Bill Bowerman, 88, a former high school, university and Olympic track coach whose quest for a better running shoe led him to co-found what became the giant Nike athletic shoe company, has died. A spokesman for Nike said Mr. Bowerman died in his sleep Friday night or Saturday morning at his home in Fossil, Ore. The cause of death was not reported.
Mr. Bowerman played basketball and football during his four years at the University of Oregon and ran track his last two years. After graduating in 1934, he coached at Oregon high schools before returning to the university as its track coach in 1948. He was a legendary success at Oregon, with a career that culminated in 1972, when he coached the U.S. Olympic track team before retiring.
In 1964, he and a former university track miler, Phil Knight, decided to form a company to market an improved track shoe the coach had designed. Mr. Bowerman was inspired by the thought that a miler takes an average of more than 3,200 strides in a race, so for every ounce a shoe's weight could be reduced, the runner would have to lift 200 pounds less.
In 1972, a watershed of sorts occurred when Mr. Bowerman pressed foam rubber in his wife's waffle iron, which led to the birth of a new generation of running shoe with enormously increased traction. Later innovations included specially wedged heals, cushioned mid-soles and nylon uppers.
The U.S. market long had been dominated by rubber-sole shoes called "sneakers" that had been made by U.S. Rubber under its Keds label since 1917. By the 1960s, two German companies, Adidas and Puma, had taken the majority of the market.
Mr. Bowerman and Knight began competing with the giants with Japanese-made shoes, made with cheap, overseas labor, that the Americans marketed and eventually designed. What began as Tiger shoes evolved into other brand names, including the Marathon and the Cortez. In 1968, the operation evolved into Nike--named for the Greek goddess of victory--and a multibillion-dollar sales operation.
Business historians have chronicled how the Oregon partners parlayed their way to success on a financial shoestring, a bit of luck, an almost athletic drive and Mr. Bowerman's reputation with his fellow coaches.
Mr. Bowerman sold his first shoes through other coaches, promising an improved product, backed largely by his word. Luck struck in the form of 1972 Olympic track trials in Eugene, Ore. Athletes returned home praising the little-known shoe company. The company's first great marketing triumph occurred at the 1972 Olympics where, it was later trumpeted, "four of the top seven finishers" in the marathon trials ran in Nike shoes. In fact, it came out that the top three winners actually had worn Adidas shoes, but it hardly distracted from the hoopla.
In fact, a kind of shoe mania was born in which athletic shoes were suddenly a fashion statement, worn not only on athletic fields but also in the classroom--and finally in the boardroom. The company took on an image and attitude that played to a competing America.
With slogans such as "Just Do It" and sports icons such as Chicago Bulls basketball player Michael Jordan as advertising spokesmen, the Nike shoe took on an aura of its own. As a tool of the best athletes and the shoe of the hippest younger generation, it seemed to become the hottest item in the male wardrobe.
A downside to this success were stories from the nation's inner cities of youths being assaulted and even killed by people stealing the highly prized shoes. There also were stories about the shoes being made by poorly paid foreign workers to be sold at ever-increasing prices.
But the company was an undeniable American success story.
Mr. Bowerman retired from the Nike board of directors this year. In October, the company issued a statement saying that a silhouette of Mr. Bowerman, in his old Tyrolean hat, would appear on Nike running shoes, along with a smaller "swoosh," the company's trademark symbol.
Upon learning of Mr. Bowerman's death, Knight, the Nike chairman, called him the biggest influence on his life after his parents. "He was for so many of us a hero, leader and most of all teacher," Knight said.
During his years at Oregon, Mr. Bowerman won NCAA outdoor championships in 1970 and three times in the 1960s. Both his 440-yard and four-mile relay teams set world records in 1962, and 10 of the runners he coached broke the four-minute mile. His 1972 Olympic team won six gold medals.
He co-wrote, along with heart specialist Waldo Harris, the 1967 book "Jogging," which sold more than 1 million copies and was translated into six languages. The book has been credited with helping to introduce jogging to the American public.