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From The Desk Of Clarence Bass

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“Take a primitive organism, say a freshman. Make it lift, or jump or run. Let it rest. What happens? A little miracle. It gets a little better. It gets a little stronger or faster or more enduring. That’s all training is. Stress. Recover. Improve. You’d think any damn fool could do it. But you don’t. You work too hard and rest too little and get hurt.” Bill Bowerman (Bowerman by Kenny Moore, Rodale, 2006)


And the Men of Oregon

The story of Oregon’s Legendary Coach and Nike’s Cofounder

Kenny Moore, who has written for Sports Illustrated since 1971, has long been my favorite sports writer. He not only writes about athletes in a caring, knowledgeable, and inspiring way, he is an athlete. A member of the 1968 and 1972 U.S. Olympic teams, he was a distance runner on Bill Bowerman’s Oregon University track team, broke the American record for the marathon in 1969 with a time of 2:13:29, improving to 2:11:36 the next year. He placed 4th in the Munich Olympic marathon. Moreover, his foot was the model for the running shoe that made Blue Ribbon Sports (BRS), the forerunner of Nike, a viable company. After suffering a stress fracture in a shoe with no arch support, Bill Bowerman made a shoe with a shock-absorbing support for him to try and report back weekly. Moore ran more than 1000 miles on different versions of the shoe until Bowerman, a perfectionist, was satisfied he had it right. That shoe was the prototype of the classic and still popular Nike Cortez, which made running shoes fashionable. It was the beginning of a relationship, starting as coach-and-athlete and blossoming into a meaningful friendship, that lasted for more than 30 years.

No one was better suited than Kenny Moore to write Bill Bowerman’s biography. Moore obviously loved Bill (he insisted that his athletes call him Bill), and in reading his 432-page Bowerman, I came to love him as well.

Bill and Barbara Bowerman chose well when, in 1991 as Bill was turning 80, they gave Moore the “commission” to tell the story of Bill’s “life and times and of the athletes he’s been fortunate to teach and learn from.”  With full cooperation from the Bowerman family and Nike, and interviews with many relatives, friends, students, colleagues, enemies and competitors, Moore left no stone unturned, going down every street and side street, over a decade or more, to capture the epic story, warts and all.

Starting with Bill’s pioneer ancestors who settled Fossil, Oregon, Moore explored Bill’s unruly childhood, college years as a student and athletic, his spirited courtship of Barbara, his formative coaching years, Bill’s heroic service in World War Two, several life-long friendships, building a track and field dynasty, innovative training principles, coaching and involvement in the Olympic Games, battles with the AAU and the U.S. and International Olympic hierarchy, coaching Steve Prefontaine, the birth and growth of Nike, his turbulent relationship with Phil Knight, his invention of waffle soled shoes, starting the jogging boom in America, community involvement, sons and grandchildren, thoughtful and creative philanthropy, return to Fossil in the final years, and more. You get the idea; he covers everything a reader would want to know, and sometimes a little more. It’s a wonderful, fascinating, and inspiring story.       

To whet your appetite for a really good read, here are thumbnail sketches of a few of my favorite episodes.

Hell-Raising SOB

Bill was raised by his grandmother, Mary Jane, and his divorced and man-weary mother, Lizzie, in and around Fossil, a tiny ranch-town in eastern Oregon. “As a youngster, Bill was still so feral that before he could contribute anything to humanity, he would need to join the species,” Moore relates. “That humanizing would have to take place elsewhere—and with the help of a man, thank you very much.”

It’s a bit of a long story, but Bill ended up as a freshman at Medford High School, in southern Oregon, and was “soon observed in playground battles.” As Bill acknowledged to Moore, he “was as wild as his mountain-man great-grandfather had been at that age, [and] as ungovernable.” His brawling got him suspended from school in his sophomore year. His mother being unable to convince him of the error of his ways, he found himself with an appointment to see the superintendent of schools, one Ercel H. Hedrick. It was a turning point in Bowerman’s life.

Arriving as the appointed time of eight in the morning, he was given a chair, and told to wait…and wait. At noon he was still waiting. And then, as Bill would always remember, he heard a commanding voice shout from the inner office: “Is that hell-raising son of a bitch still out there?” [I hope I will be forgiven for the long quote which follows, but it is just too delicious to pass up.]

Once inside, Hedrick, 30 at the time and a former World War 1 Marine mule skinner and artillery officer, stood over him and began loudly going over a stack of reports from his teachers: “This is ridiculous. You’re good in band, good in journalism, so you’re not stupid, just a hell-raising son of a bitch.”

Finding it hard to deny, Bill sat in stunned silence. “Bowerman,” Hedrick continued, “here’s how life is going to go for you. You’ll keep up this goddamned fighting and you’ll not only be out of Medford, you’ll be out of goddamn everywhere. Grant Pass, Ashland, nobody is going to stand for this shit. And that’s the way it should be. You’ll fight and everyone else will be rid of you. Fight here, fight there, die in prison or on some barroom floor, I could give a royal, oozing shit. That’s justice. That’s just dying by your own goddamn sword.”

Bill flushed, because Ercel’s words rang true.

“The only thing wrong with that,” Hedrick added, “is that you’ll dishonor a goddamn worthy human being.”

Bill asked, “Who?”

“Elizabeth Hoover Bowerman,” Ercel answered. “You’ll bring eternal shame upon your mother.”

“What…What should I do? What do you want me to do?”

“Control yourself!” roared Hedrick. “Cut the crap and channel that goddamn energy! Go back to school and be of use! Make your mother proud. Because I swear to you, Bowerman, I never want to hear your goddamn name again. 

And he didn’t…until some years later when Bill was recommended to coach the Medford football team--and Hedrick called to offer him the job.

Hard-Easy Training

Bill Bowerman constantly thought about the best way to train his athletes. “Although he would experiment until he died,” Moore writes, “from 1950 to 1952 he puzzled out most of his solution to the great problem of how to train for the middle distances.” Writes Moore, “Because a miler needs both the speed to race and the stamina to cover the distance, that miler’s coach must choose from a vast continuum of possible work—from zero to infinity, from indolence to madness.” That makes it a good proxy for training in general. In just about all types of training, bodybuilding and strength training included, the never ending question is: How hard and how much?

Bowerman “sensed’ that rest was as important as work “to keep a runner from illness or injury. If he erred, he wanted to err on the safe side of the cliff, so he decided to train and race his men to seasonal peaks but back off before they crashed.” Sounds familiar doesn’t it? In later years, it was called periodization.

Intervals were an important part of his program as the competitive season approached, especially the outdoor national championship and international meets—“but he would do them only two or three times a week.” The other days were easier: “three- to six-mile jogs with stretching, form drills, some light weight lifting, pull-ups, maybe a swim, to allow the system to recover and keep athletes benefiting from their hard work.” That doesn’t mean his runners were loafing, however. Moore says the total work averaged about sixty miles per week

“Bowerman began exhorting Oregon runners to finish workouts exhilarated, not exhausted…His credo was that it was better to underdo than overdo.”

He preached this to incoming freshman every year: “Stress, recover, improve, that’s all training is. You’d think any damn fool could do it.”

This didn’t go down so well with the coaching community. “When Bowerman first articulated the hard-easy method, he was widely despised for it,” Moore relates. “The anthem of most coaches then was, the more you put in, the more you get out.” Coaches were “morally affronted. His easy days were derided…called coddling.” Moore adds parenthetically, “His common sense approach is still resisted by a minority, and probably always will be.” Again, sounds mighty familiar. 

Bowerman’s response was to “crush their runners with his.” His “Men of Oregon” won four NCAA team titles. What’s more, he coached 16 sub-four-minute milers at the University of Oregon.

He also ignited the jogging boom in America. How that happened is another great story.

Jogging for Everyone

Jogging was going strong in New Zealand, where Bowerman came upon it quite unexpectedly while doing advance work for a duel between his world-record 4-mile relay team and Arthur Lydiard’s runners, who previously held the record. He was stiff from the twenty-five hour flight, and Lydiard suggested as a remedy that they take an “easy run” the next morning. When they arrived at “a pastoral expanse called Cornwall Park” it was “swarming” with runners. “I thought a cross-country race was going on,” Bowerman would recall, “but they were men, women, children, all ages, all sizes.”

Lydiard explained: “We found that the best thing for my champions was also the best thing for everyone else…a good, long Sunday romp. Different packs go different distances. You’ll manage in the slow pack.”

Bowerman was 50 at the time and, as he described it, “I was used to going out and walking fifty-five yards, trotting fifty-five yards, going about a quarter-mile and figuring I’d done quite a bit.” You can guess what happened. “We took off and it wasn’t too bad for about a half-mile, and then we started going up this hill. God, the only thing that kept me alive was the hope that I would die.”

Bowerman ran almost every day during his six-week stay going from “no miles to twenty.” He pumped Lydiard for details on his experience with running for the masses, and returned home ten pounds lighter and with a waist three inches smaller. “Barbara shrieked that he looked ten years younger.”

Bowerman told the local newspaper the team competition was great, but that the biggest thing that happened was that he’d learned that thousands of people jog in New Zealand—“Their women jog, their kids jog, everybody jogs.” His idea of exercise was “way, way, way low,” he said. “Do you think we could do that here?” the reporter asked.  Bowerman: “Why don’t we find out?”

“On February 3, 1963, two dozen citizens showed up” at the Hayward Field practice track, about a quarter of them female. The next week there were 50, and by the third week 200. The crowd eventually peaked between 2,000 and 5,000 walkers and joggers. “I knew someone was going to die right there,” Bowerman said.

He told them to go home and jog with their friends in their neighborhoods, “until we get a better handle on this thing.” After talking with doctors and exercise physiologists, Bill did a three-month pilot study involving “four hefty Oregon faculty members;” all survived safely. Later, he did a larger study of 100 middle-aged subjects, finding a dramatic weight loss among the over-weight and a general feeling of well-being among the joggers. “Almost without exception,” Bowerman would say, “they began to feel more tigerish.”

In 1966, Bowerman co-authored an eighteen page pamphlet and the next year a book called “Jogging.”

“Naturally, the first person he sent a copy of his book to was Lydiard,” Kenny Moore writes. It sold a million copies.   

Dr. Ken Cooper confirmed and quantified the need for exercise in his book Aerobics, published in 1968. Frank Shorter’s marathon victory at the 1972 Olympics was the icing on the cake for Americans. “That would begin not only a jogging but a running boom and the phenomenon of mass marathons, such as those in New York and Boston, whose starting fields today number in the tens of thousands,” writes Kenny Moore.      

Soul of Nike 

When, in 1969 or ‘70, Carol and I bought Tiger running shoes out of elite-runner Web Loudat’s car, we never dreamed we were involved in the early history of what was to become athletic-shoe giant Nike. 

Bill Bowerman and Phil “Buck” Knight, a former Oregon runner, contributed $500 each to pay for Blue Ribbon Sports’ first order of Tiger running shoes from the Japanese manufacturer. Bill’s half came from a savings account Barbara had accumulated without his knowledge. BRS (as noted)  became Nike some years later.  

When Nike went public in December 1980, Bowerman’s shares were worth $9 million. As an interesting aside, in 1966 Kenny Moore passed up the opportunity to invest $1,000 in BRS, which a later printout from Bill showed would have been worth $750,000. “We’d made our choices and we’d lived with them happily,” Moore writes, “but wasn’t it a kick to tease the other about what might have been.”

Bill’s motivation for investing (Barbara’s) $500 and Knight’s was different--and it’s a good thing. Bill was primarily interested in providing a supply of quality shoes at a reasonable price for his Oregon runners and others; he wasn’t interested in making a lot of money. Fortunately, Buck Knight was. It made for a good combination, one that insured that the company would succeed and eventually prosper beyond the wildest dreams of its founders.

Bill threatened to resign many times, but Knight was determined to keep him onboard. “Early on he had vowed to himself never to lose Bill Bowerman,” writes Moore, “a vow that would define the culture of his company. Knight would make keeping Bowerman a mark of keeping Nike’s soul, of defeating the competition with quality.”

“I had been trained by him,” said Knight. “I knew him. I loved him. I simply never took it personally. If I had anything to say about it, he was not going to leave.”

“When Knight got notes from Bill wanting to resign (such as one in 1984 saying, My effectiveness as a Nike employee is somewhere between zero and fifty percent), he could only hope that one day Bowman would fully comprehend the effort needed to make the transition from boutique to behemoth.”

Fortunately, he finally did. Barbara found among Bill’s papers a draft of a letter he had begun to Knight but never sent; she delivered the entire legal pad to Knight. The final line read, “Your leadership has been phenomenal. Barb joins me in appreciation and admiration.” Knight finally knew “that Bowerman had judged him worthy,” Moore concludes. [The full text is in the book.]

*  *  * 

Don’t walk, run to your computer or bookstore and buy Kenny Moore’s Bowerman. While you’re at it, rent the 1998 Warner Bros. film Without Limits, co-written and co-produced by Kenny Moore, about Bowerman’s fiery relationship with Steve Prefontaine. After watching a working print of this movie, Bill Bowerman said: “That’s the way it was. The way it was with the Men of Oregon.” The book and movie together offer an exquisite synergy for anyone interested in the whole story of an unforgettable man and innovator, and his athletes. 

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Copyright © 2006 Clarence and Carol Bass.  All rights reserved.