The man, the legend and the new biography by Kenny Moore
In the beginning there was Bill Bowerman.
The year was 1963, and the running boom that was to sweep the nation
was still well in the future. It was only in the years to come that Frank
Shorter’s gold-medal performance in the 1972 Olympics would ignite
the craze that saw millions of Americans take up the pastime with a passion
that was pleasantly puritanical, if that’s possible.
In 1963 Nike didn’t even exist. It would be another few years before
the head coach of the University of Oregon track and field team would
help make that shoe company a reality.
Oregon’s reputation in ’63 was not yet that of a state where
thousands of grown men and women run, not to get away from anything or
anybody, but to reach that state of tired bliss, of exhausted exhilaration.
Steve Prefontaine was still a schoolboy in Coos Bay.
But Bill Bowerman knew that what he had just beheld on a trip to New Zealand
with some of his best Duck runners might be embraced in Eugene. No longer
would just skinny men and women in singlets run for fun. No, this was
something for everyone.
What Bowerman witnessed in Auckland in 1963 is described in Kenny Moore’s
soon-to-be-published biography, “Bowerman and the Men of Oregon:
The Story of Oregon’s Legendary Coach and Nike Co-Founder.”
A well-known New Zealand running coach Arthur Lydiard, whom Bowerman was
there to visit and learn from, drove him “to a rolling, pastoral
expanse called Cornwall Park, swarming with a couple of hundred runners.
‘I thought a cross-country race was going on,’ Bowerman would
recall, ‘but they were men, women, children, all ages and all sizes.’”
Now most college track coaches might not have given what he was seeing
a second thought. This, after all, was not about kids who could run for
the Ducks. Why would Bowerman care at all about citizens out for a run
in New Zealand? That he did care is the essence of Bowerman, a man of
grand vision with a simple goal: to be a teacher—not a coach—a
teacher. And not just of student athletes. But of all people.
Bowerman himself began running again under Lydiard’s tutelage. For
the next three weeks he would run ever-increasing distances. He was like
so many who take up running and are amazed that they’re able to
run so far simply by doing it. He was 50 at the time.
When he returned to Eugene, he’d lost 10 pounds and three inches
from his waist and was looking great, according to his wife Barbara. He
shared with a reporter from the Eugene Register-Guard his amazement at
the number of people in New Zealand out running. “Their women jog,
their kids jog, everybody jogs,” he told Jerry Urhammer, who asked
Bowerman, “Do you think we could do that here?”
For the record, he didn’t say, “Let’s just do it.”
Though he might as well have. What he said was, “Why don’t
we find out.”
Urhammer, Bowerman’s new accomplice, wrote an article about the
New Zealand experience and included an invitation to anyone interested
in a group run to come to the Hayward Field practice track that Sunday.
On February 3, 1963, a couple dozen curious readers arrived. Word spread.
One week later 50 people showed up, including 17 women. A week after that,
the crowd of runners grew to 200. By the end of that month the track was
completely covered with “people in street clothes, housewives, professors,
some kids, and some quite elderly people.”
The jogging movement in America was born, in the small town of Eugene,
Ore.—and Bowerman was its daddy.
To this day Eugene is considered a special place in running lore. But
back then, the idea that so many could be coaxed out of their homes and
mills and offices and classrooms to run was a radical notion. Life magazine
was bemused. It sent a photographer to document this strange West Coast
As for Bowerman, he was worried. “I knew someone was going to die
right there,” he told a doctor friend, according to Moore’s
book. “We can’t take all these old guys out there. We’ll
Well, no one died. And Bowerman set to analyzing exactly what was happening
as the once sedentary took to the track. Mostly good things, it turned
out. The result of his scientific/medical analysis was a pamphlet he authored
full of sensible advice for those about to run—advice that elaborated
on Lydiard’s basic dictum, “Train, don’t strain.”
Bowerman’s advice? “Don’t compete, build up slowly,
keep it fun and be good to your feet and joints.”
The intrigue sparked the demand for this pamphlet across the nation—those
receiving one no doubt noted that postmark, Eugene, Ore., and thought
it the center of the running universe. The demand was so great that the
pamphlet was expanded to a 127-page book called, simply, “Jogging.”
“Jogging” sold a million copies.
Bowerman’s accomplishments as the head track and field coach at
the University of Oregon, his coaching of America’s Olympic track
and field teams, his mentoring of so many great athletes, and his role
as co-founder of Nike will always be the feats for which he’s best
remembered. But one could argue that his most significant contribution
was to the health and welfare of millions of Americans by bringing the
jogging concept back from New Zealand to Oregon and America.
But why did Bowerman care enough about the ordinary people of Eugene,
not just his athletes, to make the effort to plant the jogging idea among
them? What was it about Bowerman that made him think that running was
a good thing for everybody and then look beyond his duties as the coach?
Moore says it went back to his days as the head football coach at Medford
High. “He had the sense there that being a good football coach,
a successful football coach in Medford, Ore., was absolutely crucial to
passing school bond measures, to getting the schools funded properly.
And his superintendent hired him on that basis—‘We get the
money and we pass the bond measures if we can win football.’ And
Bill won football. But outreach to the community was very much a part
of that program. And not just to get good players from the community but
the other way around, giving back to the community. And Bill always had
this sense that there are more people here who have a stake than just
the players or the schools—it’s the whole community. So it
was a very natural thing for him to outreach.
“And it also very much connects with how he saw himself as more
of a teacher than a coach,” Moore continues. “He didn’t
even like the word coach. He much preferred that we call him a teacher
and he conceived of himself that way. So when you come along and the whole
society needs to be taught something, what’s more natural than to
stand up and say, as he did with jogging, this could affect all of us.”
Promoting jogging to the masses from his base in Eugene went hand in hand
with the way Bowerman challenged doctrine when it came to training world-class
runners, says Moore.
“In field after field he broke the icon. To train milers everyone
was overdoing intervals and they didn’t want you to rest because
that was unmanly,” Moore recalls. “Bowerman broke the icon
and figured out how to train more rationally. And the same thing with
jogging. Society said you get to a certain age and you’re going
to deteriorate. There’s no such thing as a training effect for middle-aged
people. He broke that icon and showed that, my goodness, as long as we
live we can benefit from exercise; we need exercise.”
Were it not for Bowerman’s appreciation of outreach to the community
and his willingness to question conventional wisdom and shatter icons,
Moore wouldn’t be writing his biography, and Eugene, and by extension
the state of Oregon, would not be held in such high regard in the world
of running. He loved this state as much as any man ever loved Oregon.
Little known is the fact that the father he hardly ever saw, as a child
of divorce, was a governor of Oregon. William Jay Bowerman Sr. became
acting governor in 1910 when Governor George Chamberlin was elected to
the U.S. Senate and his successor, Secretary of State Frank Benson, died
in office. Bowerman Sr. was president of the state senate and became governor
of Oregon at the tender age of 33 years and ten months. He lost reelection
to Oswald West. It’s also a little know fact that Bowerman himself
ran for the state legislature as a Republican in Lane County in 1970 but
lost by 1,000 votes out of 65,000 votes cast.
But politics was not to be his legacy. For an appreciation of the indelible
mark he did leave on Oregon, first consider a track and field program
at the University of Oregon that is among the best in the nation. It may
never match the glory days when Bowerman was in charge, but in many ways
the university’s track program is to collegiate track and field
what Notre Dame or USC is to collegiate football.
Then there’s the Olympics legacy. In the summer of 2008, Eugene
will once again host the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials. But today’s
promoters of that role stand squarely on the shoulders of Bowerman and
the many men he enlisted to seduce the United States Olympic Committee
back in 1972 and 1976. If Bowerman hadn’t performed that miracle
of outreach, there’s no way the nation’s finest runners and
throwers would be coming to Eugene to qualify for Beijing ’08.
Finally, there is the world’s largest athletic shoe and apparel
company. Would there be a Nike without Bowerman? That’s debatable.
Not only did he figure prominently in the development of a better (and
less expensive) running shoe, but he was also key to building the character
of Phil Knight. That is clear from what was supposed to be Knight’s
foreword to Kenny Moore’s book, but which ended up as an article
in Playboy magazine. Knight writes about Bowerman preparing him to run
an 880 against a heavily favored USC runner:
“He had found me worthy in a way that had nothing to do with how
fast I ran...This ornery, indecipherable man who had put me through so
much, who got me to do things I didn’t want to do, who got me to
do things I didn’t think I could do, who got me to beat a national
champion, who got empty rooms to speak—he would be there with me.
I would leave it all on that track.”
Knight lost that race, but later Bowerman would become, to a certain extent,
the design brains and, to a huge extent, the soul of Nike in its early
“Bowerman and the Men of Oregon,” by Kenny Moore, is a book
that should be read by anyone who’s ever wondered if there is one
person who embodies what is true and good about this state.
By Bill Gallagher