Never Done Listening
Department of Nike Archives
Bill Bowerman wasn't just an innovator … he was also a problem-solver, and he taught us all that no matter how big or small a problem is, the first step is to listen …
When Bill Bowerman started as the coach for the University of Oregon track team in 1948, most running shoes looked like a pair of leather dress shoes with nails driven through the soles. A relentless learner, Bill studied everything from anatomy to material composition, looking for ways to improve on the designs of the day. However, when he contacted running-shoe manufacturers with his ideas, few, if any, were willing to listen.
So Bill hit the workbench. Whether he was cobbling together a unique pair with uppers made from snakeskin, deer hide or fish skin or pulling all the spikes out of an existing shoe to reposition them for a specific runner, he was always hunting for new ways to make shoes lighter, faster and more efficient with every step.
Hayward Field, the legendary track at U of O, was a proving ground for these experiments. Bill had a small office under the bleachers with a door that opened right onto Lane 8, the outside lane of the track. Legend has it that Bill would often poke his head out of the door and call over some unsuspecting freshman to field test his latest invention. Whether that resulted in foot cramps for days or a breakthrough for Bill, he always made sure he got a detailed report from his runners and took that data into consideration for his next version.
"I still bother with runners I call hamburgers. They're never going to run any record times. But they can fulfil their own potential".—Bill Bowerman
When future Olympic marathoner and U of O runner Kenny Moore broke his foot out on a run, Bill tore apart the running shoes he was wearing and discovered that a lack of arch support in the middle had contributed to Moore's stress fracture. Setting to work, Bill made a shoe with soft sponge rubber in the heel and forefoot, a cushioned inner sole and a firm rubber outsole for Kenny to wear as he recovered. The result would eventually become the Nike Cortez, one of the most iconic and best-selling running shoes ever created.
A prototype built for Kenny Moore (pictured) would inspire the legendary Nike Cortez.
U of O runners weren't the only ones who benefitted from Bill's drive to solve small problems each day. When the bleachers at Hayward Field were being remodelled, Bill moved his workbench to the basement of a medical building in downtown Eugene. Bill would create specific shoes for the orthopaedic needs of patients in the building and, in exchange, he sent his runners up to the X-ray machines to get detailed imagery of their foot bones so he could build unique spike patterns for each person.
Bill reportedly never wanted to be referred to as an "innovator", preferring to be called a "problem-solver" instead. While his work certainly pushed the world of shoe design forward by leaps and bounds, he realised that true innovation never happens in a vacuum. First you listen. Then you see the problem. Then you find the solution, and if you're lucky, it changes the world.