Friday, May 1, 2009

Bill Bowerman

Kerry honored Nike co-founder Phil Knight a month ago, so I thought it would be appropriate to highlight the contribution made by the other half of the original Nike team: Bill Bowerman. Bowerman (1911 - 1999) had an illustrious career that included running one of the nation's most successful track programs, popularizing jogging in the US, and developing the waffle-soled running shoe. And before his success as Phil Knight's business partner, he had success as Knight's running coach.

William Bowerman knew a lot about shoes as a track coach for the University of Oregon, where he would individually shape his runners' shoes. His Oregon programs, through a 24-year tenure, finished in the NCAA top ten 16 times and won four titles. During this time he was also involved with the '68 and '72 Olympics. So it was no surprise that when former Oregon athlete Phil Knight showed up in 1964 with a pair of Japanese sneakers and a business idea, Bowerman wanted to get involved.

Knight and Bowerman formed Blue Ribbon Sports to distribute shoes for Onitsuka Tiger, the Japanese company with which Knight had entered a sales agreement a year earlier. Bowerman offered suggestions for improvements to the shoes, which consequently became top sellers for the manufacturer. The two entrepreneurs sold shoes out of the trunk of a car for several years before opening a retail store and eventually designing shoes for themselves. Their first line, the Nike line of shoes, inspired the company name change to Nike in 1978.

Bowerman's most famous shoe design was the waffle-soled running shoe he developed out of his home using a waffle iron and rubber compounds. He was aiming for a winning combination of weight and grip, with Oregon's new synthetic rubber track in mind. The simple but smart concept was Blue Ribbon's first major success and today a variety of shoes make use of the waffle outsole.

Nike's future growth made it a powerhouse in sportswear and as Kerry described, the marketing successes of Phil Knight were tremendously important to that growth. Bowerman's improvements on shoe design are the other half of this success story and make him today's Hero of Capitalism.

Guardian Obituary

NYT Obituary

Wikipedia Entry for Bowerman

Oregon Experience Timeline and Bio

Helium Profile by Lucas Smith

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