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A journey into the remarkable life of a game-changing coach and innovator.
The saga of Bill Bowerman is so vast, it could easily fill several lifetimes, yet he crammed it all into one.
In this Summary of “Bowerman and the Men of Oregon” by Kenny Moore, you’ll delve into Bowerman’s background, his avant-garde training techniques, and his relentless dedication that birthed an era of supreme athletes. Bowerman instigated a revolution that touched billions globally through Nike, a company he helped to create, and the jogging culture it fosters.
Lessons from the mule skinner
At the annual welcome dinner hosted by the revered and feared Bill Bowerman for the University of Oregon’s track and field team, the freshmen always looked forward to a grand oration that would shape their guiding principle.
Instead, they were introduced to Bowerman’s foundational parable:
A stubborn mule refuses to eat or drink. The owner brings in a mule skinner. On arrival, the skinner wields a two-by-four wooden beam and knocks the mule between the ears, then strikes again between the eyes. The shocked owner hears the skinner’s guiding philosophy: The first step to good behavior is getting the mule’s attention.
Bill Bowerman knew this truth intimately. Raised in Fossil, Oregon, he was a headstrong troublemaker who despised authority, slept outdoors, and seemed to crave danger. This rebelliousness was exacerbated following his parents’, former Oregon Governor Jay Bowerman and educator Lizzie Hoover, divorce. Young Bill also bore the emotional scars of witnessing his twin brother’s fatal elevator accident.
Unable to cope with Bill’s antics, his brother Dan sent 14-year-old Bill to meet Ercel Hedrick, Medford school superintendent and certified mule skinner.
Hedrick delivered a verbal beating, calling out the boy for his disgraceful treatment of his mother. That day, Bill Bowerman left the office transformed, redirecting his pent-up energy into a discipline that lifted his grades and athletic performance.
As a coach and a seasoned mule skinner, Bill Bowerman made sure every group of athletes knew that disobedience came with repercussions.
The making of a coach
One thing Bill Bowerman could not reign in was his appetite. At a dinner party for high school football players, sitting behind the equally quirky Barbara Young, Bill would take a plate of ribs and baked potatoes from a waitress, balance a plate on each knee, and shoot a charming smile at another waitress.
Bill would devour his three meals silently before offering his hand to Barbara, admitting to his dance partner that he had already eaten before attending the party. Bill and Barbara’s relationship was an off-and-on affair, but when they finally settled down, they never parted.
Bill was twice rejected by Medford High’s football coach Prince Callison for being too light. So, he continued as a clarinet player in the school band. But after he twice defeated a former Medford footballer in a single day over stolen tennis balls, coach Callison let Bill play football.
Bill played a crucial role in helping Medford High win the Oregon state championships in 1927 and 1928, and also won the basketball title. He went on to earn All-American honors, a distinction given to elite amateur athletes.
At the University of Oregon, revered track and field coach Bill Hayward agreed to help Bill improve his running to enhance his football speed. Bowerman couldn’t participate in races due to his football coach’s restrictions on track and field.
Hayward became a trustworthy mentor for Bowerman, teaching him about injuries, prosthetics, tactics, and the necessity of high drama for creating world-class athletes.
Bowerman’s varied education included business, journalism, public speaking, and pre-med classes. He graduated with a major in Physical Education.
After graduation, he taught history and coached football at Medford High. His football record at Medford stands impressive with 59 wins, 13 losses, and eight ties in nine years. Here, he also began coaching track and field, helping Medford to field a running team for the first time in 15 years. That team won three state championships.
Bowerman was a stickler for details. He even carried Medford’s water to crucial away games. Once, when Medford quarterback Bob Newland broke curfew, he sneaked back into his room to find Bill Bowerman waiting in his bed!
While driving home one Sunday, Bill and Barbara heard about Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor. Bill Bowerman made a U-turn and drove straight to the nearest military post, where he was conscripted.
The birth of Nike
In 1964, Bowerman co-founded Blue Ribbon Sports with one of his former athletes, Phil Knight. Bowerman had noticed the top track and field athletes in the world were wearing Adidas, and he wanted to give his Oregon athletes an equal footing. The company was initially established as a distributor for the Japanese shoemaker Onitsuka Tiger.
Bowerman wasn’t satisfied with just distributing other brands. He was interested in designing shoes that would help athletes achieve better performance. He would often make modifications to the shoes he purchased, even going so far as to use his wife’s waffle iron to create a sole with better traction. This led to the invention of the “waffle trainer,” a revolutionary design that changed running shoes forever.
In the late 1960s, tensions began to rise between Blue Ribbon Sports and Onitsuka Tiger. Bowerman and Knight decided to part ways with the Japanese company and create their own line of athletic footwear. They rebranded the company as Nike, named after the Greek goddess of victory.
Nike’s Swoosh logo, designed by graphic design student Carolyn Davidson, became an iconic symbol in the world of sports. The company went public in 1980 and became a global sensation, largely due to Bowerman’s dedication to creating high-quality running shoes.
Bowerman’s focus remained on training his athletes, even as he was deeply involved with Nike. His coaching career came to an end in 1972, but he continued to influence the world of athletics through his work with Nike and the culture of running he helped inspire.
Bowerman’s influence extends beyond his achievements as a coach and entrepreneur. He inspired his athletes to push their limits, revolutionized athletic footwear with Nike, and cultivated a running culture that continues to thrive.
He was a vocal advocate for amateur athletes, campaigning for their rights to benefit from their hard work. Bowerman also dedicated his time and resources to fostering young talent and developing the University of Oregon into a track and field powerhouse.
Despite his death in 1999, Bowerman’s legacy lives on in the athletes he trained, the Nike brand, and the countless individuals worldwide who have been inspired by his story to take up running. His life is a testament to the power of determination, innovation, and a steadfast belief in one’s abilities. His unique methods and visionary approach forever changed the landscape of track and field, sports footwear, and amateur athletics.
In his lifetime, Bill Bowerman taught many lessons, but perhaps the most powerful one is this: with dedication, innovation, and a dash of mule-skinner stubbornness, one can change the world, one step at a time.
Triumph in the Face of Tragedy: Munich, 1972
When Bill Bowerman was handed the mantle to coach the US Olympic team in the 1972 Olympics held in Munich, he wasn’t one to keep his concerns under wraps. As they settled into their hotel, he found the security arrangements unsettling. His apprehensions didn’t sit well with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the West German government, both of which were keen on presenting an amiable front after the stains of World War II.
The horrifying turn of events on September 5, 1972, was a grim validation of his fears. Eight members of the Palestinian liberation movement, Black September, infiltrated the Israeli quarters in the Olympic Village, leaving twelve victims dead in their wake. Bowerman sprang into action upon hearing the news, securing his team’s hotel and offering refuge to an Israeli athlete.
Meanwhile, the coach found himself treading carefully on thin ice with his team. Racial tensions were high, and calls for a boycott were rampant, driven by Black athletes if Apartheid Rhodesia was permitted to compete. In the end, the IOC ousted Rhodesia, a decision that, while it may have displeased some, echoed Bowerman’s deep respect for humanity, above all else.
Bowerman, despite his differences with the IOC, embodied empathy and leadership in this trying time. He went above and beyond to comfort his team, encouraged their thoughts on continuing the competition, and validated their emotions. To him, the Olympics was a testament to the spirit of man, a beacon of peace in the storm of war.
A Shoemaker’s Tale: The Meteoric Rise of Nike
Driven by a relentless desire to optimize athletic performance, Bill Bowerman saw opportunity where others saw obstacles. One such hurdle was the running shoes of his athletes. Dissatisfied, he embarked on a journey to create the perfect shoe, undeterred by his lack of expertise in shoemaking.
Armed with a drive for excellence and a waffle iron, he experimented relentlessly, crafting shoes tailored to each athlete’s unique needs. These efforts laid the groundwork for what would become the iconic Waffle line from Nike.
His former trainee, Phil Knight, shared his ambition. The dream was simple: democratize athletic shoes. The plan? Challenge Adidas by offering affordable, high-quality trainers to both athletes and the general public. This led to a fruitful partnership with the Japanese shoemaker, Onitsuka, and the birth of Blue Ribbon Sports, a company born from a $500 investment.
However, the partners were soon met with a formidable challenge. Onitsuka, seeking other distributors in the US, threatened the existence of Blue Ribbon Sports. But Knight and Bowerman were not ones to back down. They pivoted, founded Nike—named after the Greek goddess of victory—and started manufacturing shoes domestically.
While Onitsuka waged a legal battle, the courts ruled in Nike’s favor, paving the way for Bowerman’s designs to be produced under their homegrown brand. Going public in 1980, Nike quickly evolved into a globally recognized brand. Bowerman used his prosperity to give back to the community, funding scholarships, donating to the University of Oregon, and establishing the Steve Prefontaine Foundation.
Jogging: A Sport for All
During an exchange with the New Zealand head coach Arthur Lydiard, Bowerman was introduced to the jogging revolution. Intrigued by the sight of people of all ages participating, he decided to give it a try, despite not being a jogger himself.
Initially struggling, Bowerman persevered for six weeks, returning home invigorated and, according to his wife Barbara, looking a decade younger. Inspired, he organized a jogging event at the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field, gathering a team of professionals to design suitable jogging principles for different ages and weights.
Seeing parallels between his athletes and the everyday jogger, Bowerman reveled in the realization that physical activity was not a one-size-fits-all pursuit. However, he emphasized fun and personal growth over competition for the general public. His findings and recommendations culminated in the book ‘Jogging’, which became an instant hit, selling a million copies and making jogging a sport for everyone.
Bill Bowerman’s life was a testament to the power of dedication, innovation, and leadership. From being an Olympian, a WWII veteran, an educator, a coach, and the co-founder of Nike, to sparking the jogging revolution, Bowerman made his mark on the world in multiple ways before passing away in 1999.
In 1979, at a Nike annual sales meeting, a montage of his life was played to the tune of “My Way”. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. The memory of Bowerman brought tears to all – a testament to the profound impact he had on the Men of Oregon and the world at large.