Bowerman, 82, is a millionaire several times over from his Nike stock and is now vice-chairman of the board. The public road in front of the gateway gap in the berm in Beaverton is called Bowerman Drive. Knight quotes his tough-minded coach every so often, but the Nike figure whose memory and myth evoke the most palpable emotions among company veterans is the charismatic and free-spirited distance runner Steve Prefontaine, who died in a car accident in 1975. Inside the museum room of the Steve Prefontaine Center, visitors can see display cases holding the yellowed shoe molds upon which Prefontaine's customized track shoes were made, There is a letter from the AAU warning Prefontaine to take the word NIKE off his shirt because it violated rules, which he violated all the time.
Prefontaine held seven American records when he died at the age of 24. "To many he was the greatest U.S. middle-distance runner ever, but to me he was more than that," Knight intoned in a somber voice-over for an in-house film produced last year. "Pre was a rebel from a working-class background, a guy full of cockiness and pride and guts. Pre's spirit is the cornerstone of this company's soul." If Knight is Nike's Walt Disney, then Pretaine—forever running fast with Sergeant Pepper sideburns and long hair flowing behind him—lives on as its very own James Dean.
Not long after Pre died, less serious runners began to hit the roads alongside the distance geeks, and the Nike variation on the American Dream soared into the public consciousness. Knight refers to the eight years after Prefontaine's death as "the halcyon days."
By the mid-'70s Bowerman—apocryphal though the details of the legend may be—had poured some liquid latex into his wife's waffle iron one morning before breakfast, thereby inventing the famous sole that made the earliest Nikes feel like bedroom slippers. People who would have had trouble running out of the path of an oncoming vehicle suddenly wanted to jog in a pair of shoes with this new impact-absorbing sole. In 1980 the wild and crazy guys of Nike pulled in $269 million and replaced Adidas as the No. 1 sneaker company in the U.S.
In those years Nike nourished a rogue culture that was predicated on Pre's antiauthoritarian impulses, a determination to work day and night and an equally impressive determination to pursue a good time after hours. In a corporate history entitled Swoosh, authors J.B. Strasser and Laurie Becklund mention beer bashes, a lot of passing out and throwing up and even a case of executive bed-wetting in pursuit of separating the company from staid corporate traditions. "Managers drank and danced and closed the bar every night," Strasser and Becklund wrote. "Even the heads of the company wore jeans and played Frisbee on the big green lawns." Swoosh carries a photo of Knight during the halcyon days arriving at a Nike event in drag.
Nike became a publicly traded company in December 1980. Several families that had pitched in $5,000 each when Knight was scrambling for capital early on ended up with Nike shares worth $3 million. Those shares are worth $30 million today.
Not long after the company went public, Nike pioneers sensed a change setting in. "I felt useless," recalls Johnson. "I'd been elevated about 40 levels above my proper place—designing and selling shoes. I was being wheeled out for corporate dog and pony shows like a museum piece: 'Here's our first employee!' "
So in 1983 Johnson, then 41, left Nike, and he was followed by several other original employees a few years later. "They were all millionaires, so they didn't have to put up with the frustrations of transition to a managed company," says Knight.
Not long afterward Nike went into a deep slump. Knight says the company "lost its way." Serious athletes wanted Nikes on their feet, and company leaders believed that meant their shoes were the best. "Nike athletes won 65 medals at the 1984 Olympics," says Farris. "We were growing by tens and then hundreds of millions of dollars at a leap, but with no internal changes to back up the growth."
Nike's ace marketing man at the time, Rob Strasser (the husband of the Swoosh coauthor), was heard to proclaim back then that a serious sports company like Nike would never "make shoes for those fags who like aerobics." But Nike employees sitting in airports and looking at feet on urban streets saw nothing but aerobic shoes—flimsy white ones made by another upstart company, called Reebok.