Bill Bowerman
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 phenomenon.

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 kill them.”

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 days.

“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

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