Notable Oregonians: Bill Bowerman - Coach and Innovator

photograph of Bill Bowerman
Bill Bowerman, 1911-1999. (Image courtesy Nike)
William Jay "Bill" Bowerman was born on February 19, 1911 in Portland, Oregon. His father, Jay, was president of the Oregon Senate and briefly served as acting governor of Oregon. After his parents divorced in 1913, Bowerman spent his early years in Fossil, Oregon with his mother. He later graduated from Medford High School and the University of Oregon. A lack of money to attend medical school eventually led him to a career as a coach, including eight years at Medford High School. World War II intervened and Bowerman served in the Army’s Tenth Mountain Division from 1943 until 1945 before returning to Medford.
His big break came when longtime University of Oregon track coach Bill Hayward retired in 1947. The next year the University of Oregon hired Bowerman as head track coach, a position he would hold until 1972. Over the years, his team won 24 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) individual titles and four NCAA team championships. Bowerman also coached 33 Olympians, 38 conference champions, and 64 All-Americans. In dual meets during his tenure, the Ducks built a 114-20 record and recorded 10 undefeated seasons.
Bowerman's innovations spanned both training and equipment. He focused on individual training for his athletes with weekly workout schedules designed specifically for the personal goals of each member of the team. Counter to prevailing practices that often led to overtraining, Bowerman developed the now popular hard-easy training method that gave runners easy days to let their bodies recover. Moreover, he taught his athletes to concentrate energy on finding psychological ways to enhance their peak performance.
Bowerman's focus on finding the competitive edge naturally led him to experiment in other areas as well. He was an early user of movie cameras as a teaching tool to help athletes study their technique. He worked on recipes for sports drinks, designed lighter uniforms, and developed new track surfaces. But Bowerman's biggest innovations came from his obsession with creating lighter, more effective running shoes. He began cobbling custom-made shoes for his runners, including half-miler Phil Knight in the 1950s. By the early 1960s, he and Knight formed the company that would later become Nike, Inc. Seeking better traction and cushioning for running shoes, Bowerman later experimented with putting urethane in his wife's waffle iron. The resulting sole design revolutionized running shoes and catapulted Nike to prominence.
Bowerman also helped pioneer jogging in the United States after being introduced to the fitness routine in New Zealand in 1962. He began writing articles and books while creating a jogging program in Eugene that would become a national model as a fitness program. He teamed with cardiologist Waldo Harris in the mid 1960s to write two popular books entitled Jogging that helped elevate the sport to a national pastime. Bowerman counted the research that he and Harris conducted on the health benefits of running to be one of his greatest achievements.
Bill Bowerman died in 1999 in Fossil, Oregon. In recognition of his achievements, he is member of the National Distance Running Hall of Fame, the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame, the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame and Oregon’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
Also see Phil Knight.
(Sources: OPB Oregon Experience | Guide to the Bill Bowerman Papers)
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