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Dr. J. on Running

Bill Bowerman (1911-1999)

The Passing of an Innovator

Published December 27, 1999 in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

Jeff Galloway considered Bill Bowerman one of three teachers who started the running revolution. Tim Noakes credited Bowerman with the discovery of the hard-day/easy-day training program. Hollywood portrayed him as the no non-sense Oregon coach of Steve Prefontaine. The Massachusetts Institute for Technology recognized him for inventing the modern athletic shoe.

Bill Bowerman died in his sleep on Christmas morning at the age of 88.

Born on February 9, 1911 in Portland, Oregon, Bill Bowerman studied physical education at the University of Oregon, where he taught and coached the track team at the University of Oregon from 1949 through 1972. During his coaching tenure, Bowerman developed the University of Oregon track program into one of the most successful in the nation.

Bowerman's Oregon teams won four national collegiate championships, and his athletes set 13 world and 22 American records. Among his 23 Olympians, Otis Davis won gold medals in the 400 meters and 4x400 relay in the 1960 Rome Olympics. Other famous students included Bill Dellinger, Bowerman's successor as Oregon coach, Kenny Moore and Steve Prefontaine. Bowerman also coached the US team in the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Kenny Moore credits his fourth place finish in the 1972 Olympic marathon to building rest in his training. After dramatically increasing his training intensity and witnessing a decline in his performance down to a 9:48 two-miler, Bowerman ordered Moore to two weeks of easy jogging. Off that fortnight of rest, Moore won his next race in 8:48.

In 1962, Bowerman met exercise physiologist and coach Arthur Lydiard during a tour of New Zealand with the University of Oregon's world record four-mile relay team. Lydiard convinced Bowerman that the potential benefits of running extended beyond the track into every day life. Upon his return to the US, Bowerman started lecturing and writing about fitness. His 1967 book on "Jogging" became an instant best seller, and inspired America's jogging craze.

Dissatisfied with the quality of running shoes available to his athletes, Bowerman experimented with his own designs. In partnership with his student Phil Knight, they started a shoe company that sold directly to athletes at track meets. The successful venture led to the creation of Nike, Inc. in 1968. The Jerome H. Lemelson awards program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recognized Bowerman and Knight for the invention of the modern athletic shoe as one of most significant inventions of the century.

Bowerman's legend revolved around the use of his wife's waffle iron to mold rubber soles in 1972. The improved traction of waffle soles led to the creation of Nike waffle racers, which powered a generation of runners. With slogans like "Just Do it" urging joggers to take to the roads, and celebrity athletes like Michael Jordan to promote their products, Nike quickly established itself as the world leader in athletic apparel manufacturing.

In 1981, USA Track and Field inducted Bowerman in the National Track and Field Hall of Fame. Bowerman's citation included both coaching and entrepreneurial contributions to the sport. USATF specifically cited Bowerman as the person who more than anyone else started the nation's jogging craze, the inventor of the waffle sole for running shoes, and the coach of some of the most successful teams in the nation. In 1995, the US Track Coaches Association inducted Bowerman in the inaugural class of its hall of fame.

In an interview with the Oregonian newspaper last week, Bowerman talked about dying: "I am well beyond the average age, so every day is a bonus and I am grateful for it". The late George Sheehan, a contemporary of Bowerman's, wrote: "When I die, I want to look back at my life and know that I have been there".

Bill Bowerman can certainly look back at this world, and know that he has been here.

Kamal Jabbour runs and writes on the hills of Pompey, New York. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He created TrackMeets.com, the world leader in live track webcasting, and receives email at jabbour@syr.edu.


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