Modern Athletic ShoePatent No. 3,793,750
Bill Bowerman spent 24 years as the head track coach at the University of Oregon, where he was known as a thinker and a tinkerer. He was constantly working to improve training procedures and equipment. His top priority was making shoes lighter and faster, and he holds multiple patents related to athletic shoe design.
Bowerman’s most important innovations focused on the outer soles of the shoes. Specifically, he designed lightweight models with good traction, but without the traditional metal spikes, that were appropriate for a variety of surfaces, including artificial tracks. His Waffle Trainer sole featured raised nubs, similar to those on modern mountain bike tires, which gave the shoe traction while maintaining a low weight.
In 1964, Bowerman entered a partnership with a former athlete, Phil Knight, forming Blue Ribbon Sports. With the invention of the Waffle Trainer, they decided to mass-produce Bowerman’s designs and they changed the name to Nike, Inc. Within another decade, Nike was a household name and was sponsoring famous athletes. Today, Nike, Inc. remains a highly recognizable brand and is a multinational corporation.
Goldstein, Richard. (1999, Dec. 27). Bill Bowerman, 88, Nike Co-Founder, Dies, retrieved April 4, 2014 from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/1999/12/27/sports/bill-bowerman-88-nike-co-founder-dies.html
Katovsky, Bill. (2012, May 20). Tread Lightly: Form, Footwear, and the Quest for Injury-Free Running, retrieved April 4, 2014 from Natural Running Center: http://naturalrunningcenter.com/2012/05/20/bill-bowerman-wifes-waffle-iron-nike-birth-modern-running-shoe/
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Moore, Kenny. (1972, Aug. 14). Fishing In The Rivers Of Men’s Minds, retrieved from Sports Illustrated: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1086405/3/index.htm
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The son of Jay and Lizzie Bowerman, William Bowerman was born in Portland, Oregon and grew up in Fossil after his parents divorced. His father served as president of the Oregon Senate and was acting governor of Oregon for a brief period. His mother, a teacher, was a graduate of the Oregon Agricultural College, what is now Oregon State University.
Bowerman was a descendant of pioneers on the Oregon Trail in the mid-1840s. His ancestors first settled on the banks of the Tualatin River in the Willamette Valley, eventually migrating to what is now Wheeler County. They named the town “Fossil” because of petrified elephant and camel bones found there.
It was at Medford High School that he met Barbara, his high school sweet heart who he would eventually marry in 1936. Together, they had three sons – Jon, Jay and Tom – and eventually, six grandchildren.
While pursuing a business degree at the University of Oregon, Bowerman played basketball and football and worked with Oregon track coach Bill Hayward. According to Bowerman, it was Hayward who taught him how to run, which earned him a spot on the university’s track team. Bowerman graduated in 1934 and taught at Franklin High School in Portland for a year. He then taught at Medford High School, where he remained for eight years before joining the Army to serve in Italy during World War II.
In 1948, he returned to his university alma mater, and he became Oregon Track and Field coach, after the retirement of Bill Hayward in 1949. He spent 23 years as Oregon’s head track coach. As a coach, he was constantly working to improve training procedures and equipment, which included running surfaces, sports drinks and lighter-weight uniforms. His inventive spirit led Bowerman to become one of the first people to use video recordings as a teaching tool. According to witnesses, he used an Army camera to film athletes and played them on a loop so that the athletes could study themselves and learn different techniques.
From the late 1910s until the 1960s, Keds was the most popular sneaker in the market, and athletic shoes during those years came from makers such as Converse and adidas. It wasn’t until Bowerman’s Waffle Trainer that drastic changes were made to athletic shoe design in the U.S. In addition, during a trip to New Zealand in 1962, Bowerman was first introduced to the idea of jogging – a sport he would later popularize – which would also bring change to the athletic shoe industry.
In 1964, Bowerman partnered with his former athlete Phil Knight to create Blue Ribbon Sports, an American distributor of the Japanese brand Onitsuka Company’s Tiger running shoes. Knight and Bowerman had first met at the University of Oregon in late 1950s when Knight trained under Bowerman. To start the company, they each contributed $500 and placed an order for 300 pairs of Tiger shoes. Bowerman continued coaching and Knight, who had earned himself an MBA in Finance from Stanford, kept his job as an accountant during the beginning of their venture.
They sold most of the flat-soled shoes to high school and college runners at track meets from the trunks of their cars. Jeff Johnson, a runner who became Knight’s friend at Stanford, became Blue Ribbon’s first employee. As the years passed and design ideas evolved, Bowerman and Knight decided they were ready to sell their own designs and parted ways with Onitsuka. Soon they were selling their own shoes under a new company name, Nike, Inc.
In the pursuit of the perfect shoe, using his wife’s round waffle iron, Bowerman created what he called the Waffle Trainer, with an outer sole made of latex and rubber designed to be lightweight and provide outstanding traction on all surfaces without metal spikes. His goal was to create a design that made shoes lighter and faster, while providing better traction. The Waffle Trainer featured raised nubs, which allowed for great traction at a lower weight.
In 1971, the duo then decided it was time to mass produce Bowerman’s new athletic shoe. Through the branding process the Nike team selected a logo designed by Carolyn Davidson, a Portland State University graphic design student, who created the Nike “Swoosh.”
The first shoes were introduced during the 1972 U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon. Likely because of its similarity to the footprint left by Neil Armstrong on the moon several years before, Bowerman’s shoe became known as the Moon Shoe. The new shoe design was equally embraced by both professional and amateur athletes.
Bowerman retired from coaching soon after the 1972 Olympics in Munich, but remained at Nike, where he served on the company’s board from 1968 to 1999. Knight served as the company’s president from 1968 to 1990 and from 2000 to 2004, and he is currently the chairman of Nike’s board of directors. He has also been a certified public accountant with Price Waterhouse and Coopers & Lybrand and worked as an assistant professor of business at Portland State University.
Bowerman returned to Fossil in the late-1990s. Bowerman died Dec. 24, 1999 in his sleep in a retirement home; he was 88 years old.
The waffle iron believed to have been used by Bowerman to make the very first soles in the 1970s was found in 2010 in a landfill on the Bowerman ranch. One of Bowerman’s sons came across the rusted appliance, whose whereabouts were unknown for 40 years, while digging a foundation for a building. According to Barbara Bowerman, the waffle maker was a wedding gift. Bowerman’s children recall their father could only make one rubber waffle at a time, which meant he had to cook rubber four times to make two soles. Today the appliance is on display at Nike’s corporate headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon.
Medford High School, 1930
Bachelor’s in Business Administration, University of Oregon, 1934
DID YOU KNOW?
Bowerman, who was initially pursuing a degree in journalism and received a business degree, had a keen interest for science and planned to become a doctor. He was admitted into medical school but decided not to pursue the degree due to lack of funds to cover the costs. He also served as a major during World War II in Italy in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division.
“Victory is in having done your best. If you’ve done your best, you’ve won.”
SOCIAL MEDIA PRESENCE:
MEDIA – BOOKS:
Moore, Kenny. Bowerman and the Men of Oregon: The Story of Oregon’s Legendary Coach and Nike’s Cofounder. Rodale Books, 2007.
Bowerman, William J., Harris, W. E. Jogging. Putnam Publishing Group, 1967.
Bowerman, William J., Freeman, William H. High-Performance Training for Track and Field. Human Kinetics Publishers, 1990.
Bowerman, William J. Coaching Track and Field. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1975.
Walsh, Chris. The Bowerman System. Tafnews Press, 1983.
Becklund, Laurie, and J. B. Strasser. Swoosh: Unauthorized Story of Nike and the Men Who Played There. Harper Business, 1993.
Occupation: Head track coach at the University of Oregon, co-founder of Nike.
Born: February 19, 1911 in Portland, OR
Died: December 24, 1999