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Bill Bowerman: Nike’s Original Innovator


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“A shoe must be three things,” Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman declared. “It must be light, comfortable and it’s got to go the distance.”

In the late 1950s, veteran track and field coach Bill Bowerman was dissatisfied with available running spikes, which were constructed of weighty leather and metal. As a result, he became obsessed with shaving ounces off shoes to help runners slash seconds off their times. His quest wound up redefining athletic footwear.

Prior to this feat, Bowerman’s drive and relentless curiosity had precipitated a string of diverse accomplishments: Born in 1911 in Portland, Oregon, he excelled as a student-athlete while attending the University of Oregon and later gained acclaim as a high school football and track coach. He fought in World War II and came back a decorated hero. In 1948, Bowerman returned to his college alma mater and, during his 24-year tenure, led the university to four NCAA track titles and coached 16 sub-four-minute milers. Further, he introduced jogging to the community of Eugene in the 1960s, which helped spark a national phenomenon, and he served as the U.S. Olympic track coach in 1972.

Bowerman was also a mentor, coach and friend to Phil Knight, with whom he co-founded Blue Ribbon Sports, the precursor to Nike, in 1964. His confidence and counsel helped the company's original business model — importing and selling Japanese-made running shoes — succeed and grow.

However, Bowerman’s own footwear innovations proved even more influential, shaping Nike’s ethos of leveraging athlete insights to design transformative products.

Bowerman first began tinkering with running shoes in the 1950s, when he wrote to several footwear companies proposing ideas for improving shoes to better serve runners. None accepted his recommendations. Frustrated but not deterred, Bowerman took matters into his own hands and, with the guidance of a local cobbler, learned how to make shoes. To start, he deconstructed existing racing shoes with his band saw and examined their anatomy. Then, he toyed with metal and plastic spike plates and assembled various uppers over diverse lasts. Later, a Springfield-based bootmaker provided technical advice and showed Bowerman how to craft shoe patterns.

Phil Knight became the first student-athlete to try a Bowerman original. In a letter to Knight dated August 8, 1958, Bowerman suggested a weight-training regimen and running schedule. He closed the letter with a postscript: If you have a pair of shoes that you think would make good flats, send them down to me. They will be ready for you when school starts. Bowerman fitted a handmade pair with an upper made of white rubber-coated fabric — “the kind you’d use for a tablecloth you could sponge off,” he explained — to Knight’s size. Knight says Bowerman chose him to try the shoes because he “wasn’t one of the best runners on the team. Bowerman knew he could use me as a guinea pig without much risk.”

I had no idea Nike is 50 years old!

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