To anyone who knew him, Payton Jordan was simply called Coach. A friend to many and an innovator when it came to track and field, Jordan was synonymous with the sport. He was the coach of the record-setting 1968 U.S. Olympic track and field team and the head coach at Stanford for 23 years. On Thursday, one of the sport's most famous personalities died at age 91.
Jordan was born in Whittier, Calif., on March 19, 1917. He died of cancer at his home in Laguna Hills in Southern California, daughter Cheryl Melville said.
In a letter dated Dec. 15, 2008, Jordan wrote about his latest challenge: "Have faced a few health problems, but just another challenge that I'm facing with a positive attitude, thus all will be well. Now is the time to be jolly."
In "Champions for Life," a book written about his life by two former Stanford track and field teammates Jack Scott and Jim Ward, Jordan was summed up thusly by Bob Murphy, a former Sports Information Director and Athletic Director at Stanford:
"The word champion," Murphy wrote, "was conceived for people like Payton Jordan. He was a champion as a youngster growing up in Southern California and when he attended the University of Southern California. He coached an endless stream of champions at Occidental College and at Stanford for many years. Payton will never be forgotten as Head Coach of the 1968 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Team. Later, he became a champion beyond all others in Masters competition.
"He always has been known as 'Coach,' but it should be noted that his coaching has always extended far beyond the limits of a running track or any kind of field. His depth of knowledge and infectious enthusiasm made an attentive student-athlete appreciate that any horizon of opportunity was within reach with solid preparation and hard work.
"For Payton, the term coach is too limited. He has been, and always will be, an enormous source of inspiration and confidence. In addition, Payton has been an organizer, a showman, a promoter, a businessman, a counselor -- and, if you are one of those so fortunate, a very special friend . . . He has been our Champion for years."
Jordan led the U.S. track team to a record 24 medals, 12 of them gold, at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. He served as Stanford's track and field coach from 1957-79 and coached seven Olympians, six world recordholders and six national champions. Earlier this decade, he had a Stanford-based track meet named after him -- the Payton Jordan U.S. Open -- and the veteran often attended. A college meet on The Farm each spring now carries his name -- the Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational.
As landmarks go, Jordan stood as tall as Hoover Tower with his accomplishments and influence going beyond geographical barriers.
Jordan was the driving force behind the legendary USA-USSR track meet at Stanford Stadium in 1962. The meet attracted 150,000 spectators over two days and gave American track and field fans their first look at Russian athletes. Jordan was also the meet director for the 1960 U.S. Olympic Trials at Stanford.
Years ago, Jordan recalled how his '68 Olympic team excelled despite some black athletes threatening to boycott the games over a push for civil rights.
"We just sat down and talked about how hard everyone worked for so long to get ready for this lifetime opportunity," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1989. "It was like the high altitude in Mexico City -- something we weren't used to -- or like an injury. It was just something we had to work through and overcome."
Before his coaching career, Jordan broke world records at the University of Southern California -- in the 440-yard relay in 1938 and the 100-yard dash on grass in 1941. His records stood for decades. He also played football for USC and played in the 1939 Rose Bowl.
Instead of competing in the 1940 and 1944 Olympics, which were canceled due to World War II, Jordan joined the Navy.
After retirement, he laced up his running shoes to compete in masters races. He set six world age-group records in the sprints. In 1997, he set the last of his world records in the 100 meters (14.65) and 200 meters (30.89). His final masters world mark came in the 100-yard dash at the 1998 Penn Relays at age 80. With his shock of white hair and tanned complexion, Jordan was forever the perfect example of how an athlete could age gracefully while still being competitive.
He is a member of countless Halls of Fame, including Stanford, USC, USA Track & Field, and Mt. SAC Relays. He was awarded the Dwight D. Eisenhower Fitness Award by the U.S. Sports Academy in 1999.
He was married to his wife, Marge, for 66 years. She passed away in 2006. Jordan had been battling the effects of cancer in recent years, but was always upbeat in his conversations throughout his fight.
John Wooden, the legendary former UCLA basketball coach who is in his late 90s, said of Jordan in "Champions for Life":
"He is one of the finest teachers of sports. However, his knowledge and ability to teach are only part of his success. Equally important are his love and consideration for the athletes who have been fortunate to be under his supervision. The exemplary personal life he has lived serves as a role model for all those who know him."