#153 Bill Bowerman Nike

Summary Notes


In this discussion, Bill Bowerman, Oregon's legendary track coach and Nike's co-founder, is celebrated for his transformative impact on athletics and his unorthodox training philosophy. Renowned for his "hard easy" method and disdain for overtraining, Bowerman emphasized individualized coaching, prioritizing optimum performance through stress, recovery, and improvement. Despite his abrasive nature and numerous attempts to resign, his partnership with Phil Knight was instrumental in Nike's rise, as he relentlessly pursued the creation of lighter, superior running shoes. His legacy is captured poignantly in an unsent letter of admiration to Knight, revealing a deep mutual respect. Kenny Moore, one of Bowerman's athletes and the author of his story, reflects on the coach's profound influence, underscoring the power of consistency, independence, and focus in achieving greatness.

Summary Notes

Bauerman's Philosophy on Training and Personal Development

  • Bauerman viewed training as a simple yet often misunderstood process.
  • He emphasized the importance of stress, recovery, and improvement in training.
  • Bauerman believed that most people fail not because of the complexity of training, but because of overtraining, insufficient rest, and distractions like a liberal education.
  • He expressed skepticism about the ability of individuals to listen to good advice without first having their attention fully captured.
  • Bauerman did not have a central organizing principle but rather a central organizing parable to convey his message.

"Men of Oregon take a primitive organism, any weak, pitiful organism, say a freshman. Make it lift or jump or run. Let it rest. What happens? A little miracle. It gets a little better. It gets a little stronger or faster or more enduring. That's all training is. Stress, recover, improve."

The quote explains Bauerman's fundamental approach to training, focusing on the cycle of exerting stress on the body, allowing for recovery, and then experiencing improvement.

"You work too hard and you rest too little and you get hurt. You yield to the temptations of a liberal education and burn your candle at both ends, and then you get mono."

This quote underscores the common pitfalls Bauerman observed in athletes: overexertion, lack of rest, and external distractions leading to burnout or illness.

"It does help to have someone wise in the ways of candles to steady you as you grope toward the light. That would be me."

Bauerman positions himself as a guide for athletes, helping them navigate the balance between work and rest.

"You cannot just tell somebody what's good for him. He won't listen. He will not listen. First you have to get his attention."

Bauerman acknowledges the challenge in imparting wisdom to others, emphasizing the need to capture their attention before they will take advice to heart.

Bauerman and Phil Knight's Relationship

  • Bauerman's influence on Phil Knight, the co-founder of Nike, is highlighted.
  • Phil Knight attributes much of Nike's success to Bauerman's innovations.
  • Bauerman is compared to historical figures of great innovation and creativity.
  • The relationship between Bauerman and Knight is an example of mentorship and its impact on personal and professional growth.

"I wonder if he knew, if he had any clue that he was the, I think you pronounce it dadalus, the dataless of sneakers, that he was making history, remaking an industry, transforming the way athletes would run and stop and jump for generations."

Phil Knight reflects on Bauerman's legacy and wonders if Bauerman realized the extent of his impact on the athletic world.

"There would be no Nike without Bauerman."

This quote from Phil Knight acknowledges the foundational role Bauerman played in the creation and success of Nike.

Bauerman's Coaching Style and Impact on Athletes

  • Bauerman is described as a teacher rather than a coach, preferring to impart knowledge and self-discovery rather than just instruction.
  • He valued the individual needs of athletes, tailoring his approach to each person.
  • Bauerman's focus on rest and recovery was innovative for the time and is credited with the success of many athletes.
  • The story of Bauerman's interaction with Kenny Moore, one of his athletes, illustrates his unorthodox but effective coaching methods.

"Bauerman, then 53, had coached six sub four minute milers at the University of Oregon and had won the 1962 NCAA track and field championship."

This quote highlights Bauerman's accomplishments as a coach and his reputation for developing top athletes.

"Bauerman thought of himself as an educator. He scorned recruiting and almost never gave full scholarships. Anyone can be taught, he said, those who don't, expect a handout."

Bauerman's philosophy as a coach was to focus on teaching and developing athletes rather than recruiting based on talent alone.

"In theory, as a coach, he should have been as interested in motivating the lazy as mellowing the mad, but he wasn't. He regarded the most frustrating athlete as the gifted, but casual. The gifted but casual as beyond any real help."

Bauerman preferred to work with athletes who were eager and driven rather than those who relied solely on their natural talent.

Bauerman's Innovations and Contributions to Athletics

  • Bauerman's innovations in running shoes and athletic gear were crucial to the development of Nike.
  • He was hands-on in his approach, cobbling shoes and designing clothing to optimize performance.
  • Bauerman's dedication to understanding every aspect of athletic performance set him apart from his peers.

"Disdainful of the weight and nonexistent cushioning of running shoes in the 1950s, he had taken up cobbling and made us three ounce spikes that lasted one race."

This quote demonstrates Bauerman's dissatisfaction with the status quo in athletic footwear and his proactive approach to creating better equipment for his athletes.

"We had no inkling that these were the beginning of Nike's vast success, but we knew we had better shoes than anyone else."

The athletes coached by Bauerman were aware of the superior quality of the shoes he made, which would eventually lead to the success of Nike.

Bauerman's Personal Philosophy and Life Approach

  • Bauerman's laconic nature and preference for one-on-one interactions are described.
  • His pioneer heritage influenced his worldview and approach to challenges.
  • Bauerman's early life experiences shaped his desire for independence and self-reliance.

"The cowards never started and the weak died along the way. That leaves us."

Bauerman's quote reflects his belief in resilience and the survival of the fittest, drawing parallels between pioneer hardships and the challenges faced by athletes.

"On the first day of first grade, the teacher asks, can you write your name? Bill cried out, that's what I came here to learn."

This anecdote from Bauerman's childhood showcases his assertiveness and desire to learn, traits that would define his approach to coaching and life.

Early Life and Challenges of Bill Bauerman

  • Bill Bauerman grew up in Fossil, Oregon, a small town with a population of about 500.
  • Bauerman was known for his strong, independent spirit and refusal to conform to expectations.
  • He experienced significant trauma in his youth, including the death of his twin brother in an elevator accident.
  • Bauerman was rebellious and frequently got into fights, leading to disciplinary issues at school.

"He seemed to imply that he was so fired by his own wild yearnings, so temper torn, that obedience had been impossible. The ranch life of fossil taught its children to close off, no options, to presume nothing is impossible."

This quote explains the rebellious nature of Bauerman and how his upbringing in a small town instilled a belief that nothing was impossible, shaping his approach to life.

Turning Point with Ursul Hedrick

  • Bauerman's life was significantly influenced by Ursul Hedrick, a World War I marine mule skinner and artillery officer who became a pivotal figure during Bauerman's time at school.
  • Hendrick's confrontational approach and stark warning about Bauerman's future prompted a major change in Bauerman's behavior.
  • Hendrick's guidance led Bauerman to focus his energy on productive activities such as studies and sports, which had a lifelong impact on him.

"The only thing wrong with that, meaning dying in a fight in a barroom, is that you'll dishonor a goddamn worthwhile human being. Bill's head came up. Who? Elizabeth Hoover. Bauerman."

Hendrick's words made Bauerman realize the potential dishonor his actions could bring to his mother's name, prompting him to change his ways and control himself.

Influence of Bill Hayward

  • Bill Hayward, a track coach, became a mentor and blueprint for Bauerman's future coaching style.
  • Bauerman admired Hayward's innovative approach to sports medicine and his individualized treatment of athletes.
  • Hayward's logical approach to coaching and focus on biomechanics deeply influenced Bauerman's philosophy.

"Hayward declared his personal life off limits. We dilute the word and usually demean the subject when we call someone a character. But Hayward's eccentricity invited it and he didn't seem to mind."

This quote illustrates the unique character of Hayward, which Bauerman emulated in his own coaching career, respecting the privacy and individuality of each athlete.

Bauerman's Coaching Philosophy

  • Bauerman emphasized training athletes as individuals rather than as a team, believing that group workouts could be counterproductive.
  • His "hard easy" method was initially despised by other coaches but focused on optimizing performance through intelligent training.
  • Bauerman's approach was to celebrate optimum rather than maximum effort, a philosophy he applied to his coaching and later to shoe design.

"The greatest improvement is made by the man who works most intelligently."

Bauerman challenged the prevailing coaching dogma by advocating for smart, tailored training that focused on individual needs and optimal stress levels.

Early Shoe Making and the Genesis of Nike

  • Bauerman began experimenting with making shoes to improve athletic performance.
  • He recognized the importance of shoe weight in running and sought to create lighter shoes to benefit his athletes.
  • Phil Knight, one of Bauerman's athletes, was deeply influenced by Bauerman's tenacity and approach to overcoming challenges.

"I wanted the shoes as light as if I drove nails through your bare feet."

This quote demonstrates Bauerman's obsession with reducing the weight of athletic shoes to enhance performance, a key factor in the success of Nike.

Phil Knight's Relentlessness and the Spirit of Nike

  • Phil Knight's experience with Bauerman at the University of Oregon shaped his relentless nature and business approach.
  • Knight's time at Oregon introduced him to a higher standard of performance and reality, which he carried into his professional life.
  • Nike was born from the combination of Bauerman's innovative spirit and Knight's relentless pursuit of excellence.

"Not simply the shock, but the way to respond. He attached such honor to not giving up, to doing my utmost."

The quote reflects the ethos that Bauerman instilled in his athletes, including Phil Knight, which became foundational to the culture and success of Nike. Bauerman's emphasis on perseverance and striving for one's best had a profound impact on Knight and the creation of the Nike brand.

Athletics and Business Ambition

  • Bauerman admired for his relentless pursuit of excellence.
  • Phil Knight's goal was to overtake Adidas, the market leader in athletic shoes.
  • The challenge was akin to overtaking Apple in the phone industry today.

"To call it, masking his relentlessness with his quiet demeanor. He would not rest until he competed to the ultimate level in something, and that was his. I had forgotten that his goal was, I'm going to overtake Adidas." "That be comparable today saying right now, hey, I'm going to start a company that makes phones better than Apple. That's how far ahead. Adidas was the benchmark."

The quotes emphasize Bauerman's relentless character and Phil Knight's ambitious goal to surpass Adidas, which was the dominant brand in athletic shoes at the time, similar to Apple's dominance in the phone market today.

Learning and Adaptation

  • Bauerman valued learning from others and adapting their successful strategies.
  • He met Coach Lydiard in New Zealand and learned about the benefits of long runs.
  • Bauerman was humbled by the fitness of ordinary people in New Zealand, including a 73-year-old man.

"Bauerman does the same thing. So he meets this coach in New Zealand and he says, I thought a cross country race was going on. Bauerman would recall, but there were men, women, children, all ages, all sizes." "Lydiard's famous dictum was, train, don't strain. And it's from the trip to New Zealand that another."

Bauerman's experience in New Zealand taught him the value of long-distance running for everyone, not just athletes. The experience with Lydiard and the Auckland Joggers club influenced his perspective on training and exercise.

Popularizing Jogging in America

  • Bauerman credited with popularizing the concept of jogging in the United States.
  • He wrote a book called "Jogging" which sold over a million copies.
  • His realization in New Zealand that exercise was beneficial for all was a turning point.

"In New Zealand, thousands of people jog, Bill said. The women jog, the kids jog, everybody jogs." "Originally a nation of pioneers accustomed to hard physical labor, America in the mid 20th century had become a society that actively condemned adult fitness."

These quotes reflect Bauerman's surprise at the widespread popularity of jogging in New Zealand and his efforts to bring that culture to America, where adult fitness was not widely embraced at the time.

The Early Stigma of Running

  • Runners were seen as eccentric or subversive in mid-20th century America.
  • Runners faced hostility and suspicion, including being targeted by drivers and questioned by police.

"During the day, cars would routinely swerve to try to drive a runner off the road, and running at night was deemed suspicious enough to warrant being stopped by a police cruiser and held until phone calls ascertained that there had been no burglaries in the area."

This quote illustrates the negative perception and treatment of runners in America during that era, highlighting the challenges Bauerman and Phil Knight faced in promoting running and athletic footwear.

The Founding of Nike

  • Nike began as Blue Ribbon Sports, importing Japanese athletic shoes.
  • Bauerman and Knight formed a partnership, with Bauerman contributing shoe design and testing.
  • Knight's vision was that running could make the world a better place.

"He started Nike, he said that he believed that if everyone got out and ran a few miles a day, the world would be a better place." "They shook hands on a partnership. Bill would test and design the shoes, and if they deserved it, pitch them to other coaches."

These quotes show the foundational principles of Nike and the partnership between Bauerman and Knight, focusing on the belief in running's positive impact and the commitment to high-quality athletic shoes.

Focus and Mastery

  • Bauerman emphasized the importance of focusing on one thing at a time.
  • He believed in mastering one element before moving on to the next.

"You can only think of one thing at a time, he'd say. I thought he meant just me, but later on I found it applied to most people."

The quote conveys Bauerman's coaching philosophy of concentrating on one aspect of training at a time, a principle he believed was universally applicable.

Missed Investment Opportunity

  • The author of the book had a chance to invest in Nike but chose not to.
  • This anecdote highlights the uncertainty and risk in the early days of Nike.

"Seriously, Bill, I said man to man, what are the chances of this business really panning out? Kenny, here's how I see it. It's a good idea. Buck's a good partner. The Cortez is a good shoe."

The quote reflects the genuine uncertainty and risk associated with investing in the nascent stages of Nike, even with the promise of a good idea, partnership, and product.

Training Philosophy

  • Bauerman valued consistency over intensity in training.
  • He promoted pacing and gradual improvement rather than immediate results.

"Neil would say was, don't rush it, pace yourself. Take it slow in the beginning in training. Don't go too hard or fast for your body. Do what you can and don't expect to get there all in one day."

Bauerman's advice to an athlete emphasizes the importance of pacing and consistency in training, a philosophy that applies to both sports and life.

Independence and Self-Reliance

  • Bauerman taught athletes to be independent and self-reliant.
  • He believed in empowering athletes to execute their training and make their own decisions.

"It was typical of how Bauerman taught. He gave us our workouts, our lessons, our tactics, but then he gave us the freedom to execute them ourselves."

The quote illustrates Bauerman's educational approach, where he provided guidance but expected athletes to take responsibility for their training and growth.

Handling Athletes' Egos

  • Bauerman dealt with athletes' egos by focusing on preventing mistakes rather than enforcing strict control.
  • He recognized that talent often comes with temperament.

"As a coach, my heart is always divided between pity for the men they wreck and scorn for how easy they are to beat." "Bauerman's view was that intelligent men will be taught more by the vicitudes of life than by a host of artificial training rules."

Bauerman's quotes reveal his belief in the value of life experiences over strict coaching methods and his approach to managing athletes with strong personalities.

The Early Chaos of Nike

  • Nike's early days were marked by disorganization and improvisation.
  • The company faced challenges with inventory, funding, and communication.

"The blue ribbon office, which was his house, where he still lived with his parents, never called me. And when I called there, they said he was never home." "Business expenses were put on personal credit cards. Sales were limited by how many shoes we had, Knightwood recall."

These quotes depict the chaotic and makeshift operations of Nike in its early stages, including the struggles with communication, inventory management, and financial constraints.

Early Days of Nike and Phil Knight's Commitment

  • Phil Knight made a commitment to go full-time with his company if they sold $300,000 worth of product.
  • Despite only reaching $290,000 in sales, Knight considered it close enough to take the leap.
  • Knight and his wife, Penny, faced financial risks as they guaranteed large liabilities without having the assets to cover them.

In the fall of 1969, Knight had at last become a full time employee of his five year old company.

This quote highlights the moment Phil Knight decided to fully commit to Nike, indicating a significant milestone in the company's history.

Challenges and Strategic Moves in Nike's Early Growth

  • Nike faced challenges with their distributor who was reselling their shoes.
  • The distributor's shady practices and threat to cancel the contract prompted Knight and Bauerman to develop their own brand.
  • The urgency of developing a new brand led to the last-minute naming of Nike, a decision made as shoe boxes were about to be printed.

So they start in parallel, developing what eventually becomes Nike.

This quote explains the strategic pivot Nike made in response to distributor issues, which was crucial to their future success and independence.

Phil Knight's Leadership and Perspective

  • Phil Knight had to rally his employees during a critical time when they could no longer resell their main product, tigers.
  • Knight shared a perspective similar to Phil Graham's, focusing on what they could control and turning challenges into opportunities.
  • This mindset was evident when Knight reassured his team that the impending lawsuit and rebranding were not setbacks but rather opportunities.

Phil Knight is saying the same thing that Jeff Johnson hears. Like, yeah, it's scary, but we got him right where we want him.

This quote captures Phil Knight's ability to frame a daunting situation as an advantageous one, demonstrating his leadership and strategic thinking.

Bauerman's Role and Philosophy

  • Bauerman was deeply involved in product development and had a contentious but passionate relationship with the company and its employees.
  • His commitment to producing the best shoes sometimes clashed with the company's operational needs.
  • Bauerman's approach was individualistic, focusing on the unique needs of athletes rather than conforming to standard practices.

Bauerman's role in the company, he has his own lab.

This quote illustrates Bauerman's significant role in Nike's product development and innovation, highlighting his unique contribution to the company.

Bauerman and Johnson's Relationship

  • Johnson and Bauerman had their differences, but a shared dedication to quality and innovation in shoe design helped them collaborate effectively.
  • Bauerman's early morning call to Johnson demonstrated his serious commitment to their work, which improved their working relationship.
  • Both Bauerman and Johnson valued individualized approaches to training and design, which was contrary to the prevailing wisdom of the time.

One morning at 6:30 in the morning, the phone rang. It was Bauerman calmly asking about some unremembered aspect of the shoes they were planning.

This quote conveys Bauerman's intense dedication to his work and the lengths he would go to ensure the quality of Nike's products.

The Impact of Bauerman and Nike's Growth

  • Bauerman's relentless pursuit of excellence in shoe design was both a source of tension and a driving force for Nike's innovation.
  • Despite his many threats to resign, Phil Knight never allowed Bauerman to leave, recognizing his invaluable role in the company.
  • Bauerman's personal health suffered due to his work environment, leading to permanent nerve damage from glue exposure.

Bauerman, giver of soft light shoes to the runners of the world, had in the process rendered himself unable to run in them.

The quote poignantly illustrates the personal sacrifice Bauerman made in his dedication to improving athletic footwear.

Bauerman's Financial Decisions and Legacy

  • Bauerman was advised to diversify his investments rather than keep all his wealth in Nike stock, which potentially limited his financial gains.
  • Despite this, Bauerman was not motivated by wealth and continued to contribute to athletics through donations.
  • Bauerman's commitment to the company and the sports community was evident in his actions and the legacy he left behind.

Imagine being the co-founder of Nike and then being told to diversify.

This quote reflects on the irony of Bauerman being advised to diversify his investments away from the very company he helped create.

Nike's Competitive Spirit and Advertising Strategy

  • Nike's leadership, including Phil Knight, demonstrated a fierce competitive spirit and a commitment to reclaiming market leadership.
  • The company's strategy involved not only creating the best products but also leveraging powerful advertising campaigns.
  • The success of the Air Jordan line exemplified Nike's ability to combine product excellence with effective marketing.

The Air Jordan shoes and campaigns were amazingly successful and brought the company back to preeminence after Reebok said Knight.

This quote underscores the importance of both product quality and marketing in Nike's resurgence as a market leader.

Bauerman's Departure and Enduring Influence

  • Bauerman eventually stepped down from Nike's board after many attempts, with his departure coinciding with the company's immense growth.
  • His death was followed by the discovery of an unsent letter expressing his admiration for Phil Knight's leadership and the team's accomplishments.
  • The story of Bauerman and Nike serves as an inspiration for the power of dedication, innovation, and the human spirit.

I want to tell my partner in sports how much I admire your leadership and the crew or team you have assembled and direct.

This quote from Bauerman's unsent letter to Phil Knight reveals his deep respect and appreciation for Knight's leadership and the success they achieved together.

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