Payton Jordan (March 19, 1917 – February 5, 2009) was the head coach of the 1968 United States Olympic track and field team, one of the most powerful track teams ever assembled, which won a record twenty-four medals, including twelve golds. He was born in Whittier, California. Jordan was exceedingly successful as a collegiate track coach for a decade at Occidental College and for 23 years at Stanford University. A star three-sport athlete in his youth, Jordan more recently became one of the most dominant track athletes of all time, as a sprinter, in senior divisions (age 50 and over). Jordan died of cancer at his home in Laguna Hills, California on February 5, 2009.
Jordan excelled in track, rugby and football. Jordan was a star athlete at Pasadena High School in Pasadena, California, and graduated from the University of Southern California (USC), where he was captain of the Trojans' National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Championship track team in 1939. He helped the Trojans win two national collegiate team titles, in 1938 and 1939, and was a member of a world-record-setting 440-yard relay team, in a time of 40.5 seconds. Also in 1939, Jordan played on the Trojan football team that beat Duke University, 7-3, in the Rose Bowl. He won the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) 100 meters title in 1941.
Jordan missed his opportunity to compete in the Olympic Games as an athlete (both the 1940 and 1944 Games were canceled due to World War II], joining the United States Navy instead.
Jordan has cited three mentors as instrumental to shaping his career, philosophy, and coaching style - at Pasadena High, track coach Carl Metten, and at USC track coach Dean Cromwell and football coach Howard Jones.
At Occidental College, Jordan coached his team to two NAIA track and field championships and ten league titles. One of his athletes, Bob Gutowski, set a world record in the pole vault. During his 23 years as Stanford's track coach, between 1957 and 1979, Payton produced seven Olympians, six world record holders and six national champions. Jordan directed two of the greatest track meets ever held on American soil, the 1960 Olympic Trials and the 1962 USA-USSR dual meet, both at Stanford.
Jordan was the head coach of the 1968 US Olympic track team, and an assistant coach for the 1964 US Olympic track team. Billy Mills' upset victory in the 10,000 meters, the legendary leap of 29’2-1/2 by Bob Beamon in the long jump, the (third and) fourth gold medal in the discus by Al Oerter, the 100 meters sprint world record of 9.9 seconds by Jim Hines, Tommie Smith’s gold medal win in the 200 meters in 19.8 seconds, and Lee Evans’ world record (43.8 seconds) in the 400 meters were among the many Olympic highlights achieved when Jordan was head coach.
According to Jordan, "One must be true to himself and his athletes. Establish TRUST in all of your dealings with others and be consistent in your ideals. But above all, a coach must use his own unique personality for you cannot be what you are not. Coaching is never a one-way street. The coach and the athlete must understand and work harmoniously with one another. The coach’s and the athlete’s objective should be one. If the athlete doesn’t aim high enough, the coach should sell and inspire him on raising his sights. The coach has to motivate the athlete in every possible way. The coach has to create attention, the desire to learn, willingness to practice, and the maximum interest. You have to try and provide for the fundamental needs of every individual: 1) physical well-being, 2) personal recognition, worth and importance, and 3) security and affection. Where both the coach and athlete possess the correct mental attitude, the range of their combined efforts becomes unlimited.”
Jordan began competing again at the Lake Tahoe Masters meet in 1972, after encouragement from friends.
Champions for Life, by John B. Scott and James S. Ward (2004, ISBN 0-9760447-3-0), is the story of the life of coach Jordan, and recounts highlights of his career, such as how his teams at Occidental College won ten consecutive league championships, an NAIA national title, and two top-five finishes in the NCAA championships. Scott has said that the book is “more than a biography of Payton Jordan, a true champion as a competitor and coach. The real story is of Jordan the teacher of character development and of the positive influence he exerted, recognized now by the many athletes he coached.”
There are others who do not agree with Scott and Ward's perspective. Jordan, a far-right political conservative, had many battles with his athletes in the late 1960s and 1970s over issues such as personal appearance. Athletes with hair over their ears were not allowed to suit up for his teams, for instance. (In January 1969, Jordan allowed his team to vote as to whether or not to allow hair-length to be a personal matter. When the team overwhelmingly voted to let appearance be a matter of individual discretion, he simply ignored the outcome.) Jordan's training methods, which emphasized quality work over quantity, were also out of sync with evolving ideas. Partially as a result, Stanford fielded one of the worst track-and-field teams in the Pacific Conference for most of Jordan's twenty-three year tenure. Stanford not only never beat southern powerhouses USC and UCLA; his teams defeated arch rival Cal in the "Big Meet" just seven times. A man with a reputation as a track "immortal", Jordan coached only 29 All-American athletes during his 23 years on The Farm. (To be an "All-American", all that is required is to be among the top 8 or 12 athletes in your event in the country.) Aside from a second-place NCAA finish in 1966, Stanford track & field under Payton Jordan was never a force to be reckoned with. In his defense however, it should be pointed out that Stanford was always a more difficult school to gain admittance. Many blue chip athletes simply didn't have the grades. Even so, innumerable outstanding recruits during the Jordan years never came close to reaching the potential they had demonstrated in high school.
Each May, the Payton Jordan US Track & Field Open is held at Stanford University's Cobb Track and Angell Field. After being renamed in Jordan's honor, the event was first held under the new title on Memorial Day, May 31, 2004. Since its inception in 2000, the USATF Golden Spike tour event has brought international track superstars to Stanford. The event has also established itself as a premier stop on the international IAAF Grand Prix tour. More than 75 Olympians from dozens of countries have competed at the event.
In 1982 Jordan was inducted into the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame, as well as separately in the 1996 inaugural class of the USA Track and Field Masters Hall of Fame Jordan is also a member of the USC, Occidental College, Stanford University, NAIA and Mt. Sac Relays Track and Field Halls of Fame. In 1999, he was awarded the Dwight D. Eisenhower Fitness Award by the U.S. Sports Academy. In honor of his numerous outstanding achievements and contributions, in 2004 the US Open track meet at Stanford was renamed in his honor.