The man who invented running

Sure, people ran before Bill Bowerman came along. But he's the one who saw running as a way to fitness for anyone, not just athletes -- and then wrote the book, fanned the trend, invented the shoe and co-founded the company that led the way
Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Oregonian

There's a statue of Bill Bowerman near the starting line on the track at Hayward Field. His head is cocked at an angle, he's holding a stopwatch and his expression is one of alert bemusement, as if what's happening in front of him interests him but doesn't engage his entire brain. There's more going on here than a track coach conducting a practice, and his posture shows it.

"The classic Bowerman pose," said his biographer, Kenny Moore.

The statue was erected within a year of Bowerman's death in 1999. It stands in front of a building named for him and is a symbol of his influence not only on Eugene and the University of Oregon but the wider world. Bowerman saw first what others didn't -- that anyone could lose weight and improve their health by jogging -- wrote a book about it that sold 1 million copies, invented a shoe that could help them do it, and co-founded Nike, a company that sold those shoes and the active lifestyle behind them. Bowerman's impact on American culture is as significant and long-lasting as any Oregonian has ever made.

"If culture is what people do every day, then absolutely, he's done as much as anybody," said Moore, author of "Bowerman and the Men of Oregon: The Story of Oregon's Legendary Coach and Nike's Co-Founder" (Rodale, $28.95, 480 pages). "He was a war hero, a member of the Greatest Generation, an Olympic coach, the man who made Eugene the track capital of the U.S. . . . you can run down the list."

Moore's biography of Bowerman goes on sale next month and is sure to spark an already strong interest in Bowerman. At Nike, No. 11 on a list of 11 rules was "remember the man." Nike Chairman Phil Knight, who told Moore he might have started the company to please Bowerman, said he is often asked to describe Bowerman by those who never knew him. "Thank goodness for Kenny's book," he said. "Now I can just give them the book."

Knight's answer, before Moore's book goes on sale: "He's a very complicated person," Knight said. "The classic example of an elephant described by four men."

Bowerman lived his entire life in Oregon but traveled the world as a coach and brought the concept of jogging back from New Zealand in 1962, then combined it with one of his core coaching philosophies, that no two runners are the same. Everyone is different and everyone -- children, women, heart patients, the elderly -- can benefit from moderate exercise.

By the time the jogging boom took off in America, Bowerman was busy designing shoes, first for his Oregon athletes and then for anyone who wanted to buy a pair of Nikes. His most famous creation, the waffle sole, was a design breakthrough that launched Nike as a profitable, independent company and made Bowerman a legend as an inventor.

Think about it. The same man created a market for a product and then created the product itself. It's genius, the kind of stuff they study in business schools.

The statue of Bowerman is life-size, but the man and his memories are larger than life for the man who built Nike, the runner and writer who spent a lifetime trying to understand him, the family friend and university president who tries to live by Bowerman's ideals, and the track coach who wants to build on those ideals. Bowerman's story runs in a circle, from Oregon out into the world and back again, the way a runner circles the track at Hayward Field.

Bowerman was a football and basketball star at Medford High School. He played offense and defense for the Oregon football team and returned an interception for a touchdown against Washington. He coached football at Franklin High School and Medford High School and led the Black Tornado to three state championships in track.

He was offered the job as head football coach at Oregon in 1947 but turned it down after his mentor, Bill Hayward, told him football coaches lead miserable lives. He took the track job in 1948 and stayed until 1973. The Ducks won four NCAA championships under Bowerman and became famous for producing milers and fierce competitors, including Steve Prefontaine, the most popular distance runner in U.S. history.

It's unusual for someone so involved in and successful at sports as Bowerman to be considered influential beyond it. Sports are at the noisy, vibrant heart of American culture, but athletes and coaches are relegated to the periphery of history, out there with actors and entertainers. Oregonians, even those with a sense of historical perspective, usually don't see Bowerman as a vital figure beyond sports.

"Probably not," Knight said. "I'd say they don't. They primarily think of him as a track coach, and he's much more complicated than that."

A track coach who invented a shoe sole with his wife's waffle iron, right?

"Right," Knight said. "That's the sound bite. There's so much more to his life, and that's why I'm glad Kenny wrote this book. I've been encouraging him to do this for quite a while. If there's no Bill Bowerman, there's no me, and if you pumped Kenny full of truth serum, he'd probably say the same thing."

Knight, who went by the nickname "Buck" back then, wore the first pair of custom track spikes Bowerman made for an Oregon runner, in 1958. Bowerman had long been disgusted with the quality of American-made spikes and the cost of European imports, and experimented in his garage, cutting the weight so his runners wouldn't have to work so hard during a race.

The spikes Knight wore were "a white, rubber-coated fabric, the kind you'd use for a tablecloth you could sponge off," Bowerman said. "Buck Knight put them on at the practice track one evening and jogged around, and I didn't know whether he was going to laugh or cry at these things. Buck tended to keep his own counsel."

Knight was an Eastmoreland kid who loved to run. He went from Cleveland High School to Oregon, where he found himself on a team with three Olympic distance runners. "If you ask where Nike came from, I would say it came from a kid who had that world-class shock administered at age 17 by Bill Bowerman," Knight told Moore. "Not simply the shock, but the way to respond. He attached such honor to not giving up, to doing my utmost. Most kids didn't have that adjustment of standards, that introduction to true reality."

Knight graduated in 1959 and after serving in the Army Reserves went to graduate school at Stanford, where he discovered he had the personality traits of an entrepreneur. He wrote a paper called "Can Japanese Sports Shoes Do to German Sports Shoes What Japanese Cameras Have Done to German Cameras?" that proposed importing 20,000 pairs of shoes and selling them to high school and college teams.

In 1963, Knight went to Japan and made a deal with the Onitsuka Co. to import its Tiger brand of track shoes to the U.S. He sent two pairs to Bowerman, who liked them and asked Knight to "make some kind of arrangement with cutting your old coach in, too." The two men shook hands on a deal at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Portland for $500 each as partners in Blue Ribbon Sports, the company that became Nike.

A week later, Knight amended the deal in a joking postscript to a letter: "There will be no (urinating) on partners in the shower."

Bowerman, a notorious practical joker, was known for urinating on his athletes in the McArthur Court showers and burning them with a hot set of keys in the sauna. In his book, Moore compares it to "an initiation rite, not unlike the ritual circumcision some African tribes use to make men of boys."

It was a rite of passage of some kind, all right, and dozens of Bowerman's athletes had the red marks to prove it. It's hard to imagine any coach getting away with it today.

"It's hard to imagine any other coach getting away with it then," Knight said. "It was just the way he played tricks on you. Kenny describes it as his sense of fun, and it was that. He was testing you, too."

In 1991, Knight held a tribute dinner for Bowerman at Nike's campus and built a replica of a sauna. Bowerman sat in it and the men he coached posed for pictures with him that he later signed.

"I don't remember everything about that dinner," Knight said. "It was a pretty emotional evening."

Bowerman's spirit remains strong at Nike. Mark Parker, the new president and CEO, knew Bowerman from his days in product design and "is a huge fan," Knight said. Tinker Hatfield, who's designed most of the Air Jordans, was a pole vaulter at Oregon and spoke at Bowerman's memorial service.

"The line goes right through to people who never knew him," Knight said. "Bill is so important to Nike. When you're talking about the culture of Oregon, you're talking about the culture of Nike."

Imagine a Mount Rushmore of Running in the Coburg Hills above Eugene. The four profiles carved into the rocks would be of Prefontaine and the "three Bills" -- Bowerman; his mentor and predecessor as Oregon track coach, Hayward; and his successor, Bill Dellinger. Below them would be a (prominent, but not too big) Nike Swoosh.

Off to the side, taking it all in, would be Kenny Moore. A North Eugene High School graduate, a two-time Olympian in the marathon, one of Bowerman's greatest runners and the one who might have believed in him the most, the 62-year-old Moore was at the center of many of the most important events in American track and field, including the 1972 Olympics in Munich and the death of Prefontaine. He wrote about them in Sports Illustrated, where he was the lead track writer for almost 20 years, and co-wrote "Without Limits," the movie that explored the complicated, inspiring relationship between Bowerman and Prefontaine.

Yet like many excellent writers (and Moore is in the National Distance Running Hall of Fame for writing, not running), Moore has the ability to be present but a step to the side, watching. It's no accident that an autobiographical essay in "Best Efforts," his collection of articles about running, is called "The Observer."

"I am conscious of myself as an outsider, shy, peculiarly suited to peering for a while into lives and worlds then withdrawing to muse over what seems interesting," he wrote.

Moore grew up in Eugene and considered Hayward Field "holy turf." He remembers his father taking him to the 1957 Pacific Coast Conference championships and thinking, "How could human beings run like that?" His first timed mile was 5 minutes, 40 seconds, and his high-school best was 4:23.

Bowerman invited Moore to walk on at Oregon -- no scholarship -- and got him a job in a plywood mill. Moore survived Bowerman's tests, including an incident in which the coach held the runner by the throat and insisted he not overtrain. (Moore wrote a similar scene into "Without Limits," only with Bowerman choking Prefontaine.) Moore won the conference steeplechase championship twice and found, through workout experiments supervised by Bowerman, that he could maintain pace for long distances.

"Bill was fascinated by how far I could go," Moore said. "Every 10 days or so, I did a 30-mile run."

A philosophy major at Oregon, Moore got his MFA in creative writing and wrote for Sports Illustrated for eight years while competing internationally. One of his first articles was about finishing fourth behind his friend Frank Shorter in the 1972 Olympic marathon, days after terrorists killed Israeli athletes in Munich. Bowerman, the coach of the U.S. team, demanded more security at the Olympic village and held the Americans together after the tragedy.

Three years later, Prefontaine invited a group of Finnish distance runners to compete in Oregon. After Pre beat Shorter in a stirring 5,000-meter race at Hayward Field, everyone gathered for a party. Moore, Shorter and Prefontaine planned to get together the next day for an easy 10-mile run, and Moore left the party with his wife. Prefontaine dropped Shorter at Moore's house early the next morning and died a minute later in a one-car accident on Skyline Drive.

At the memorial service, a clock was started that would stop at 12:36, world-record pace for the 5,000. After Bowerman and Shorter spoke, Moore talked about Munich and Pre's pride and beliefs, quoted Dylan Thomas and looked up at the scoreboard.

"There are still two minutes on the clock," he said. "He could run a half-mile."

Then Moore pushed his emotions aside and wrote about the experience for Sports Illustrated.

"I tried to make it unsentimental until the very end," he said. "It records how it was for all of us."

With his background and experience, Moore was the obvious choice to write Bowerman's biography. Knight hired a researcher to interview Bowerman years before Moore began the difficult task of weaving Bowerman's story together with the story of Nike -- there is no official corporate history of Nike, although Knight said the company is working on it -- and of his own life.

When Moore was photographed at Hayward Field, he put on the letterman's jacket he earned in the early 1960s and wore in a cameo appearance in "Without Limits." A photographer suggested Moore must have a lot of emotions, looking at the track that consumed so much of his life.

"Yes," Moore said, "Complex emotions."

Every weekday morning, Dave Frohnmayer goes past the statue of Bowerman as part of what he calls a "power-walk" around the University of Oregon campus. Frohnmayer remembers Bowerman the track coach, but it's Bowerman the family friend that jogs his memory.

"Early in my life, I remember Bill and my dad having these rollicking conversations and putting our families in the car to go someplace," said Frohnmayer, the University of Oregon president. "Camping trips to Cultus Lake, just wonderful times."

Frohnmayer's father, Otto, and Bowerman were roommates in Medford and got married within two weeks of each other. The families lived two houses apart and remained close after the Bowermans moved to Eugene. Frohnmayer remembers Bowerman's "great support, almost uncritical" of his political career, starting when the Bowermans walked a precinct during his first run for the Legislature.

When Frohnmayer was Oregon's attorney general in the early 1980s, a religious group called the Rajneeshees purchased a ranch in Eastern Oregon and incorporated it as the city of Rajneeshpuram. The new city was next to a ranch owned by Bowerman's son Jon, and the Rajneeshees began harassing Jon Bowerman's family, which aroused Bill Bowerman's ire.

"Bill was normally a live-and-let-live type, but he saw what they were doing to Jon and saw what they were doing to the underdogs in (nearby) Antelope," Frohnmayer said. Bowerman and the head of the land-use group 1000 Friends of Oregon organized opposition to Rajneeshpuram, and in 1983 Frohnmayer issued an opinion that the city was the functional equivalent of a religious commune and therefore unconstitutional. Despite harassment both serious (the Rajneeshees poisoned salad bars in The Dalles) and silly (the group called Frohnmayer's mother and asked if he had been dropped on his head as a child), the state ultimately prevailed and the Rajneeshees eventually disbanded and left Oregon.

As university president, Frohnmayer said he knows that track "is a heritage program, going back all the way to Bill Hayward and going forward to the (2008) Olympic Trials in Eugene."

Without Bowerman, would Eugene have had any chance of getting the Trials?

"It wouldn't be close," Frohnmayer said. "If you're looking for his direct legacy, that's it. That road goes back to the 1940s, and it's a straight line."

Vin Lananna met Bill Bowerman once, "way, way back at a meet here at Hayward Field." The current UO track coach remembers "an exchange of pleasantries that probably didn't mean very much to him but was very exciting and thrilling to me."

Lananna is beginning his first season at Oregon after a successful career at Stanford and has quickly established a feeling of optimism about track, fueled by a strong recruiting class and a remodeling of Hayward Field for the upcoming Olympic trials. Knight endorsed Lananna as "a great choice to lead the program. He's playing up the heritage and drawing the old-timers back in. I think Oregon track is coming back in an exciting way, and that's one reason why Eugene got the Olympic trials."

Lananna has studied Bowerman's coaching techniques and is fully aware of Oregon's history as a track school.

"Of course," he said. "Anyone who steps into one of the most highly touted programs in the country feels pressure to succeed, but for me it has less to do with national championships and the Olympics and more to do with creating and sustaining a long-lasting environment for the sport.

"No one is going to be Bill Bowerman again, and no one should try to be," Lananna said. "I think you have to go back to basic philosophies and the role of athletics. When I think about Bill Bowerman, I don't think about championships, I remember some of the things he believed. How people learn differently. How to be graceful under pressure. How to respond to adversity.

"You asked me if it was daunting to follow him. Sure, it's daunting, but I'm an educator and I believe in those same values. What's special about Bowerman is that he got the whole community to believe in it, too. He trained them, and that's what led to the aura of Eugene and that's what provided his legacy. That's what a good leader does."

Jeff Baker: 503-221-8165;


2006 The Oregonian