Teacher, innovator, designer. Bill Bowerman innovated incessantly to achieve athletic excellence.
Bill Bowerman was an Oregonian through and through. Born in Portland, he attended the nearby University of Oregon, where he initially entered as a football player (not a track athlete, as many assume). Later, he returned to the U of O to coach track and field, where he led the team to four NCAAl titles and coached 16 sub-four-minute milers. He went on to serve as the assistant track coach for the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games and as the head coach for the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. It was during his time at Oregon that Bowerman starting tinkering with running shoes, convinced he could improve them for his athletes. Little did he know, he was starting what would become part of his legacy: changing the running shoe as we know it.
Bowerman was the ultimate innovator, constantly iterating to improve shoes for his runners. He was ambitious, persistent and valued hard work; he constantly pushed those around him, accepting nothing less than the best from his athletes and their shoes. Future Nike co-founder Phil Knight himself — one of Bowerman’s athletes at Oregon and Nike’s other co-founder—is cited as feeling unsure he wanted to return to “that crazy man” after his first year under Bowerman’s coaching.
Bowerman’s insatiable curiosity and thirst for improvement that led him to grow frustrated with the subpar shoes his athletes used for training. He contacted many of the leading athletic footwear companies with suggestions for improvements. Each was eager to sell shoes to Bowerman, but not so willing to listen to ideas. Finally, he took matters into his own hands. Unsatisfied with the response from these companies, Bowerman set out to make his own.
With guidance from a local cobbler, Bowerman learned how to make shoes. You learn patterns of make and the basics of material science. And you find guinea pigs. At least, this is what Bill Bowerman did. By 1958, he began using his Oregon runners as wear testers of his odd, one-of-a-kind concoctions. One of his first creations was for a distance runner from Portland, none other than Phil Knight. In August, Bowerman sent a letter to Knight saying, “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.”
Though Bowerman tinkered with shoe designs for the better part of a decade, there’s a singular moment that identifies the beginning of Nike design innovation. This moment took place on a Sunday in early 1971, when the eventual Nike company co-founder opened up his waffle iron and dumped a glop of liquid urethane in an attempt to explore a new traction idea.
What was born was the “waffle tread” we still see on Nike’s iconic footwear today. Ever since, Nike has used it as a source of inspiration and validation for Nike culture and identity. There’s a reason the story remains so impactful today. Though the materials and methods have long been dated, the episode set the mold for all innovation processes Nike uses today: identify a problem and consider any idea to solve it. Fail initially, learn, and, through iteration, solve the problem in a new way.
It was Bowerman’s innovation mindset–and his respected opinion within the track world – that ultimately caused Knight to return to Bill long after their relationship had turned into a friendship. As a graduating MBA student writing a business plan, Knight wondered if he could bring Japanese shoes—known for blending durability and lightweight design—to the United States and start selling them to major track programs around the country.
Bowerman loved the idea. In addition to buying shoes from Knight, Bowerman suggested the two become partners and that Bowerman would supply Knight and Japanese brand Onitsuka with his design innovations. With Bowerman on board, Knight knew he would gain credibility and learn from a design mind obsessed with product improvement. So, they shook hands and Blue Ribbon Sports—the company that became Nike—was born.
As Knight anticipated, Bowerman’s status as one of the country’s most respected track coaches provided a powerful endorsement for Blue Ribbon’s Tiger shoes. From the outset, business began to grow. Meanwhile, Bowerman began sharing his design ideas with Onitsuka, which took his input and sent prototypes to the University of Oregon for runners to test. Bowerman analyzed the wear on the shoes and sent directions back to Japan for further modifications. This process ultimately led to the development of the now-famous Cortez running shoe, among others. Ideas like a heel wedge to reduce stress on the Achilles tendon and the first use of a full-length cushioning midsole were Bowerman innovations that quickly became industry standards.