My track coach, William J. Bowerman, died on Christmas Eve,
bringing to a peaceful end, at 88, one of the great sporting
lives of his century. Bowerman revolutionized the training of
distance runners at the University of Oregon between 1949 and
1972, jump-started the jogging and fitness movement of the 1970s
and, with his former miler Phil Knight, cofounded Nike--famously
designing shoe soles on his wife Barbara's waffle iron--and then
watched bemused as his company rode his boom to society-altering
He died where he was born, in the tiny eastern Oregon town of
Fossil, but he made his name across the Cascades, as a halfback
on Oregon's football team in Eugene in the early '30s and by
coaching football and track dynasties at Medford High until the
war. He served in the famed 10th Mountain Division in the Italian
Alps, demonstrating the Bowerman resourcefulness when he, a mere
major, took it upon himself to cross enemy lines and successfully
negotiate the surrender of an entire German division.
Just as typically, on V-J Day, Bowerman simply headed home,
disdaining orders to do supply duty in Texas. The MPs came to
arrest him on the Medford football field. Bowerman observed, in
his tone of velvet and steel, that the war was won and that he
had better things to do. His discharge papers arrived in the
Thus seasoned, Bowerman accepted the position of track coach at
Oregon in 1948, following the retirement of his beloved mentor,
Bill Hayward. He built his training system upon a deceptively
simple truth: All runners are different, and only a teacher who
can exult in those differences can coach worth a damn. For
tailoring each runner's work and recovery to his individual
needs, he was rewarded with 16 sub-four-minute milers, including
Olympians Jim Bailey, Jim Grelle, Dyrol Burleson, Wade Bell and
the gloriously outspoken Steve Prefontaine.
"With the talent comes the temperament," Bowerman often said,
never more truly than of himself. He was a born teacher, yet
driven by impish urges to unnerve and confound both friend and
foe. He made his athletes' shoes, but he didn't stop there.
Bowerman stopped at nothing. He seemed to awaken each morning
with new eyes, disturbingly blue prophet's eyes, and to examine
and reexamine everything we did and wore and ate. He rethought
our gifts, our goals and the blind spots that kept us from
realizing them. Then he pounded all that into our thick heads any
way he could.
He scorned recruiting, preferring pupils who sought him out, yet
coached Oregon to four NCAA championships. He developed
world-record holders in the sprints, distances, relays, shot put
and discus. But it was the milers who drew the crowds to Hayward
Field, and those crowds supplied Bowerman with guinea pigs for
his breakthrough jogging studies. His 1967 book, Jogging, sold a
The crowds, too, were the magnet Bowerman used to lure three U.S.
Olympic Trials to Oregon and to make Eugene the track capital of
the U.S. "He gave us the gift," wrote Eugene Register-Guard
columnist Ron Bellamy, "of an identity."
In 1972 Bowerman was head U.S. track coach at the terror-violated
Munich Olympics. I was a marathoner on that team, and in our
shock and grief after the murder of the Israelis, many of us
wept, believing there was no use in the Games' continuing.
Bowerman helped us see that life-affirming competition had to be
our answer to that attack upon civilization, yet he was so
devastated himself that he retired from Oregon the next year.
A rich man thanks to Nike, Bowerman devoted himself to
philanthropy, giving buildings to his alma mater, tracks to
Oregon schools and money to the Eugene Symphony and Oregon Bach
Festival. Though he snorted at the word guru, he remained
magnetic until the day he died. When he came down to the track to
see Donald Sutherland play him in Without Limits, the 1998 film I
helped Robert Towne write, the thousands of Eugene extras gave
him a standing ovation. Bowerman, glowing in the full and
transparent knowledge that he deserved it, was the only star on
I didn't think of any of that when I learned he was gone. I could
only think of a race on a wet May day in 1964 and how he made me
run it. We had vexed each other that spring. I was 20, had never
won a race in high school, had never broken 9:15 for two miles
and was determined to run as many miles as I could in training.
"Are you just in this to do mindless labor?" he railed after I'd
gotten the flu again. "You can't improve if you're always sick or
He closed his great, calloused hands around my throat, lifted me
an inch off the ground and explained that I would agree to an
experiment or I was off the team. I would do nothing but easy
three-mile jogs on days between even remotely taxing workouts. As
I was passing out, I submitted.
Three weeks later he entered me in the two mile against Oregon
State, watched me warm up and said to begin no faster than a
nine-minute pace and not to chase Oregon State's Dale Story, the
NCAA cross-country champion who ran barefoot and was 30 seconds
better. Stripping down to my filmy, Bowerman-designed racing
shirt and shorts, I felt battle-naked. The spikes of his
feather-light racing shoes sank into the cinder track with a
gnashing sound I still hear.
On the starting line I saw that Story's uniform looked heavy,
almost like wool, and something hit me of the patient care with
which Bowerman had prepared me. I gave myself to his plan. I ran
4:30 for the first mile; Story ran 4:19 and led by 70 yards.
Bowerman, on the infield, called, "He won't hold it. See what you
I began to gain, and the crowd, Bowerman's crowd, 10,000 strong,
saw me coming and got up and called. With half a mile to go I had
no real will left, only that thunder that would not let me slow.
Into the last turn Story still had 10 yards. Then he looked back,
his shoulders tightened, and I learned for the first time how
much competitive savagery lay deep in my heart.
I outkicked him by a second in 8:48, ripping 27 seconds from my
best, finishing in bedlam, crowd and teammates pressing the air
out of me, people shouting that everything was possible now, the
Olympics were possible now. Bowerman was there with wild blue
eyes and a fiendish grin, and I knew what he would say: "See! I
told you so! You just needed rest!"
But he didn't. He bent to my ear. "Kenny," he whispered, "even I
never thought you could run that fast. Even I."
How should Bowerman be remembered? He rendered vastly different
gifts to his state, his university, his company, to each of his
athletes. Each of them must say what he treasures most.
As for me, all I need is to remember that race and see that face
and know I was with Bowerman in glory.