Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sat, 16 Feb 2008 06:42:02 -0500

Bowerman's Gifts


(Rerun from February 2000 RC)

The best first reaction to Bill Bowerman's death at age 88 came from the runner who knew him best. Olympian-turned-writer Kenny Moore said, "What a career he had. He created the milers, which created the [University of Oregon] program, which created the crowds, which created the audience for his belief that you can be fit no matter how old you are, which created the beginning of the running boom, which created the need for shoes and created the opportunity to form the company that made all those shoes, for which he was properly rewarded."

Moore would publish a biography about his teacher (Bowerman never liked to be called "coach") and friend. It would take a book, Bowerman and the Men of Oregon, and an author of Moore's talent to do this life justice.

The best that can be said at column length is that it's fitting Bowerman should leave us on Christmas Eve of 1999. He was the Santa Claus of the century for our sport -- delivering gifts as a teacher, an author and an inventor.

As an athlete Bowerman didn't run distances but played football and sprinted, then served in World War II and returned a decorated hero. His service at the University of Oregon earned the school four NCAA titles.

What should have been the pinnacle of his coaching career became one of his greatest frustrations. He led the U.S. team at the deeply troubled Munich Olympics.

His proudest legacy is as a distance coach, the greatest this country has ever known. Dozens of his milers broke four minutes. His student and later successor as Oregon coach, Bill Dellinger, won an Olympic 5000 medal.

In a sport given to excess, Bowerman preached moderation. He adopted a hard-easy approach to training, with the hard work coming only every second or third day.

He rarely allowed his distance runners to double in a meet. He de-emphasized cross-country and indoor racing that spread an athlete's efforts over too much of the year.

The irony here is that his best-known athlete was one of his last, Steve Prefontaine. Pre was anything but moderate in approach.

In the early 1960s, Bowerman traveled to New Zealand for a lesson that would turn around his physical life and that of his country. He took a "jog" with older New Zealanders, and they exposed his unfitness. He went home, kept running and co-wrote (with Eugene doctor Waldo Harris) the first great book of the coming running boom, a million seller titled Jogging.

Meanwhile Bowerman's tinkering with shoes led him to join with an ex-athlete of his named Phil Knight to start a company that imported Tiger shoes from Japan. They later split from the Japanese to produce their own brand, known as Nike.

Bowerman remains that company's spiritual father. On hearing of his death, Knight said, "Bill was for so many of us a hero, leader and most of all a teacher. My sadness at his passing is beyond words."

Nike made Bowerman extremely wealthy. He shared that wealth in many ways, most of them unpublicized. For every athletic building he funded on his Oregon campus and every high school track he helped create, he contributed more to university academic programs and community arts activities.

Bill Bowerman keeps on giving. His financial gifts make his city and state better places to live and learn. His gifts to the sport are priceless, even if the runners who receive them never know their source.
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