It was going to happen. It needed to happen.

It was going to happen.
It needed to happen.
Penny and I drove to Eugene, where we met up with Johnson, who was
photographing the event. Despite our excitement about the trials, we talked
most about Pre as we took our seats in the packed bleachers. It was clear that
Pre was on everyone else’s mind, too. We heard his name coming from
every direction, and his spirit seemed to hover like the low clouds roiling
above the track. And if you were tempted to forget him, even for a moment,
you got another bracing reminder when you looked at the runners’ feet.
Many were wearing Pre Montreals. (Many more were wearing Exeter-made
products like the Triumph and the Vainqueur. Hayward that day looked like
a Nike showroom.) It was well known that these trials would have been the
start of Pre’s epic comeback. After being knocked down in Munich, he’d
have risen again, no doubt, and the rising would have begun right here, right
now. Each race prompted the same thoughts, the same image: Pre bursting
ahead of the pack. Pre diving through the tape. We could see it. We could see
him flush with victory.
If only, we kept saying, our voices choking, if only.
At sunset the sky turned red, white, and a deep blackish blue. But it was
still bright enough to read by as the runners in the 10,000 meters gathered at
the starting line. Penny and I tried to clear our minds as we stood, hands
clasped as if in prayer. We were counting on Shorter, of course. He was
extremely talented, and he’d been the last person to see Pre alive—it made
sense that he’d be the one to carry Pre’s torch. But we also had Nikes on
Craig Virgin, a brilliant young runner from the University of Illinois, and on
Garry Bjorklund, a lovable veteran from Minnesota, who was trying to come
back from surgery to remove a loose bone in his foot.
The gun went off, the runners shot forward, all bunched tight, and Penny
and I were bunched tight, too, oohing and aahing with every stride. There
wasn’t an inch of separation in the pack until the halfway mark, when
Shorter and Virgin violently pushed ahead. In the jostling, Virgin
accidentally stepped on Bjorklund and sent his Nike flying. Now Bjorklund’s
tender, surgically repaired foot was bare, exposed, smacking the hard track
with every stride. And yet Bjorklund didn’t stop. He didn’t falter. He didn’t
even slow down. He just kept running, faster and faster, and that blazing
show of courage won over the crowd. I think we cheered for him as loudly as
we’d cheered for Pre the year before.
Entering the final lap, Shorter and Virgin were in front. Penny and I were
jumping up and down. “We’re going to get two,” we said, “we’re going to
get two!” And then we got three. Shorter and Virgin took first and second,
and Bjorklund plunged ahead of Bill Rodgers at the tape to take third. I was
covered with sweat. Three Olympians . . . in Nikes!
The next morning, rather than take a victory lap at Hayward, we set up
camp at the Nike store. While Johnson and I mingled with customers,
Penny manned the silk-screen machine and churned out Nike T-shirts. Her
craftsmanship was exquisite; all day long people came in to say they’d seen
someone wearing a Nike T-shirt on the street and they just had to have one
for themselves. Despite our continual melancholy about Pre, we allowed
ourselves to feel joy, because it was becoming clear that Nike was doing
more than making a good show. Nike was dominating those trials. Virgin
took the 5,000 meters in Nikes. Shorter won the marathon in Nikes. Slowly,
in the shop, in the town, we heard people whispering, Nike Nike Nike. We
heard our name more than the name of any athlete. Besides Pre.
Saturday afternoon, walking into Hayward to visit Bowerman, I heard
someone behind me say, “Jeez, Nike is really kicking Adidas’s ass.” It might
have been the highlight of the weekend, of the year, followed closely by the
Puma sales rep I spotted moments later, leaning against a tree and looking
suicidal.
Bowerman was there strictly as a spectator, which was strange for him,
and us. And yet he was wearing his standard uniform: the ratty sweater, the
low ball cap. At one point he formally requested a meeting in a small office
under the east grandstand. The office wasn’t really an office, more like a
closet, where the groundskeepers stored their rakes and brooms and a few
canvas chairs. There was barely room for the coach and Johnson and me,
never mind the others invited by the coach: Hollister, and Dennis Vixie, a
local podiatrist who worked with Bowerman as a shoe consultant. As we shut
the door I noticed Bowerman didn’t look like himself. At Pre’s funeral he’d
seemed old. Now he seemed lost. After a minute of small talk he started
bellowing. He complained that he wasn’t getting any “respect” anymore
from Nike. We’d built him a home lab, and supplied him with a lasting
machine, but he said that he was constantly asking in vain for raw materials
from Exeter.
Johnson looked horrified. “What materials?” he asked.
“I ask for shoe uppers and my requests are ignored!” Bowerman said.
Johnson turned to Vixie. “I sent you the uppers!” he said. “Vixie—didn’t
you get them?”
Vixie looked perplexed. “Yes, I got them.”
Bowerman took off his ball cap, put it back on, took it off. “Yeah, well,”
he grumbled, “but you didn’t send the outer soles.”
Johnson’s face reddened. “I sent those, too! Vixie?”
“Yes,” Vixie said, “we got them.”
Now we all turned to Bowerman, who was pacing, or trying to. There was
no room. The office was dark, but I could still tell that my old coach’s face
was turning red. “Well . . . we didn’t get them on time!” he shouted, and the
tines of the rakes trembled. This wasn’t about uppers and outer soles. This
was about retirement. And time. Like Pre, time wouldn’t listen to Bowerman.
Time wouldn’t slow down. “I’m not going to put up with this bullshit
anymore,” he huffed, and stormed out, leaving the door swinging open.
I looked at Johnson and Vixie and Hollister. They all looked at me. It
didn’t matter if Bowerman was right or wrong, we’d just have to find a way
to make him feel needed and useful. If Bowerman isn’t happy, I said, Nike
isn’t happy.
A FEW MONTHS later, muggy Montreal was the setting for Nike’s grand
debut, our Olympic coming-out party. As those 1976 Games opened, we had
athletes in several high-profile events wearing Nikes. But our highest hopes,
and most of our money, were pinned on Shorter. He was the favorite to win
gold, which meant that Nikes, for the first time ever, were going to cross an
Olympic finish line ahead of all other shoes. This was an enormous rite of
passage for a running-shoe company. You really weren’t a legitimate, card-‐
carrying running-shoe company until an Olympian ascended to the top
medal stand in your gear.
I woke up early that Saturday—July 31, 1976. Right after my morning
coffee I took up my position in my recliner. I had a sandwich at my elbow,
cold sodas in the fridge. I wondered if Kitami was watching. I wondered if
my former bankers were watching. I wondered if my parents and sisters were
watching. I wondered if the FBI was watching.
The runners approached the starting line. With them I crouched forward.
I probably had as much adrenaline in my system as Shorter had in his. I
waited for the pistol, and for the inevitable close-up of Shorter’s feet. The
camera zoomed in. I stopped breathing. I slid out of my recliner onto the
floor and crawled toward the TV screen. No, I said. No, I cried out in
anguish. “No. NO!”
He was wearing . . . Tigers.
I watched in horror as the great hope of Nike took off in the shoes of our
enemy.
I stood, walked back to my recliner, and watched the race unfold, talking
to myself, mumbling to myself. Slowly the house grew dark. Not dark
enough to suit me. At some point I drew the curtains, turned off the lights.
But not the TV. I would watch, all two hours and ten minutes, to the bitter
end.
I’m still not sure I know exactly what happened. Apparently, Shorter
became convinced that his Nike shoes were fragile and wouldn’t hold up for
the whole twenty-six miles. (Never mind that they’d performed perfectly
well at the Olympic Trials.) Maybe it was nerves. Maybe it was superstition.
He wanted to use what he’d always used. Runners are funny that way. In any
case, at the last moment he switched back to the shoes that he wore when he
won the gold in 1972.
And I switched from soda to vodka. Sitting in the dark, clutching a
cocktail, I told myself it was no big deal, in the grand scheme of things.
Shorter didn’t even win. An East German surprised him and took the gold.
Of course I was lying to myself, it was a very big deal, and not because of the
disappointment or the lost marketing opportunity. If watching Shorter go
off in shoes other than mine could affect me so deeply, it was now official:
Nike was more than just a shoe. I no longer simply made Nikes; Nikes were
making me. If I saw an athlete choose another shoe, if I saw anyone choose
another shoe, it wasn’t just a rejection of the brand alone, but of me. I told
myself to be reasonable, not everyone in the world was going to wear Nike.
And I won’t say that I became upset every time I saw someone walking down
the street in a running shoe that wasn’t mine.
But it definitely registered.
And I didn’t care for it.
At some point that night I phoned Hollister. He was devastated, too.
There was raw anger in his voice. I was glad. I wanted people working for
me who would feel that same burn, that same gut-punch rejection.
Happily, there were fewer such rejections all the time. At the close of
fiscal 1976 we doubled our sales—$14 million. A startling number, which
financial analysts noted, and wrote about. And yet we were still cash-poor. I
kept borrowing every nickel I could, plowing it into growth, with the explicit
or tacit blessing of people I trusted. Woodell, Strasser, Hayes.
In early 1976 the four of us had talked tentatively about going public, and
tabled the idea. Now, at the close of 1976, we took up the idea again, more
seriously. We analyzed the risks, weighed the cons, considered the pros.
Again we decided: No.
Sure, sure, we said, we’d love to have that quick infusion of capital. Oh,
the things we could do with that money! The factories we could lease! The
talent we could hire! But going public would change our culture, make us
beholden, make us corporate. That’s not our play, we all agreed.
Weeks later, strapped for money again, our bank accounts at zero, we
took another look at the idea.
And rejected it again.
Wanting to settle the matter once and for all, I put the subject at the top
of the agenda for our biannual gathering, a retreat we’d taken to calling the
Buttface.
JOHNSON COINED THE phrase, we think. At one of our earliest retreats
he muttered: “How many multimillion-dollar companies can you yell out,
‘Hey, Buttface,’ and the entire management team turns around?” It got a
laugh. And then it stuck. And then it became a key part of our vernacular.
Buttface referred to both the retreat and the retreaters, and it not only
captured the informal mood of those retreats, where no idea was too sacred
to be mocked, and no person was too important to be ridiculed, it also
summed up the company spirit, mission and ethos.
The first few Buttfaces took place at various Oregon resorts. Otter Crest.
Salishan. Ultimately we came to prefer Sunriver, an idyllic spot in sunny
central Oregon. Typically, Woodell and Johnson would fly out from the
East Coast, and we’d all drive out to Sunriver late Friday. We’d reserve a
bunch of cabins, seize a conference room, and spend two or three days
shouting ourselves hoarse.
I can see myself so clearly at the head of a conference table, shouting,
being shouted at—laughing until my voice was gone. The problems
confronting us were grave, complex, seemingly insurmountable, made more
so by the fact we were separated from each other by three thousand miles, at
a time when communication wasn’t easy or instant. And yet we were always
laughing. Sometimes, after a really cathartic guffaw, I’d look around the
table and feel overcome by emotion. Camaraderie, loyalty, gratitude. Even
love. Surely love. But I also remember feeling shocked that these were the
men I’d assembled. These were the founding fathers of a multimillion-dollar
company that sold athletic shoes? A paralyzed guy, two morbidly obese guys,
a chain-smoking guy? It was bracing to realize that, in this group, the one
with whom I had the most in common was . . . Johnson. And yet, it was
undeniable. While everyone else was laughing, rioting, he’d be the sane one,
sitting quietly in the middle of the table reading a book.
The loudest voice at every Buttface always seemed to be Hayes. And the
craziest. Like his girth, his personality was ever expanding, adding new
phobias and enthusiasms. For instance, by this time Hayes had developed a
curious obsession with heavy equipment. Backhoes, bulldozers, cherry
pickers, cranes, they fascinated him. They . . . turned him on, there’s no
other way to say it. At an early Buttface we were leaving a local bar when
Hayes spied a bulldozer in the field behind the lodge. He discovered, to his
astonishment, the keys had been left inside, so he hopped in and moved the
earth all around the field, and in the parking lot, quitting only when he
narrowly missed crushing several cars. Hayes on a bulldozer, I thought: As
much as the swoosh, that might be our logo.
I always said that Woodell made the trains run on time, but it was Hayes
who laid down the tracks. Hayes set up all the esoteric accounting systems
without which the company would have ground to a halt. When we first
went from manual to automated accounting, Hayes acquired the first
primitive machines, and by constantly mending them, modifying them, or
pounding them with his big hammy fists, he kept them uncannily accurate.
When we first started doing business outside the United States, foreign
currencies became a devilishly tricky problem, and Hayes set up an
ingenious currency-hedging system, which made the spread more reliable,
more predictable.
Despite our hijinks, despite our eccentricities, despite our physical
limitations, I concluded in 1976 that we were a formidable team. (Years later
a famous Harvard business professor studying Nike came to the same
conclusion. “Normally,” he said, “if one manager at a company can think
tactically and strategically, that company has a good future. But boy are you
lucky: More than half the Buttfaces think that way!”)
Undoubtedly we looked, to any casual observer, like a sorry, motley crew,
hopelessly mismatched. But in fact we were more alike than different, and
that gave a coherence to our goals and our efforts. We were mostly Oregon
guys, which was important. We had an inborn need to prove ourselves, to
show the world that we weren’t hicks and hayseeds. And we were nearly all
merciless self-loathers, which kept the egos in check. There was none of that
smartest-guy-in-the-room foolishness. Hayes, Strasser, Woodell, Johnson,
each would have been the smartest guy in any room, but none believed it of
himself, or the next guy. Our meetings were defined by contempt, disdain,
and heaps of abuse.
Oh, what abuse. We called each other terrible names. We rained down
verbal blows. While floating ideas, and shooting down ideas, and hashing out
threats to the company, the last thing we took into account was someone’s
feelings. Including mine. Especially mine. My fellow Buttfaces, my
employees, called me Bucky the Bookkeeper, constantly. I never asked them
to stop. I knew better. If you showed any weakness, any sentimentality, you
were dead.
I remember a Buttface when Strasser decided we weren’t being
“aggressive” enough in our approach. Too many bean counters in this
company, he said. “So before this meeting starts I want to interject
something. I’ve prepared here a counter budget.” He waved a big binder.
“This right here is what we should be doing with our money.”
Of course everyone wanted to see his numbers, but no one more than the
numbers guy, Hayes. When we discovered that the numbers didn’t add up,
not one column, we started howling.
Strasser took it personally. “It’s the essence I’m getting at,” he said. “Not
the specifics. The essence.”
The howling grew louder. So Strasser picked up his binder and threw it
against the wall. “Fuck all you guys,” he said. The binder burst open, pages
flew everywhere, and the laughter was deafening. Even Strasser couldn’t
help himself. He had to join in.
Little wonder that Strasser’s nickname was Rolling Thunder. Hayes,
meanwhile, was Doomsday. Woodell was Weight. (As in Dead Weight.)
Johnson was Four Factor, because he tended to exaggerate and therefore
everything he said needed to be divided by four. No one took it personally.
The only thing truly not tolerated at a Buttface was a thin skin.
And sobriety. At day’s end, when everybody had a scratchy throat from all
the abusing and laughing and problem-solving, when our yellow legal pads
were filled with ideas, solutions, quotations, and lists upon lists, we’d shift
ground to the bar at the lodge and continue the meeting over drinks. Many
drinks.
The bar was called the Owl’s Nest. I love to close my eyes and remember
us storming through the entrance, scattering all other patrons. Or making
friends of them. We’d buy drinks for the house, then commandeer a corner
and continue laying into each other about some problem or idea or
harebrained scheme. Say the problem was midsoles not getting from Point A
to Point B. Round and round we’d go, everyone speaking at once, a chorale
of name-calling and finger-pointing, all made louder, and funnier, and
somehow clearer, by the booze. To anyone in the Owl’s Nest, to anyone in
the corporate world, it would have looked inefficient, inappropriate. Even
scandalous. But before the bartender gave last call, we’d know full well why
those midsoles weren’t getting from Point A to Point B, and the person
responsible would be contrite, and put on notice, and we’d have ourselves a
creative solution.
The only person who didn’t join us in these late-night revels was Johnson.
He’d typically go for a head-clearing run, then retreat to his room and read
in bed. I don’t think he ever set foot in the Owl’s Nest. Or knew where it
was. We’d always have to spend the first part of the next morning updating
him on what we’d decided in his absence.
In the Bicentennial Year alone we were struggling with a number of
unusually stressful problems. We needed to find a larger warehouse on the
East Coast. We needed to transfer our sales-distribution center, from
Holliston, Massachusetts, to a new forty-thousand-square-foot space in
Greenland, New Hampshire, which was sure to be a logistical nightmare.
We needed to hire an advertising agency to handle the increasing volume of
print ads. We needed to either fix or get shut of our underperforming
factories. We needed to smooth out glitches in our Futures Program. We
needed to hire a director of promotions. We needed to form a Pro Club, a
sort of reward system for our top NBA stars, to cement their loyalty and
keep them in the Nike fold. We needed to approve new products, like the
Arsenal, a soccer-baseball cleat with leather upper and vinyl poly-foam
tongue, and the Striker, a multipurpose cleat good for soccer, baseball,
football, softball, and field hockey. And we needed to decide on a new logo.
Aside from the swoosh, we had a lowercase script name, nike, which was
problematic—too many people thought it was like, or mike. But it was too
late in the day to change the name of the company, so making the letters
more readable seemed a good idea. Denny Strickland, creative director at
our advertising agency, had designed a block-lettered NIKE, all caps, and
nested it inside a swoosh. We spent days considering it, debating it.
Above all, we needed to decide, once and for all, this “going public”
question. In those earliest Buttfaces, a consensus began to form. If we
couldn’t sustain growth, we couldn’t survive. And despite our fears, despite
the risks and downsides, going public was the best way to sustain growth.
And yet, in the midst of those intense discussions, in the middle of one of
the most trying years in the company’s history, those Buttface meetings were
nothing but a joy. Of all those hours spent at Sunriver, not one minute felt
like work. It was us against the world, and we felt damned sorry for the
world. That is, when we weren’t righteously pissed off at it. Each of us had
been misunderstood, misjudged, dismissed. Shunned by bosses, spurned by
luck, rejected by society, shortchanged by fate when looks and other natural
graces were handed out. We’d each been forged by early failure. We’d each
given ourselves to some quest, some attempt at validation or meaning, and
fallen short.
Hayes couldn’t become a partner because he was too fat.
Johnson couldn’t cope in the so-called normal world of nine-to-five.
Strasser was an insurance lawyer who hated insurance—and lawyers.
Woodell lost all his youthful dreams in one fluke accident.
I got cut from the baseball team. And I got my heart broken.
I identified with the born loser in each Buttface, and vice versa, and I
knew that together we could become winners. I still didn’t know exactly
what winning meant, other than not losing, but we seemed to be getting
closer to a defining moment when that question would be settled, or at least
more sharply defined. Maybe going public would be that moment.
Maybe going public would finally ensure that Nike would live on.
If I had any doubts about Blue Ribbon’s management team in 1976, they
were mainly about me. Was I doing right by the Buttfaces, giving them so
little guidance? When they did well I’d shrug and deliver my highest praise:
Not bad. When they erred I’d yell for a minute or two, then shake it off.
None of the Buttfaces felt the least threatened by me—was that a good
thing? Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise
you with their results. It was the right tack for Patton and his GIs. But did that
make it right for a bunch of Buttfaces? I worried. Maybe I should be more
hands-on. Maybe we should be more structured.
But then I’d think: Whatever I’m doing, it must be working, because
mutinies are few. In fact, ever since Bork, no one had thrown a genuine
tantrum, about anything, not even what they were paid, which is unheard of
in any company, big or small. The Buttfaces knew I wasn’t paying myself
much, and they trusted that I was paying them what I could.
Clearly the Buttfaces liked the culture I’d created. I trusted them, wholly,
and didn’t look over their shoulders, and that bred a powerful two-way
loyalty. My management style wouldn’t have worked for people who wanted
to be guided, every step, but this group found it liberating, empowering. I let
them be, let them do, let them make their own mistakes, because that’s how
I’d always liked people to treat me.
At the end of a Buttface weekend, consumed with these and other
thoughts, I’d drive back to Portland in a trance. Halfway there I’d come out
of the trance and start thinking about Penny and the boys. The Buttfaces
were like family, but every minute I spent with them was at the cost of my
other family, my real family. The guilt was palpable. Often I’d walk into my
house and Matthew and Travis would meet me at the door. “Where have
you been?” they’d ask. “Daddy was with his friends,” I’d say, picking them
up. They’d stare, confused. “But Mommy told us you were working.”
It was around this time, as Nike rolled out its first children’s shoes, Wally
Waffle and Robbie Road Racer, that Matthew announced he would never
wear Nikes so long as he lived. His way of expressing anger about my
absences, as well as other frustrations. Penny tried to make him understand
that Daddy wasn’t absent by choice. Daddy was trying to build something.
Daddy was trying to ensure that he and Travis would one day be able to
attend college.
I didn’t even bother to explain. I told myself it didn’t matter what I said.
Matthew never understood, and Travis always understood—they seemed
born with these unvarying default positions. Matthew seemed to harbor
some innate resentment toward me, while Travis seemed congenitally
devoted. What difference would a few more words make? What difference
would a few more hours make?
My fatherhood style, my management style. I was forever questioning, Is
it good—or merely good enough?
Time and again I’d vow to change. Time and again I’d tell myself: I will
spend more time with the boys. Time and again I’d keep that promise—for a
while. Then I’d fall back to my former routine, the only way I knew. Not
hands-off. But not hands-on.
This might have been the one problem I couldn’t solve by brainstorming
with my fellow Buttfaces. Vastly trickier than how to get midsoles from
Point A to Point B was the question of Son A and Son B, how to keep them
happy, while keeping Son C, Nike, afloat.

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