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Kenny Moore
August 14, 1972
Olympic Track Coach Bill Bowerman motivates his athletes by quoting Scripture, by cursing, by classical allusions, by practical jokes, by cheating
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August 14, 1972

Fishing In The Rivers Of Men's Minds

Olympic Track Coach Bill Bowerman motivates his athletes by quoting Scripture, by cursing, by classical allusions, by practical jokes, by cheating

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Bowerman's humor seems to flow from an overpowering desire to consternate. A steeplechaser once found caddis fly larvae in the water jump. Bowerman ordered him to interrupt his workout to collect several dozen, which he surreptitiously introduced into the indoor fountain in a crony's law office. In the warm water, the larvae soon emerged as diaphanous-winged insects. Bill paid frequent calls, beaming at the spectacle of the hatch and the frantic secretaries. Too, each year when the circus visits the basketball court, Bowerman associates arc apt to receive large, gift-wrapped boxes of elephant droppings.

This frightening joviality unities the often diverse personalities of his athletes, if only in self-defense. Bowerman values a sense of common purpose, and annually takes his team to a relatively isolated retreat for a week of "coming together." Dressed in baggy shorts, an aromatic T shirt and some touch of the outlandish—a beret, perhaps, or a pair of enormous, hexagonal women's sunglasses—he leads his party aboard a chartered bus and gives wearying, pun-filled commentaries on the flora, fauna, history and legend of the passing countryside.

The vigor of the man captures the loyalty of many of his athletes. The day before the 1963 NCAA cross-country race in East Lansing, Mich., the first that Oregon runners had ever entered, Bowerman jogged the four-mile course with his team, pointing out potential dangers and likely spots at which to pass. The other coaches stood on a knoll and smoked cigars. There were no Steve Prefontaines on the Oregon team then, but it finished second. "Bill communicated a sense of confidence," recalls Clayton Steinke who, in 11th place, was the Ducks' first finisher. "He cared enough to go out and see what it was going to be like for us. And seeing those other coaches puffing away on the hill made it more than a race. It was a contest of life-styles."

Bob Newland, the 1972 Olympic Trials' meet director, played quarterback and high-jumped for Bowerman. He remembers football at Medford: "Bill always encouraged us to think and react on our own. He never called the plays from the sidelines, but there was an aura of dead certainty when we talked about game plans. He was such a student of the sport and of our opponents that we were absolutely convinced anything he suggested would go all the way. In practice most coaches act like infantry commanders: they like to sec the bodies fly. Not Bill. He taught us how to hit, but we really did it only in the games. That way we kept all those fine athletes who like to play football but hate getting beaten up every day."

Bill Freeman, a graduate student, finds the man's sheer competitiveness his most pervasive trait. "Even his interest in jogging [ Bowerman coauthored a book on the subject which has sold over a million copies], to all appearances the least competitive aspect of running, had a competitive origin," Freeman says. "Bill was touring New Zealand in 1963 with his world-record four-mile relay team when he took his first jog and found himself running with a 73-year-old man. He soon learned the old man was holding back and staying with him out of kindness. That old man beat me,' he said. That's not going to happen again.' After that he ran every day, and on his return to Eugene he began his jogging experiments."

Bowerman constantly foments small competitions with his athletes. "But always under his rules," says Jim Grelle, an Olympian and former American mile record-holder (3:55.4). "He badgered me to race him a 220 for weeks, and when I accepted, he gave me the outside lane and told me over and over again that I'd run a poor race if I looked back." Suspicious, Grelle looked back and saw Bowerman cutting across the infield.

Bowerman's success has not been limited to guiding champions. He has advanced the state of his art in several technical areas, chiefly through incessant experimentation. He did the earliest—and smelliest—research in rubber-asphalt surfaces and devised elastic cloth tops for practice hurdles so runners could work closely over the barriers without bruising knees and ankles. A skilled cobbler, he has done prototype work on training and racing shoes for several large manufacturers and has made lightweight shoes for his milers out of snakeskin. Recently he developed a special, shock-absorbent "waffle" shoe for use on artificial surfaces.

These putterings seldom proceed smoothly. Barbara's waffle iron fell victim to a batch of urethane, destined for shoe soles, which cooked too long and bonded it shut. In the early '50s Bowerman found that long underwear, like a wet suit, keeps a runner warmer in the Oregon rain than do bulkier sweat pants, so he outfitted his Ducks in long white drawers. In the following days he was swamped with calls from indignant matrons, protesting the indecency of such attire. Bill stopped the fuss by dyeing the long Johns green.

One August, before the advent of Gatorade, Bowerman tried to develop a liquid that would replenish a marathoner's salt and other essentials lost in sweat. He sent one slender guinea pig six miles under a beating sun and prepared a mixture of lemonade, salt, honey and tea which, when fed to the panting runner, was promptly spewed across the track.

"What do you think this is, the Cordon Bleu?" Bowerman said. "If it makes you run faster, that should be enough." Later, he sampled it himself. "It does taste like sheep's urine," he admitted.

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