Bill Bowerman’s legacy in track & field is undeniable. He served as the University of Oregon’s head track & field coach from 1949-72 and remained active at the University even as the shoe company he cofounded, Nike®, grew into a global sports giant.
Bowerman was born in Portland and graduated from Medford High School before attending the University of Oregon. At Oregon, he played basketball and football and joined USTFCCCA Hall of Famer Bill Hayward‘s Ducks as a quarter-miler. After graduation in 1935, he began his coaching career at the high school level, first in Portland and then as the head football and track & field coach at Medford. He continued to coach at the high school level until 1948, with an interruption while he served in the Army during World War II.
In 1948, Bowerman returned to his alma mater, and a year later, with Hayward retiring, Oregon hired him as the head track & field and cross country coach. Over the next 23 years, the Ducks experienced new levels of success, winning four national team titles and finishing twice as runner-up. Individually, Bowerman’s athletes were equally successful; he coached 24 NCAA individual champs, 23 Olympians, 64 All Americans, 13 world records, and 23 American records. Among his Olympians were Gold Medalist Otis Davis, Dyrol Burleson, Jim Grelle, Bronze Medalist (and Hall of Famer) Bill Dellinger, Ken Moore, Wade Bell, and the late Steve Prefontaine. Fellow USTFCCCA Hall of Famer “Red” Estes threw shot put and discus as a member of Bowerman’s squads and later began his coaching career as co-track coach of the Oregon freshman squad in 1959.
Bowerman’s contributions extended far beyond the University of Oregon. In 1962, Bowerman and fellow Hall of Famers Don Canham (Michigan) and Oliver Jackson (Abilene Christian) founded the U.S. Track & Field Federation. He served as President of the track coaches association from 1959-60 and as head track & field coach for the 1972 Olympic Team. He also played a leading role in Eugene’s successful bids to host the 1972, 1976, and 1980 Olympic trials. Bowerman was inducted into the USATF Hall of Fame in 1981.
Bowerman also helped inspire the jogging boom in the U.S. in the 1970s. During a trip to New Zealand in the 1960s with the Oregon track team, Bowerman witnessed the jogging boom in that country, which led him to write a book on jogging and to start the country’s first jogging/running club in Eugene. As the cofounder of Nike®, Bowerman also achieved international recognition. He famously invented the waffle sole by pouring rubber on his wife’s waffle iron.
Although Bowerman’s tenure at Oregon is long over, his impact on the University, on track & field, and on the global sports arena continues to be felt.
In honor of his many accomplishments, The Bowerman was introduced in 2009 by the USTFCCCA. The award is annually given to the most outstanding male and female collegiate track & field athlete. The first trophies were awarded to Galen Rupp of the University of Oregon and Jenny Barringer of the University of Colorado.
Bowerman passed away on December 24, 1999, at the age of 88.