A quiet, intense, persuasive man with a wry smile. To the sports world, William J. Bowerman was a legendary coach and innovator whose emphasis on biomechanics and physiological training helped popularize long distance running.
Bill Bowerman was not so much a man but a locus, a confluence where vectors like athleticism, entrepreneurship, and the enigmatic concept we label as ‘American Spirit’ collided and made manifest in a man who was as complex as he was paradoxically simple. Imagine if you will—and this is not an exercise in mere reverie but an honest-to-God forensic examination of the psychology of a nation—a man in the 1950s hunkered down in what could best be described as a makeshift lab-cum-workshop at the University of Oregon. His preoccupation? Shoes. Not just any shoes, but running shoes. Footgear that could liberate not just the foot but the human spirit.
Men of Oregon
In 1929, a young Bill Bowerman enrolled at the University of Oregon to study journalism and play football and basketball. While during his final two years, he became involved with the track team as a quarter-miler. And upon graduation in 1934, promptly gained accepted to medical school.
But instead, he got his start as the track and football coach at Franklin High School and later at Medford High School. Then, after a stint as an Army officer with the 10th Mountain Division during World War II, he left for a collegiate coaching career at his alma mater as the Head Track Coach.
He was a born teacher, yet driven by impish urges to unnerve and confound both friend and foe.KENNY MOORE
In the two-plus decades that followed, Bowerman shaped the careers of many of the world’s best distance and middle-distance runners. Building the University of Oregon into “Tracktown USA” with world-class athletes like Steve Prefontaine and Alberto Salazar. His teams won four National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) track and field championships. While he coached 44 all-Americans, 19 Olympians, and future head coach Bill Dellinger.
Bowerman’s training program was to treat his athletes with individualized precision, and he was known for his innovative training methods. He stressed recovery with running long distances at a slow pace, with great form. And he was an early proponent of interval training. Bowerman even created a high-altitude training program for American track and field athletes before the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
He also thought that athletic shoes should be lightweight and flexible.
Running shoes from a waffle iron
Now, why shoes, you might ask? Why not rockets, or the automobile, or some other gadget emblematic of post-war America’s phallic thrust into the future? Ah, but shoes are the very foundation, aren’t they? The point of contact between the body and the Earth; a point that for Bowerman was something of an existential tesseract, a multi-dimensional fulcrum that connected flesh and spirit, matter and idea, physical and metaphysical. And he’s tackling this ontological puzzle with materials you might find in a Home Depot: rubber, leather, and, famously, a waffle iron. A waffle iron that was not just for Sunday breakfasts but a harbinger of a future where foot would meet ground not with a smack but a caress.
In a 1960 Sports Illustrated profile of Bowerman, he was quoted as saying,
‘The ordinary track shoe is covered with junk. Leather trim, tongue, laces. All unnecessary.’Bill Bowerman
While the article described a hacked together thing of passionate beauty designed to make shoes lighter and Olympic athletes faster:
The Bowerman shoe, which he cuts and sews himself to fit the athlete, is a combination of scraps of leather, elastic, and canvas, which weighs only about four ounces, as against 6½ ounces for the ordinary shoe. Bowerman figures that if he cuts the weight of the shoe an ounce, he’s saving the runner from lifting approximately 200 pounds in a mile race, depending upon the runner’s stride.”TEX MAULE
As legend has it, Bill Bowerman was sitting down to breakfast with his wife Barbara when it dawned on him. The Belgian waffle iron she was using would make an excellent mold for a running sole.
Inspired, he got up from the table and went tearing into his garage. He mixed two cans of urethane and poured the concoction into the waffle iron.
But the tiny appliance was so small; it could only make one waffle at a time. Which meant Bowerman had to cook each rubber sole twice to make a pair. And then glue each sole to nylon uppers for custom-made shoes.
Receiving no response, Bowerman set out to learn the shoe trade himself. He took running shoes apart to see how they were made. Next came experimenting with different materials for the upper — including deer hide, snakeskin, and kangaroo leather — and plastics and metals for the running spikes. Tailoring shoes to individual sizes and characteristics, Bowerman customized shoes for many track runners, including student-athlete Phil Knight, Olympic track star Otis Davis, and John Mays. As he experimented, he incorporated feedback from his runners, noting that “a teacher is never too smart to learn from his pupils.” Although American companies continued to reject his prototypes, Bowerman persisted. His breakthrough finally came through the Japanese footwear company Onitsuka Tiger.www.sothebys.com
In between his time cobbling, winning championships, coaching young men, and authoring books on jogging as a national model for fitness – Bowerman would come across a young walk-on miler named Phil Knight. The two men applied the waffle sole concept and founded Blue Ribbon Sports (BRS) to sell the new design.
NIKE, Inc Co-Founder’s Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman revolutionize footwear with the Nike Cortez shoe
According to reports, as Hayward Field was transitioning to an artificial surface, Bill Bowerman was actively searching for a means to make his athlete’s performance lighter and faster.
“Bill wanted a sole without spikes that could grip equally well on grass or bark dust.”
And the performance innovation began as a collaboration with Japanese manufacturer Onitsuka Tiger. But in 1972, they introduced the Nike Cortez, the world’s first athletic shoe designed specifically for running. Nike was officially born.
The Nike Cortez was one of the first running shoes ever made. It was minimalistic, lightweight, and had a simple rubber sole. (The term “Cortez” refers to the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés.)
From Hayward Field to the Greek Goddess of victory
The iconic brand built upon its running background, unique shoe design and swoosh logo to expand into popular culture with the slogan “Just do it.”
And with Tinker Hatfield (another Oregon man) fueling the next generation of shoe designers during the 1980s and 90s, it became a multibillion-dollar company. In large part to the global explosion of basketball, Michael Jordan, and sneakerheads the world over. And ambassadors like Tiger Woods opening up golf to the masses.
In Bill Bowerman’s contributions to Nike Inc, we find a peculiar embodiment of a tension that is so uniquely American—this dueling persona of the craftsman and the capitalist. He was a track and field coach, yes, but also a tinkerer; an entrepreneur but also an artist. His was an intellect that drew diagrams that had both the precise vectors of biomechanics and the squiggly lines of something like a soul. If we dare look, what we find in Bowerman is nothing less than the American Dream, version 2.0. One that’s not about mere accumulation but about optimization, not just of the foot or the athlete but of the very texture of what it means to strive.