This month, C4IP is recognizing Bill Bowerman, a collegiate track coach and co-founder of Nike, Inc., who revolutionized sport and style with his invention of the modern athletic shoe.
William Jay “Bill” Bowerman Jr. was born in Portland, Oregon in 1911. He attended Medford High School and later the University of Oregon, where he excelled on both the football and track teams. After graduating college, Bowerman returned to his former high school to serve as its track and football coach before enlisting in the U.S. Army to fight in World War II.
Upon returning from the war, Bowerman accepted the head track coaching position at his alma mater and embarked on a storied career. During his 24-year tenure at Oregon, Bowerman coached four national championship teams, with his runners setting numerous records and achieving Olympic success. But perhaps Bowerman’s most significant achievement came when he teamed up with his former student Phil Knight to found the Beaverton-based shoe company Blue Ribbon Sports in 1964 — better known today as the sportswear giant Nike.
Bowerman’s coaching success was underpinned by his commitment to innovate and maximize his team’s competitive advantage. This mindset played a pivotal role in his success designing shoes for Nike. Striving to create a track shoe that offered both support and lightweight performance without relying on metal spikes for traction, Bowerman ingeniously used his wife’s waffle maker to create a prototype with a studded rubber outsole, which he patented in 1974. The resulting shoe — the “Waffle Trainer” — was Nike’s first major breakthrough as a company.
Today, the market for athletic shoes is estimated at over $111 billion globally. In that market, Nike is by far the largest player, with some estimates attributing more than a third of the market share. Beyond footwear, the culture of product innovation that began with Bowerman has propelled Nike to become one of the world’s most prominent brands. As of September 2023, Nike employs 83,000 people worldwide and is valued at nearly $145 billion.