sizeable,” Willett said, although not as large as Lawrence’s. Willett declined to say how much money the collective has overall in donations and pledges.

A few days after the press conference, Lawrence and Scott Nelson, a senior associate athletics director and executive director of the Sun Devil Club, met for lunch in Ahwatukee.  Anderson was a surprise guest and thanked Lawrence again.

Before I could ask, Lawrence answered the obvious question.

“Ray paid the tab.”

Lawrence, after all, had already paid up.

Reach Kent Somers at Kent.Somers@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @kentsomers. Hear Somers every Monday and Friday at 7:30 a.m. on The Drive with Jody Oehler on Fox Sports 910 AM.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: What led ASU booster to donate $1 million for the football program?