Bill Bowerman

Bill Bowerman
Born William Jay Bowerman
(1911-02-19)February 19, 1911
Portland, Oregon, U.S.
Died December 24, 1999(1999-12-24) (aged 88)
Fossil, Oregon
Occupation Track and Field coach, co-founder of Nike, Inc.
Religion Christianity
Spouse(s) Barbara Young Bowerman (June 22, 1936 until death)
Children Jon Bowerman (born June 22, 1938)
William J. "Jay" Bowerman, Jr. (born December 17, 1942)
Thomas Bowerman (born May 20, 1946)
Website Nike Corporation

William Jay "Bill" Bowerman (February 19, 1911 – December 24, 1999) was an American track and field coach and co-founder of Nike, Inc. Over his career, he trained 31 Olympic athletes, 51 All-Americans, 12 American record-holders, 22 NCAA champions and 16 sub-4 minute milers. During his 24 years as coach at the University of Oregon, the Ducks track and field team had a winning season every season but one, attained 4 NCAA titles, and finished in the top 10 in the nation 16 times.

Early life

Bill Bowerman was born in Portland, Oregon. His father was former Governor of Oregon Jay Bowerman;[1] his mother had grown up in Fossil. The family returned to Fossil after the parents divorced in 1913. Bowerman had an older brother and sister, Dan and Mary Elizabeth "Beth"; and a twin brother, Thomas, who died in an elevator accident when he was 2 years old.[2]

Bowerman attended Medford and Seattle schools before returning to Medford for high school. He played in the high school band and for the state champion football team his junior and senior years. Bowerman first met Barbara Young, the woman he would marry, while a high school student, in Medford.

In 1929, Bowerman attended the University of Oregon to play football and study journalism. He was a member of Beta Theta Pi Fraternity. After graduating he taught biology and coached football at Franklin High School in Portland in 1934. In 1935, Bowerman moved back to Medford to teach and coach football.

Bowerman married Barbara Young on June 22, 1936. Their first son, Jon, was born June 22, 1938. William J. Bowerman, Jr. (“Jay”) was born November 17, 1942.

Military career

Bowerman had been in the ROTC and Army Reserve, and then joined the United States Army as a 2nd Lieutenant in the days following the Pearl Harbor attack. He was assigned to Fort Lawton in Washington and served a year there before being assigned to the 86th Mountain Infantry Regiment at Camp Hale in Leadville, Colorado. Along with the 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment, his regiment would become the 10th Mountain Division.[3]

Bowerman's duty entailed organizing the troops' supplies and maintaining the mules used to carry the supplies in the mountains. On December 23, 1944, the division arrived in Naples, Italy and soon moved north to the mountains of northern Italy.[4] During his tour of duty, Bowerman was promoted to commander of the 86th Regiment's First Battalion at the rank of Major.[5] Bowerman negotiated a stand-down of German forces near the Brenner Pass in the days before the surrender of the German army in all of Italy.[6] For his service, Bowerman received the Silver Star and four Bronze Stars. He was honorably discharged in October 1945.[7]

Coaching career

After the war, Bowerman returned to his position at Medford High School. Bowerman's third son, Tom, was born May 20, 1946. The family then moved to Eugene, Oregon, where he became the head track coach at the University of Oregon on July 1, 1948.

University of Oregon

Bowerman's "Men of Oregon" won 24 NCAA individual titles (with wins in 15 of the 19 events contested) and four NCAA team crowns (1962-1964-1965-1970), and posted 16 top-10 NCAA finishes in 24 years as head coach. His teams also boasted 33 Olympians, 38 conference champions and 64 All-Americans. At the dual level, the Ducks posted a 114–20 record and went undefeated in 10 seasons. In addition, Bowerman coached the world record setting 4-mile (6.4 km) relay team in 1962. This team consisted of Archie San Romani, Dyrol Burleson, Vic Reeve, and Keith Forman with a time of 16:08.9. Six years later, another Oregon team of Roscoe Divine, Wade Bell, Arne Kvalheim and Dave Wilborn improved the record to 16:05.0.[8] Among athletes that Bowerman coached are: Otis Davis, Steve Prefontaine, Kenny Moore, Bill Dellinger, Mac Wilkins, Jack Hutchins, Dyrol Burleson, Harry Jerome, Siegmar Ohlemann, Les Tipton, Gerry Moro, Wade Bell, Dave Edstrom, Roscoe Divine, Matt Centrowitz, Arne Kvalheim, Jim Grelle, Bruce Mortenson and Phil Knight.

In 1972, Bowerman stepped back from day-to-day coaching activities to conduct fundraising for renovating the Hayward Field grandstands that would be necessary for the consideration of hosting the Montreal Olympic Trials. He also ran unsuccessfully for a House[9] seat in the Oregon Legislature in 1970 as a Republican,[1] losing by only 815 votes out of 61,000 cast.[9] According to the Eugene Register-Guard newspaper, Bowerman officially retired as the University of Oregon head coach on March 23, 1973, and was succeeded by assistant coach Bill Dellinger.

United States Olympic Track program

Bowerman created a training program for adjusting athletes for the high altitude that they would experience at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. This successful program led to his selection as the 1972 Munich Olympic Track and Field head coaching position. Bowerman coached members of teams from Norway, Canada, Australia, and the United States.

During the Munich Massacre in the 1972 Munich Olympics, Israeli Olympic racewalker Shaul Ladany escaped the PLO terrorists, and then awakened Bowerman and alerted the German police. Bowerman called for the U.S. Marines to come and protect American Jewish Olympians swimmer Mark Spitz and javelin thrower Bill Schmidt.[10]


During a trip to New Zealand in 1962, Bowerman was introduced to the concept of jogging as a fitness routine, including people of an advanced age, through a jogging club organized by his friend and coaching colleague Arthur Lydiard. Bowerman brought this concept back to the United States, and began to write articles and books about jogging. He also created a jogging program in Eugene that became a national model for fitness programs. A Jogger’s Manual, a three-page guide, was published shortly after Bowerman returned from New Zealand. In 1966, along with cardiologist W.E. Harris, Bowerman published a 90-page book titled Jogging. The book sold over a million copies and was credited with igniting the jogging phenomenon in the United States. The new crop of older athletic people contributed to the evolution of the sport of track and field to create a new division for these masters athletes. Due to the popularity of Jogging, Harris and Bowerman published a 127-page book in 1967.

Athletics West is an American running team formed by Bill Bowerman, Phil Knight and Geoff Hollister in 1977. At the time, America had no definitive running program for young athletes to continue competing outside of college. The formation and success of Athletics West, together with the success and popularity of American runners like Craig Virgin (charter member), Steve Prefontaine, Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers helped inspire the 1970s running boom.


According to Otis Davis, a student athlete whom Bowerman coached at the University of Oregon, who later went on to win two gold medals at the 1960 Summer Olympics, Bowerman made the first pair of Nike shoes for him, contradicting a claim that they were made for Phil Knight. Says Davis, "I told Tom Brokaw that I was the first. I don't care what all the billionaires say. Bill Bowerman made the first pair of shoes for me. People don't believe me. In fact, I didn't like the way they felt on my feet. There was no support and they were too tight. But I saw Bowerman make them from the waffle iron, and they were mine."[11]

In 1964, Bowerman entered into a handshake agreement with Phil Knight, who had been a miler under him in the 1950s, to start an athletic footwear distribution company called Blue Ribbon Sports, later known as Nike, Inc.. Knight managed the business end of the partnership, while Bowerman experimented with improvements in athletic footwear design. Bowerman and Knight initially began importing the Onitsuka Tiger running shoes from Japan to sell in the United States.

Bowerman's design ideas led to the creation of a running shoe in 1966 that would ultimately be named "Nike Cortez" in 1968, which quickly became a top-seller and remains one of Nike's most iconic footwear designs. Bowerman designed several Nike shoes, but is best known for ruining his wife's waffle iron in 1970 or 1971, experimenting with the idea of using waffle-ironed rubber to create a new sole for footwear that would grip but be lightweight.

Bowerman's design inspiration led to the introduction of the so-called "Moon Shoe" in 1972, so named because the waffle tread was said to resemble the footprints left by astronauts on the moon. Further refinement resulted in the "Waffle Trainer" in 1974, which helped fuel the explosive growth of Blue Ribbon Sports/Nike. While Bowerman was experimenting with shoe design, he worked in a small, unventilated space, using glue and solvents with toxic components that caused him severe nerve damage. The nerve damage to his lower legs left him with significant mobility problems; as Kenny Moore notes in his book Bowerman and the Men of Oregon, Bowerman had rendered himself unable to run in the shoes that he had given the world.[12]

Bowerman was obsessed with shaving weight off his athletes' running shoes. He believed that custom-made shoes would weigh less on the feet of his runners and cut down on blisters, as well as reduce the overall drag on their energy for every ounce he could remove from the shoe. By his estimation, removing one ounce (28 g) from a shoe, based on a six-foot gait for a runner, would translate in a reduction of 55 pounds (25 kg) of lift over a one-mile (1.6 km) span.


Bowerman is a legacy of the National Distance Running Hall of Fame, the USA National Track and Field Hall of Fame, the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame, and Oregon’s Athletic Hall of Fame. His statue, holding a stopwatch, graces the northwest corner of Hayward Field, home of the Prefontaine Classic at the University of Oregon. A biographical film, Without Limits, about the relationship between record-breaking distance runner Steve Prefontaine and his coach Bill Bowerman was made in 1998, and Bill Bowerman was played by Donald Sutherland. The headquarters for Nike is located on Bowerman Drive in homage to the company's co-founder. Also in his honor, the company created the "Bowerman Series" of performance running shoes, designed to provide longer-lasting, more training-focused products to compete with such running brands as Asics and Saucony.

In 2009, the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association created The Bowerman, an award that is given to the most outstanding collegiate male and female track & field athlete in a given calendar year.[13] Inaugural winners of the award were Oregon's Galen Rupp and Colorado's Jenny Barringer.[14] The Bowerman trophy was designed by Tinker Hatfield, a Nike employee and former Oregon student-athlete coached by Bowerman.[15]


Bowerman died in his sleep at his home in Fossil, Oregon at the age of 88 on Christmas Eve, 1999.[16]

See also


  1. 1 2 Bill Gallagher (June 2006). "Bowerman: The man, the legend and the new biography by Kenny Moore". Brainstorm NW.
  2. Bowerman and the Men of Oregon, author Kenny Moore
  3. Moore, p. 67-68
  4. Moore, p. 71
  5. Moore, p. 77
  6. Moore, p. 78-79
  7. Moore, p. 81
  9. 1 2 "Poll check adds 1 vote" [election vote recount] (December 15, 1970). The Oregonian, p. 18.
  10. Kenny Moore (April 2006). Leading Men. Runner's World. Retrieved February 24, 2013.
  11. Hague, Jim (May 14, 2006). "Truant officer was Olympic hero Emerson High has gold medalist in midst". The Hudson Reporter. Retrieved March 18, 2012.
  12. Moore, p. 383ff
  13. "USTFCCCA Announces the Inception of The Bowerman". USTFCCCA. Retrieved July 12, 2011.
  14. Lewis, Tom. "Rupp, Barringer Honored as Inaugural Winners of The Bowerman". Retrieved July 12, 2011.
  15. "The Bowerman: Trophy Design". Retrieved July 12, 2011.
  16. Find a Grave


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