Like his coach, Pre just wasn’t himself after the 1972 Olympics.

1973
Like his coach, Pre just wasn’t himself after the 1972 Olympics. He was
haunted and enraged by the terrorist attacks. And by his performance. He
felt he’d let everyone down. He’d finished fourth.
No shame in being the world’s fourth-best at your distance, we told him.
But Pre knew he was better than that. And he knew he’d have done better if
he hadn’t been so stubborn. He showed no patience, no guile. He could have
slipped behind the front runner, coasted in his wake, stolen silver. That,
however, would have gone against Pre’s religion. So he’d run all out, as
always, holding nothing back, and in the final hundred yards he tired.
Worse, the man he considered his archrival, Lasse Viren, of Finland, once
more took the gold.
We tried to lift Pre’s spirits. We assured him that Oregon still loved him.
City officials in Eugene were even planning to name a street after him.
“Great,” Pre said, “what’re they gonna call it—Fourth Street?” He locked
himself in his metal trailer on the banks of the Willamette and he didn’t
come out for weeks.
In time, after pacing a lot, after playing with his German shepherd puppy,
Lobo, and after large quantities of cold beer, Pre emerged. One day I heard
that he’d been seen again around town, at dawn, doing his daily ten miles,
Lobo trotting at his heels.
It took a full six months, but the fire in Pre’s belly came back. In his final
races for Oregon he shone. He won the NCAA three-mile for a fourth
straight year, posting a gaudy 13:05.3. He also went to Scandinavia and
crushed the field in the 5,000, setting an American record: 13:22.4. Better
yet, he did it in Nikes. Bowerman finally had him wearing our shoes.
(Months into his retirement, Bowerman was still coaching Pre, still polishing
the final designs for the waffle shoe, which was about to go on sale to the
general public. He’d never been busier.) And our shoes were finally worthy
of Pre. It was a perfect symbiotic match. He was generating thousands of
dollars of publicity, making our brand a symbol of rebellion and iconoclasm
—and we were helping his recovery.
Pre began to talk warily with Bowerman about the 1976 Olympics in
Montreal. He told Bowerman, and a few close friends, that he wanted
redemption. He was determined to capture that gold medal that eluded him
in Munich.
Several scary stumbling blocks stood in his path, however. Vietnam, for
one. Pre, whose life, like mine, like everyone’s, was governed by numbers,
drew a horrible number in the draft lottery. He was going to be drafted,
there was little doubt, as soon as he graduated. In a year’s time he’d be
sitting in some fetid jungle, taking heavy machine-gun fire. He might have
his legs, his godlike legs, blown out from under him.
Also, there was Bowerman. Pre and the coach were clashing constantly,
two headstrong guys with different ideas about training methods and
running styles. Bowerman took the long view: a distance runner peaks in his
late twenties. He therefore wanted Pre to rest, preserve himself for certain
select races. Save something, Bowerman kept pleading. But of course Pre
refused. I’m all-out, all the time, he said. In their relationship I saw a mirror
of my relationship with banks. Pre didn’t see the sense in going slow—ever.
Go fast or die. I couldn’t fault him. I was on his side. Even against our coach.
Above all, however, Pre was broke. The know-nothings and oligarchs
who governed American amateur athletics at that time decreed that Olympic
athletes couldn’t collect endorsement money, or government money, which
meant our finest runners and swimmers and boxers were reduced to paupers.
To stay alive Pre sometimes tended bar in Eugene, and sometimes he ran in
Europe, taking illicit cash from race promoters. Of course those extra races
were starting to cause issues. His body—in particular his back—was breaking
down.
At Blue Ribbon we worried about Pre. We talked about him often,
formally and informally, around the office. Eventually we came up with a
plan. To keep him from injuring himself, to avoid the shame of him going
around with a begging bowl, we hired him. In 1973 we gave him a “job,” a
modest salary of five thousand dollars a year, and access to a beach condo
Cale owned in Los Angeles. We also gave him a business card that said
National Director of Public Af airs. People often narrowed their eyes and asked
me what that meant. I narrowed my eyes right back. “It means he can run
fast,” I said.
It also meant he was our second celebrity athlete endorser.
The first thing Pre did with his windfall was go out and buy himself a
butterscotch MG. He drove it everywhere—fast. It looked like my old MG. I
remember feeling enormously, vicariously proud. I remember thinking: We
bought that. I remember thinking Pre was the living, breathing embodiment
of what we were trying to create. Whenever people saw Pre going at his
breakneck pace—on a track, in his MG—I wanted them to see Nike. And
when they bought a pair of Nikes, I wanted them to see Pre.
I felt this strongly about Pre even though I’d only had a few conversations
with the man. And you could hardly call them conversations. Whenever I
saw him at a track, or around the Blue Ribbon offices, I became mute. I tried
to con myself; more than once I told myself that Pre was just a kid from
Coos Bay, a short, shaggy-haired jock with a porn star mustache. But I knew
better. And a few minutes in his presence would prove it. A few minutes was
all I could take.
The world’s most famous Oregonian at the time was Ken Kesey, whose
blockbuster novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, appeared in 1962, the
exact moment I left on my trip around the world. I knew Kesey at the
University of Oregon. He wrestled, and I ran track, and on rainy days we’d
do indoor workouts at the same facility. When his first novel came out I was
stunned by how good it was, especially since the plays he’d written in school
had been dreck. Suddenly he was a literary lion, the toast of New York, and
yet I never felt starstruck in his presence, as I did in Pre’s. In 1973 I decided
that Pre was every bit the artist that Kesey was, and more. Pre said as much
himself. “A race is a work of art,” he told a reporter, “that people can look at
and be affected in as many ways as they’re capable of understanding.”
Each time Pre came into the office, I noted, I wasn’t alone in my
swooning. Everyone became mute. Everyone became shy. Men, women, it
didn’t matter, everyone turned into Buck Knight. Even Penny Knight. If I
was the first to make Penny care about track and field, Pre was the one who
made her a real fan.
Hollister was the exception to this rule. He and Pre had an easy way
around each other. They were like brothers. I never once saw Hollister act
any differently with Pre than he did with, say, me. So it made sense to have
Hollister, the Pre Whisperer, bring Pre in, help us get to know him, and vice
versa. We arranged a lunch in the conference room.
When the day came, it wasn’t wise, but it was typical of Woodell and me
—we chose that moment to tell Hollister that we were tweaking his duties.
In fact, we told him the second his butt hit the chair in the conference room.
The change would affect how he got paid. Not how much, just how. Before
we could fully explain, he threw down his napkin and stormed out. Now we
had nobody to help us break the ice with Pre. We all stared silently into our
sandwiches.
Pre spoke first. “Is Geoff coming back?”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
Long pause.
“In that case,” Pre said, “can I eat his sandwich?”
We all laughed, and Pre seemed suddenly mortal, and the luncheon
ultimately proved invaluable.
Shortly after that day, we soothed Hollister, and tweaked his duties again.
From now on, we said, you’re Pre’s full-time liaison. You’re in charge of
handling Pre, taking Pre out on the road, introducing Pre to the fans. In
fact, we told Hollister, take the boy on a cross-country tour. Hit all the track
meets, state fairs, high schools, and colleges you can. Go everywhere, and
nowhere. Do everything, and nothing.
Sometimes Pre would conduct a running clinic, answering questions
about training and injuries. Sometimes he’d just sign autographs and pose
for photos. No matter what he did, no matter where Hollister took him,
worshipful crowds would appear around their bright blue Volkswagen bus.
Though Pre’s job title was intentionally imprecise, his role was real, and
his belief in Nike was authentic as well. He wore Nike T-shirts everywhere
he went, and he allowed his foot to be Bowerman’s last for all shoe
experiments. Pre preached Nike as gospel, and brought thousands of new
people into our revival tent. He urged everyone to give this groovy new
brand a try—even his competitors. He’d often send a pair of Nike flats or
spikes to a fellow runner with a note: Try these. You’ll love them.
Among those most inspired by Pre was Johnson. While continuing to
build up our East Coast operation, Johnson had spent much of 1972 slaving
on something that he christened the Pre Montreal, a shoe that would be an
homage to Pre, and to the upcoming Olympics, and to the American
Bicentennial. With a blue suede toe, a red nylon back, and a white swoosh, it
was our jazziest shoe yet, and also our best spike. We knew that we were
going to live or die based on quality, and thus far our quality on spikes had
been spotty. Johnson was going to fix that with this design.
But he was going to do it in Oregon, I decided, not Boston.
I’d been giving a lot of thought to Johnson, for months. He was turning
into a truly fine designer, and we needed to take full advantage of his talent.
The East Coast was running smoothly, but it now involved too much
administration for him. The whole thing needed reorganizing, streamlining,
and that wasn’t the best use of Johnson’s time or creativity. That was a job
tailor-made for someone like . . . Woodell.
Night after night, during my six-mile run, I’d wrestle with this situation. I
had two guys in the wrong jobs, on the wrong coasts, and neither one was
going to like the obvious solution. Each guy loved where he lived. And each
irritated the other, though they both denied it. When I’d promoted Woodell
to operations manager, I’d also bequeathed him Johnson. I’d put him in
charge of overseeing Johnson, answering Johnson’s letters, and Woodell
made the mistake of reading them thoroughly and trying to keep up.
Consequently the two had developed a chippy, deeply sarcastic rapport.
For instance. Woodell wheeled into my office one day and said, “This is
depressing. Jeff complains constantly about inventory, expense
reimbursements, lack of communications. He says he’s working his butt off
while we’re lolling around. He doesn’t listen to any reason, including that
our sales are doubling every year.”
Woodell told me he wanted to take a different approach to Johnson.
By all means, I said. Have at it.
So he wrote Johnson a long letter “admitting” that we’d all been
colluding against him, trying to make him unhappy. He wrote, “I’m sure you
realize we don’t work quite as hard out here as you do; with only three hours
in the working day it is hard to get everything done. Still, I make time to
place you in all sorts of embarrassing situations with customers and the
business community. Whenever you need money desperately to pay bills, I
send only a tiny fraction of what you need so that you’ll have to deal with bill
collectors and lawsuits. I take the destruction of your reputation as a
personal compliment.”
And so on.
Johnson answered back: “Finally someone out there understands me.”
What I was getting ready to propose wasn’t going to help.
I approached Johnson first. I chose my moment carefully—a trip we made
to Japan, to visit Nippon Rubber and discuss the Pre Montreal. Over dinner
I laid it all out for him. We were in a ferocious battle, a siege. Day by day,
we were doing everything we could to keep the troops fed and the enemy at
bay. For the sake of victory, for the sake of survival, everything else needed
to be sacrificed, subordinated. “And so, at this crucial moment in the
evolution of Blue Ribbon, in the rollout of Nike . . . I’m sorry, but, well . . .
you two dummies need to switch cities.”
He groaned. Of course. It was Santa Monica all over again.
But slowly, agonizingly, he came around.
As did Woodell.
Around the close of 1972 each man handed his house keys to the other,
and now in early 1973 they switched places. Talk about team players. It was
an enormous sacrifice, and I was deeply grateful. But in keeping with my
personality, and Blue Ribbon tradition, I expressed no gratitude. I spoke not
a word of thanks or praise. In fact, in several office memos I referred to the
switch as “Operation Dummy Reversal.”
IN THE LATE spring of 1973 I met with our recent investors, the debenture
holders, for a second time. The first time they’d loved me. How could they
not? Sales were booming, celebrity athletes were promoting our shoes. Sure,
we’d lost Onitsuka, and we were facing a legal fight down the road, but we
were on the right track.
This time, however, it was my duty to inform the investors that, one year
after launching Nike, for the first time in Blue Ribbon history . . . we’d lost
money.
The meeting took place at the Valley River Inn in Eugene. It was thirty
men and women crammed into the conference room, with me at the head of
a long conference table. I wore a dark suit and tried to project an air of
confidence as I delivered the bad news. I gave them the same speech I’d
given Blue Ribbon employees a year before. We’ve got them right where we
want them. But this group wasn’t buying any pep talks. These were widows
and widowers, retirees and pensioners. Also, the previous year I’d been
flanked by Jaqua and Bowerman; this year both men were busy.
I was alone.
Half an hour into my pitch, with thirty horrified faces staring at me, I
suggested we break for lunch. The previous year I’d handed out Blue
Ribbon’s financial statements before lunch. This year I decided to wait until
after. It didn’t help. Even on a full stomach, with a chocolate chip cookie, the
numbers looked bad. Despite $3.2 million in sales, we showed a net loss of
$57,000.
Several clusters of investors now began private conversations while I was
trying to talk. They were pointing at this troubling number—$57,000—and
repeating it, over and over. At some point I mentioned that Anne Caris, a
young runner, had just made the cover of Sports Illustrated wearing Nikes.
We’re breaking through, people! No one heard. No one cared. They cared only
about the bottom line. Not even the bottom line, but their bottom line.
I came to the end of my presentation. I asked if anyone had a question.
Thirty hands went up. “I’m very disappointed in this,” said one older man,
rising to his feet. “Any more questions?” Twenty-nine hands went up.
Another man called out, “I’m not happy.”
I said I sympathized. My sympathy only served to annoy them.
They had every right. They’d put their confidence in Bowerman and me,
and we’d failed. We never could have anticipated Tiger’s betrayal, but
nonetheless, these people were hurting, I saw it in their faces, and I needed
to take responsibility. To make it right. I decided it was only fair to offer
them a concession.
Their stock had a conversion rate, which went up every year. In the first
year the rate was $1.00 a share, in the second year it was $1.50, and so on. In
light of all this bad news, I told them, I’ll keep the conversion rate the same
for the full five years you own your stock.
They were placated, mildly. But I left Eugene that day knowing they had
a low opinion of me, and Nike. I also left thinking I’d never, ever, ever take
this company public. If thirty people could cause this kind of acid stomach, I
couldn’t imagine being answerable to thousands of stockholders.
We were better off financing through Nissho and the bank.

Add Comment