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Legendary University of Oregon track and field coach Bill Bowerman molded world-class athletes — and molded the world’s first modern sneakers as well.
“Bowerman, inhaling the land, seemed in leathery profile to have been through some sort of mythic struggle,” wrote former Oregon athlete Kenny Moore of the driven leader, a World War II veteran, in his 2006 book, “Bowerman and the Men of Oregon.”
“His own competitiveness was barely containable,” Moore also wrote.
Seeking an edge for his athletes, Coach Bowerman melted and shaped rubber soles with his family’s waffle iron in his home workshop, looking to create a new form of footwear: a lighter, faster and more supportive shoe for his athletes.
He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014 as the creator of the modern athletic shoe.
His inventions gave rise to Blue Ribbon Sports, the company he co-founded in 1964 with one of his former Oregon athletes, Phil Knight.
It’s now a colossus of global consumer brands.
Their company is known as Nike.
“Bowerman was tenacious as hell,” Oregon Sports Hall of Fame and Museum curator Jack Elder told Fox News Digital.
“His own competitiveness was barely containable.” — Bowerman biographer Kenny Moore
“He had personal drive, curiosity, attention to detail and a willingness to develop both people and things.”
Bowerman’s competitive drive built a Ducks dynasty.
He elevated Oregon to the top of collegiate athletics — and ultimately changed the way America runs, plays and performs on and off the court, track and field.
Bowerman coached Oregon from 1949 to 1972, making it the dominant power in NCAA track and field.
He inspired 24 NCAA individual champs, 33 Olympic competitors and 64 All-Americans, according to the NCAA.
Bowerman led Oregon to four national championships and coached the U.S. Olympic Track and Field team at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
His successes included coaching an incredible 16 runners who bested the 4-minute mile.
Bowerman coached 24 NCAA individual champs, 33 Olympic competitors and 64 All-Americans.
It was a remarkable record of achievement, considering that the milestone of human excellence was surpassed for the first time by Englishman Roger Bannister only in 1954, concurrent with Bowerman’s Oregon track dynasty.
Among his stars was Steve Prefontaine, whose dominance on the track, fiery independent spirit and tragic death in a car accident at age 24 inspired two Hollywood versions of his life story.
Bowerman’s success afforded him the opportunity to become a national mentor. He wrote the book “Jogging” in 1967 with cardiologist W.E. Harris.
It sold more than 1 million copies.
He’s widely seen today as one for the forces of the running craze that inspired millions of Americans to don his new shoes and take to the streets in the 1970s.
Among them: fictional American hero Forrest Gump, who sported a pair of Bowerman-designed Nike Cortez sneakers while running across the United States.
“If there are limits to what we can do,” Bowerman said powerfully, as quoted by the University of Oregon, “I don’t know what they are.”
Oregonian’s heroism overseas
William Jay Bowerman was born on Feb. 19, 1911, in Portland, Oregon, to Jay and Elizabeth (Hoover) Bowerman.
His father was a prominent Republican politician, who briefly served as the 13th governor of the Beaver State in 1910 and 1911.
The future track icon first starred on the gridiron, helping lead Medford High School to state football championships as a junior and senior.
“He was 6-2, over 200 pounds, with a powerful upper body,” Moore wrote in his book about Bowerman’s Oregon men.
He was built more like a fullback than the lithe long-distance runners he led to so much success.
He attended Oregon to play football, but was encouraged to join the track team by his predecessor as the university’s coach, Bill Hayward.
The decision to join the track team changed his life. It also changed the course of American culture.
He was “an Oregonian through and through,” the University of Oregon describes him in its history of it sports.
But he’d soon end up a world away.
Bowerman joined the U.S. Army after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He served with distinction through the end of the war, eventually rising to a major and battalion commander in the legendary 10th Mountain Division.
He relied on his size, athleticism and force of will to negotiate the surrender of a German garrison near Brenner Pass in the Italian Alps in the final days of the war in the spring of 1945.
“You cannot resist our air force, artillery and troops standing by to blast you off the map.” — Bowerman to German general
“Drawing himself up to his full height of an All-American football player, which he was,” writes Moore, Bowerman told a low-level German officer: “I am a major and I order you to call the general and tell him a group of American officers would like to talk to him in his headquarters.”
He stoically informed the general of the hopelessness of his situation.
“You surely know you cannot resist our air force, artillery and troops standing by to blast you off the map,” Bowerman said, according to Moore’s account.
The next morning, the general surrendered his 4,000 troops to Bowerman’s unit.
Like many members of the Greatest Generation, he talked little of his wartime experiences.
“Although the war influenced him profoundly, he rarely spoke of his experiences, other than recurring parables that he used when trying to make a point with his athletes,” his son Jay Bowerman told Fox News Digital.
Waffle iron that changed an industry
When Bowerman married Barbara Young in 1936, one of the gifts the couple received was a waffle iron.
The competitive Bowerman saw in the waffle iron a way to give his athletes an edge on the track.
He began melting and molding rubber in the waffle iron and attaching the new forms to uppers, then using his athletes as guinea pigs for his evolving designs.
“His Waffle Trainer sole, first prototyped using his wife’s waffle iron, featured raised nubs similar to those on modern mountain bike tires, which gave the shoe traction while maintaining a low weight,” writes the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
While Bowerman was tinkering with rubber and a waffle iron, Phil Knight, one of his former athletes, was importing athletic shoes from Japan.
He sent two pairs to Bowerman on Jan. 20, 1964, to get thoughts from the coach and part-time shoe designer.
“I’ll pass on some of my ideas to you but, of course, I’ll expect you to make some kind of arrangement with cutting your old coach in, too,” Bowerman said, according to author Moore’s account.
“Knight cut him in that very week.”
Blue Ribbon Sports was born — and became Nike in the 1970s.
Bowerman filed a patent for his newest creation, an “athletic shoe for artificial turf,” on August 30, 1972. It was approved on Feb. 26, 1974.
Its innovative design featured a sole of “integral polygon shaped studs,” according to Bowerman’s patent application.
“This greatly reduces the weight of a football shoe made in accordance with the invention so that it is approximately one-half the weight of a conventional leather football shoe as well as providing great comfort and enabling use in wet weather without damage.”
The Nike Cortez, also designed by Bowerman, was released in 1972 — the same year that the coach led American track athletes into Munich at the Olympics.
Now 50 years old, the Nike Cortez remains one of the most iconic shoes on the market. Among other iconic pop-culture moments, Whitney Houston wore a pair while singing the national anthem before the 1991 Super Bowl.
“If there was no Bill Bowerman, there would have been no me,” Knight, now chairman emeritus of Nike, told Men’s Journal.
“He had about as much of an impact on my life as any one person could have. He taught me about competition and ingrained it in me. He taught me not to praise ordinary performances.”
Legacy still shapes culture today
Bowerman died in his sleep on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1999, in Fossil, Oregon.
He was 88 years old.
His legacy still shapes American track and field.
The Bowerman award has been given out each year since 2009 to the top male and female track athletes in the NCAA.
Oregon, not surprisingly, boasts five Bowerman winners — more than any other school in America.
The Prefontaine Classic is one of the premier events in American track and field, named for his famous former athlete.
One of the more interesting implications of Bowerman’s legacy has been to help reshape the American sports uniform industry.
“The Nike campus in Beaverton is named One Bowerman Drive.”
Knight, in 1996, began investing heavily in the University of Oregon football program.
Among other features, Oregon wears different and dramatic new Nike uniforms for almost every game. Sparkling mirror ball helmets and feathery yellow duck wing decals have replaced the boring old helmet “O” of old.
The uniforms elevated the program’s profile on and off the field and inspired imitators from coast to coast. Every college football team in America, and now in other sports, turns out special uniforms throughout the season.
“Bill’s legacy is well remembered past his death in 1999,” reads a testament to him from the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.
“The Nike campus in Beaverton is named One Bowerman Drive. The building housing the Oregon track locker room is named after him, as is college track’s version of the Heisman Trophy, called simply The Bowerman. He is a member of the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame, as well as the University of Oregon Hall of Fame.”
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