Geoff Hollister Tells the Story of Nike from the Front Lines

Mon, 4 May 2009 - 5:02 p.m. MT
Credit: ARA Staff - American Running Association

In a new autobiography from University of Oregon alum and third-ever Nike employee Geoff Hollister, we are told the fascinating tale of the earliest days of Nike. Hollister was a small-town Oregon farm boy who went on to the now-legendary University of Oregon to run for coach Bill Bowerman, the man behind Nike. In Out of Nowhere: The Inside Story of How Nike Marketed the Culture of Running, Hollister relays a candid, firsthand account of the company that transformed not only the sports apparel industry but the business of sport itself.

In Hollister’s days at Oregon alone, Bowerman’s collegiate racing team had four sub-4-minute milers (and this was on a cinder track). Under Bowerman’s tutelage, the university produced countless elite athletes. What were they doing differently? Aside from Bowerman’s talents as a coach, motivator, mentor, and leader, he was always a free-thinking innovator. And to no small degree, this assured the university’s success on the track year after year. It also launched a juggernaut of an athletic apparel company the likes of which no one could have foreseen.

For example, one of Bowerman’s former javelin throwers ran a tire company, and when Bill asked what happened to the discarded tires, he was told they were thrown away. Bowerman arranged to use the rubber, shredded and mixed with cement, as a test on the Pleasant Hill High School track, to see if it could enhance performance over traditional cinder surfaces in Oregon’s rainy climate. This experiment led to Bowerman’s change to urethane years later on the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field.

ARA President Jeff Harbison shares a laugh with former ARA Vice President and new author Geoff Hollister during his first book signing for "OUT OF NOWHERE"

Bowerman had long experimented with running shoe production. In 1965 he delivered a new training shoe from Japan for the team to test. Known as the Tigers, the early success of these shoes led to an interest in spreading the word, and in eventually pushing the boundaries of athletic apparel. After an exchange of a few hundred dollars to get started and a handshake between Bowerman and his former half-miler, Phil Knight, Bowerman introduced still-undergrad Hollister to now-CEO Knight in 1967. Knight hired Hollister to travel the state of Oregon visiting local races and selling Tigers to coaches and athletes from out of the trunk of his car. Hollister received $2 a pair for his troubles. But something caught fire: the belief that these shoes were better than any on the market. As Hollister became Nike’s first salesman in Oregon, word of a new shoe source soon spread through the running community.

And when Bowerman got word that his shoes were hard on the joints of some runners, and one suggested he place a pair of shower tongs in between the outsole and the upper, he did, and a new prototype was born. Similarly, one semester the University of Oregon installed Astroturf in its stadium. Bowerman consequently became aware of the need for a new type of shoe. Previous football cleats were metal and designed for grass; there was not a single athletic shoe on the market specifically designed for this new surface. Inspiration came from the pyramid patterns in his wife’s waffle iron. Bill poured urethane on the griddle, and yet another Nike prototype was born.

Though the waffle iron story is a true one, and now the stuff of legend, the fact is that Bowerman was not producing these shoes personally all by himself, even then. Nike had always had a relationship with manufacturers in Japan. The shipments of shoes from Bowerman’s designs would come in drawstring bags, and Hollister would pack them into his trunk and hit the road.

Effective design tailored to athlete needs has always been the centerpiece of the Nike business model. And with their growing community of athletes and athlete-employees, it now seems inevitable that they would take off into a global enterprise. But it wasn’t always apparent. After all, there was no Pacific Northwest shoe industry whatsoever—they came out of nowhere.

A turning point occurred in 1973 when Knight brought Oregon running luminary Steve Prefontaine onto the Nike payroll. This was to support and accelerate the success of the third essential prong of the needs-design-sales strategy that had begun modestly across Oregon with Geoff Hollister. Working closely with Geoff, Prefontaine had business cards printed announcing him as Nike’s “International Public Relations Manager.” As Hollister explains it, Steve was always traveling to Europe at that time, and had many close friends who were top international runners. He began writing letters to his best friends, enclosing them in a shoebox with the latest Nikes. In one telling letter to Bill Rodgers which Hollister reprints in his book, Pre essentially told Rodgers, Try the shoes, tell me what you think. That April, Bill won his first Boston Marathon. He would go on to win three more. Word was about to spread fast.

But what would soon solidify the way in which the entire culture now practices professional sports was Nike’s development of the Athletes Assistance Program. This was a natural extension of what Nike had been always primarily focused on: giving athletes everything they needed to become their best. Ironically, this also allowed for worldwide recognition of the company that no calculated corporate sponsorship today could have ever imagined then.

How did it work? Out of the thousands of athletes Nike has sponsored over the years, one of the best case studies is that of Joan Benoit Samuelson.

In the crucial early going of her remarkable career, Nike did five important things for Joan. The first was to challenge the International Olympic Committee’s ban on women’s marathoning. As late as the early 1980s, there was concern among IOC members that women’s marathoning could somehow cause infertility. Nike was not of that archaic opinion, and eventually played a major role in convincing the IOC otherwise. As Hollister said at a recent press conference discussing his book, “And the fact that Joan’s two kids are in the audience right now is evidence that we were right.”

Geoff Hollister is joined by ARA's Dave Watt and Nike "ekin" Chris Maclaren at the Iffley Road Track in Oxford, site of the first sub-4 minute mile by Roger Bannister

The second level of support for Joan was to give her the ability to travel to the races nationwide that she needed to compete in to develop as a runner. Third, Nike provided the state-of-the-art shoes and other apparel, developed in the very research and development center in Exeter, NH, where she’d originally met Nike’s second employee Jeff Johnson and would go on to work out of.

Fourth, once Joan was in the Nike family, she began running for Athletics West, with a new coach and a clear goal for the first-ever U.S. Olympic Team Trials-Women's Marathon in Olympia, Washington. And finally, as that key race approached, and Joan’s knee problems threatened her participation, Nike consultant and orthopedic surgeon Stan James came to the rescue, performing arthroscopic surgery just 17 days prior to the Trials. She would win that race, make the Olympic team, and perform legendarily in the history-making 1984 Olympic women’s marathon in Los Angeles.

“It was an example of an athlete who has the mental attitude and the physical talent, and it was our opportunity to try and do everything we could to assist this person,” Hollister says. “If you combine the two forces together, Joanie was unbeatable that day, and it was a very special moment for us.”

Samuelson sums up Geoff’s story this way: “The world knows Nike by the swoosh, and by the athletes who wear Nike’s shoes, but this is the heartfelt, startlingly personal…account of the individual employees who… make the company run and run, realizing there is no finish line.”

Geoff Hollister’s extraordinary autobiography tells the story of a company that has always been about both things: better gear and better athletes. Though a strong-willed leader, Bowerman emphasized teamwork on and off the track. Hollister recalls, “One of the lessons he told us was that we have a much better chance of being successful in life as part of a team than we ever will as an individual.”

As Geoff continues a recent battle with cancer, he looks back thankfully on all the years with Nike, and all that his experiences continue to give him. Stanford University recently asked him to be the Ambassador for the upcoming Youth International Games in San Francisco, for athletes ages 12 to 15. What aspect is he most looking forward to? “The chance to pass on a little of that Bill Bowerman wisdom to the next generation.”

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