Note: This article was written by Phil Knight who co-founded Nike with Bill Bowerman in 1964. Phil was also a one-time student of Bill Bowerman. It was originally published in the Playboy magazine.
Read this very long blog post only if you have the time, but I'll guarantee that you'll find it worthwhile.
Lessons from Bill Bowerman, the greatest track coach ever lived.
At 17 years and six months of age I went off to the University of Oregon, one hundred miles and a world away from the only home I knew. With 6,000 students, the school was the largest in the state. It was located in the middle of the Willamette Valley, a setting of tall trees, clean air, and old buildings.
I arrived a few days before school started to work out with the cross–country team. I was a walk–on for a team whose members included three future Olympians and whose famous coach was developing national champions from unlikely sources. I hadn’t run a lot over the summer. In high school I never put in that much effort, but still I had managed to do fairly well and had been a favorite of my high school coach. My plan was simple: I would work hard after I got to school, and I would again be one of the coach’s favorites. He would put his arm around me and guide me to track–and–field greatness.
The Oregon coach, was, of course, Bill Bowerman, who was in the process of developing more sub–four–minute milers than anyone had yet produced in the history of track and field. The world didn’t know that then, but some of us suspected it. That is why we were there.
On that first day, he sent me out on a “long slow run” through the hills of the Laurelwood Golf Course with Bill Dellinger. I was thrilled just to meet Dellinger. He had come out of Springfield, Oregon, and despite being too short and too slow he had shocked the track–and–field world to win the NCAA mile championship as a sophomore, 15 months before my arrival. Now I was running alongside him.
Well, the thrill was over quickly. Dellinger ran the dozen hills. I ran three of them. While he was never anything less than encouraging to me in running, his teammate and fraternity brother Jim Bailey had beaten him in the NCAA mile the previous year, and he was not about to lose to Bailey again. So he certainly wasn’t going to ease up on a workout to please a walk–on.
At the top of the third hill, I was spent and panted something like “ I’m not quite ready for this.” At least I didn’t blame a pulled muscle. I limped back to the dressing room, startled by its emptiness. What 30 minutes before had been alive and expectant was now quiet. The street clothes of other runners who were still working out hung limply from hooks on the wall. The coach was not in sight, but for the first time I could feel his presence when he wasn’t there. I could hear his grim voice saying, “If you don’t like this feeling, don’t come unprepared. This will not be easy.”
I saw that moment as the end of a painful three–mile. It didn’t occur to me that it was also the start of a long journey. On the first day of my college education I learned you could have a conversation with an empty room.
Bowerman was unique. He lived by a code: He would not be a bad father or husband; he would not have a beer with his athletes or even in front of them. He quoted scripture — usually incorrectly, but he made his point. Frequently he would tilt his head back and scratch his neck just under the chin; that was a signal to look out. The ultimate running shoe, in his opinion, was a nail through the foot, but those kids of the 1950s were just too soft to put up with that.
He was attitude dressed as a man — broad shoulders, erect posture and of course that stare, a part of him still the Army major who had captured a German division. He was an educated man capable of impressive use of the English language. I heard him give a lot of good talks to high schools and community gatherings. But he chose to educate me and others by making effective use of silence.
Before our first cross–country competition against intrastate rival Oregon State and several other schools, we fidgeted in that same dressing room, which would be our home for four years, waiting for final words from the coach. “We” included two national champions and five freshmen. I was very nervous and very curious about the coach’s pep talk.
He took forever to come into the room. All the while, I was glancing around, my leg shaking.
Finally he showed. After a long pause he said, “I want you freshmen to understand that there is something different about competing against Oregon State.” Then he walked out of the room. Bill Bowerman, master of the unspoken pep talk.
Bailey and Dellinger stared at the freshmen, making sure we understood. Then they walked out, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.
We slaughtered them. I was seventh for the team, and 10th overall, beating Frank Moore of Oregon State, who had beaten me in the state high school meet the previous spring.
As a freshman I had a lot of trouble adapting; the food, long homework assignments and a roommate who never agreed about when the windows should be open or closed didn’t help. But one thing constantly made it more difficult: him.
I had wanted to please, but he wouldn’t let me. He was contrary about everything, and that first year felt a lot like hazing: He scheduled six a.m. workouts, and made us run daily doubles, unheard of at the time. He wrote out personalized workouts for everybody — harder ones for great runners, building up to hard for the wannabes. He mimeographed the days of the weeks in green ink on yellow paper, then he penciled in what you were to do: “6x400 at :64; 4x800 at :66” and so on, writing in a way that mimicked how he talked — gruffly, illegibly. For no reason at all he would assign extra workouts, then cancel one that had been scheduled. He criticized if I was five minutes late for practice, even though all the workouts were personalized anyway.
Although he would occasionally yell, at heart he was not a shouter. He could make you mad at him without raising his voice at all.
“Who is the coach of this team?” he would ask when I gave him a doubting look.
“What is this, Beast Barracks?” I wanted to answer, but I knew that would get me kicked off the team forever. He kicked a national–class sprinter off the team for “interfering with my right to enjoy coaching.” For a time there was a better track team on the campus made solely of guys who had been booted from the varsity.
All the while, Bowerman gave strange–sounding advice. “Do right and fear no man,” he’d say. What did that have to do with running a fast 880?
Plus he was always tinkering with something. He could be found on the field on Saturday mornings, stirring a huge cauldron over an open fire. In his weathered pants, boots, flannel shirt and green cowboy hat, he was an unusual picture of a mad scientist. He was constantly attempting to formulate a material to improve the long–jump runway surface. Runners assumed these strange mixtures were equal parts tar, rubber, Irish whiskey and hocus–pocus incantations. One time he lost control of the fire and almost burned down the east grandstand.
He concocted a combination of tea, honey, and lemonade, the better to replenish nutrients, he said, and on cold days he made us run in long underwear. He was continually trying to take two ounces off a pair of racing shoes.
But mostly Bill Bowerman was tinkering with your mind.
When you put your faith in him, however, he would put his faith in you. He was about to produce a whole lot of Olympians. Before long, a sports drink like his — albeit a better–tasting one — would become known as Gatorade, and within a decade 3M’s synthetic track surfaces would become the industry standard. And the long underwear? The Oregon freshman team was about to win a cross–country meet in Vancouver, where the temperature was 12 degrees; the underwear was, of course, the forerunner of muscle tights.
We had no way of knowing those things then. For the most part we would do it his way — or do something else. It took until halfway through my sophomore year, but as the meets and practices rolled by, it all gradually began to make sense.
As my commitment grew, something else changed. The bond between us began to grow as well.
Almost two years to the day after Bill Dellinger had left me for dead on the Laurelwood Golf Course, I beat the great Jim Bailey in a cross–country race. Fifteen months before, Bailey had run the first sub–four–minute mile on U.S. soil. To be sure, Bailey wasn’t at his best, and I was the fittest I had ever been, but breaking the finish tape is one of the real thrills in sports, and I didn’t do it that often in my college years. On this day it was more than that. I belonged.
Twenty minutes after the race the coach found me, my cooldown almost over. He put that great warm paw of his on my neck, looked down at me and gave a smile. “Good race,” he said. It wasn’t as good as standing on the medal platform in Tokyo while the national anthem played, but for those of us who would never get that far, it would have to do.
In the spring of my senior year Bowerman met with me one–on–one to talk about a big Saturday 880 against USC. For those few moments, his look, the one that could melt platinum, was focused on the imaginary back of a USC runner, the one whose personal best was three seconds better than my own. Then he turned to me, “You can beat him,” he said.
Running is a solo sport. Primal. Start in the same place as the other guy and see who can get to the finish line fastest. No ratings judge in sight. Training means slogging through countless miles, roaming the world with your thoughts. So too was college a solo sport; in this place I was deciding who I might become. If I were to be a businessman, I would be an entrepreneur; if an artist, a writer. Or maybe a lawyer in private practice — a sole practitioner, of course.
Bowerman had been drawn to the same unique sport. In those college years, I grew to understand why I ran for him; harder to figure out was why he was drawn to me. He spent more time with me than my performance justified. I still don’t know why. I suppose it was in part because I did other things: good grades every couple of terms, a weekly column in the Daily Emerald, fraternity president, and, maybe best of all, class representative on the student disciplinary committee, which decided if kids were to be kicked out of school. There I fought on a regular basis with Golda Wickham, dean of women, who to this day I believe was Ken Kesey’s role model for Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Bowerman had found me worthy in a way that had nothing to do with how fast I ran. My gratitude ran deep, in no small part because he allowed me entry to a place where I could view greatness up close.
Our odd but growing relationship peaked that Saturday in May when we faced USC. After eight years of running in high school and college, as the meets got bigger and competition tougher, I didn’t want to be alone quite so much. There in that room, while we talked strategy, the bonding of my college years reached a new high. This ornery, indecipherable man who had put me through so much — who got me to do things I didn’t think I could do, who got me to beat a national champion, who got empty rooms to speak — would be there with me. I would leave it all on that track.
I lost. I found out one more time that some people can run faster than you can. Wayne Lemmons from USC beat me by a step, costing the team four points, half the total it lost by, to a USC squad that hadn’t lost a dual meet in more than 10 years. I got the paw and the “Good race,” but I was crushed. When I later came to think about that race, knowing that I had given my all, plus 10 percent, including three and a half years of preparation, I concluded that, win or lose, finding the extra 10 percent within yourself is what matters.
By the time my college years wound to their end, I had lost far more races than I had won. But a part of me insisted that it wasn’t so much that I had not achieved success. I had just used up my eligibility. If winning on the track were just around the corner, it would have to be done on some other team, and that saddened me.
Looking back on all those workouts, I realize that once you got past the oddities, Bowerman was a wonder in many ways. He had no assistant coach, no secretary. He tailored individual workout sheets written in longhand for each of his 35 athletes every week of the school year. In my four years, that amounted to 4,200 individualized workout sheets. About 120 of them were mine.
At the end of the four years, I had progressed to the level at which I could ask the question, Why the tough treatment of the new guys? All those guys kicked off the team?
Of course I received an understated answer: “Because the most important thing for any teacher is to get the student’s attention.”
I understood it, but an aura of mystery also existed about him that I could not crack, a part that always remained hidden. I concluded that after he had gained a student’s attention, he had to find means to make sure it did not wander. A little like Samson and his hair — if he lost the mystery, he couldn’t teach.
On my last day on campus, it was time to say good–bye. I would, I thought, not see him much any more.
I prepared for that last meeting. I had gotten an A in my one term of speech; this would be the real final for that course. I typed what I wanted to say, one full page. I memorized it, including the gestures. This was my heartfelt thanks for all that he had meant on so many levels.
I walked down the hallway to his office for the last time — the corridor where already so many of the greats had walked, their pictures on the walls — and went in. It was a modest office on reflection, but a certain aura issued from it. In four years ice had turned to warmth, punishment to encouragement and hope. Yet it was still an intimidating place, especially with him right there.
I wondered, Why would he care, this coach of the greats, the man who would later become head coach of the U.S. Olympic team?
So I stood there, shifting my weight from one leg to the other, and I choked. Finally I managed, “Well … it’s been an honor … Thanks…” and stuck out my hand.
He shook it firmly, and I turned to go.
“Just a minute,” he said. I turned back.
“You’ve meant a lot to this university, not just in running. It is indebted to you.”
A speech. He gave me a speech longer than the first pep talk I heard him give the team. I had to get out of there. I turned again. “Just one more thing,” he said. I turned back once more.
“Never underestimate yourself.”
When I got outside, I was still shaking. As I had with so much of his stuff I would have a long time to think about that final moment in his office.
After my college years he came to be accepted as the greatest track coach of all time. It should have been no surprise he found greatness in overlooked young men from the smallest, most overlooked towns of Oregon: Coos Bay, Cottage Grove, St. Helens, Oregon City, North Eugene, Scappoose, Sherwood, Seaside, Siuslaw.
A part of me connects with those young men who came out of nowhere. Bowerman looked inside us and mystifyingly placed his belief in us, and then one day we were capable of more than we knew. And the ones he found worthy began to repeat this process on their own.
For me the journey resumed in an unforeseen and circuitous way.
After an active–duty tour in the Army and sitting in an entrepreneurship class at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1962, I wondered, Hmmm, could Bowerman’s search for a better running shoe be a business?
Four and a half years after that “final” moment in his office, I showed Bowerman track–shoe samples made in Japan. What did he think? The response was better than I had expected. We each put in $500 and shook hands on a partnership.
The next several years were a struggle. Our “executives” were ex–runners and lawyers and accountants who couldn’t work for establishment firms. Our marketing and sales efforts consisted of skinny white kids selling shoes out of their cars in Oregon and California.
One of my old marketing professors came up and reviewed operations for a couple of days. He declared, “Management is a shambles. Every day is a crisis, and every Friday a Jesus Crisis.”
One week the only way we could meet our payroll was to borrow $5,000 from a shoe–box manufacturer.
We were thrown out of two banks in Oregon, and at that time Oregon had only two banks. One of them advised, “You are so far overdrawn in so many accounts, we have notified the FBI.”
Nissho Iwai, the sixth–largest Japanese trading company, picked us up off the side of the road. It was a better arrangement. Tom Sumeragi, who became a friend, was assigned to our account. If we couldn’t pay, he left the invoices buried in his drawer. When I asked why he did that, he said, “Because I personally believe you will someday do $10 million in sales.”
And of course the big one: Eight years after we started, after we had overcome all those other obstacles, we lost our sole source of supply.
But you see, so many of us back then had come off Bowerman’s teams. The obstacles the world was throwing at us, well, they were just the business version of hazing. What mattered, what always mattered, was our competitive response.
Lose your source of supply? Find another one. This time do it your way, under your own brand name. But what name? Jeff Johnson suggested naming the brand after the Greek goddess of victory. Would that work? But it’s also a surface–to–air missile. Could that connote speed? It wasn’t great, but like the shoe–side logo we were starting to call the Swoosh, maybe it would grow on us. Fight hard.
Today more hard–core young runners come to visit Hayward Field than ever before. They come for a talk with the ghosts, the ones from the Olympic trials of 1972, 1976 and 1980 and all those national and invitational meets. They take in the west grandstand, which seems to have come right out of Chariots of Fire. They walk around the urethane track where Lee Evans, John Smith, Marion Jones, Hicham El Guerrouj and, of course, Steve Prefontaine raced. Then they wander to the north corner, where the life–size statue of Bowerman oversees everything. Always they run their hands over the statue, hoping some of the magic will rub off.
The silences are permanent now.
Yet over all these years I have communicated with and heard much about many of those old runners. Many went back to their small towns. They became doctors, lawyers, architects, farmers, educators, business leaders and, in at least one case, writers. They’ve survived divorces and dashed hopes. We cannot shake the voice, the voice that at various times came out of voids — the empty rooms, the unfinished sentences, the unreadable workout schedules. Bowerman runs with us still.
Jim Bailey said at a public gathering in 2001, “I have let him down many times. Never he me.” Bailey, channeling Bowerman, wasn’t talking about his track career but about the race inside. It applied to everything you cared about. Competitive responses honed. The aspirations we didn’t dig deep enough for, didn’t fight hard enough for.
In the end, this is what he taught us: It’s never just about how fast you move your legs.