Legendary Occidental track coach Payton Jordan, who presided over the golden age of Tiger track and field in the 1950s, died Thursday of cancer at his home in Laguna Hills. He was 91.
In the decade after his arrival at Occidental in 1947, Jordan produced one of track and field’s greatest dynasties, competing against the country’s top teams to win 10 consecutive conference championships, an NAIA national title in 1956, and top-five finishes in the NCAA championships in 1951 and 1952. His athletes set a world record in the distance medley relay, won four individual NCAA championships, and competed in the 1952 Olympics.
From Occidental, Jordan was lured to Stanford in 1956. During his 22 years in Palo Alto, he took the Cardinal to a second-place NCAA finish in 1963, produced seven Olympic athletes, six world-record holders and numerous individual NCAA champions. He served as head track coach of the 1968 Olympic team, which won more medals and set more records than any other U.S. team.
But it is as a mentor that many of Jordan’s Oxy athletes remember him best. In 1954, an anonymous Occidental senior wrote to a local sports columnist – a letter the veteran sportswriter called "not only the finest tribute to a living coach I have ever received from an athlete, but the only one of its kind." The senior praised Jordan not only for his extraordinary winning record, but for what he called Jordan’s "man-making ability." He wrote, "Mr. Jordan can nurture that small spark of self-confidence that is hidden in so many of us, and through his patient way bring out the fire that makes for success in life as well as on the track."
"It is your achievement as a leader, as a molder of character, as an advocate of patient hard work and of the highest possible standards that is your true legacy," then-Occidental President Ted Mitchell said in bestowing an honorary degree on Jordan in 2001. "All of the thousands of young athletes you coached boast of having run or thrown or jumped for Coach Jordan. As one of your former Oxy athletes said in all seriousness recently, ‘If Coach Jordan asked us to run through a wall, we’d do it, no questions asked.’
A native of Whittier, Jordan grew up in Pasadena. He graduated from Pasadena High School as a championship sprinter, inspired by Olympic gold medalist Charlie Paddock, who told him he had the stuff of champions if he was willing to work hard. At USC, Jordan was a member of the 1938 world record-holding 440 relay team. As a senior, he served as captain of the 1939 team that won a second consecutive national championship for the Trojans.
In addition to his duties as track coach at Occidental, Jordan also coached Oxy’s freshman football team, winning nine conference titles outright and tying for a tenth. Among the players he introduced to college football were former pro quarterback and national political figure Jack Kemp ’57 and his classmate Jim Mora, a tight end who went on to a distinguished career as a NFL coach.
Although Jordan retired from coaching in 1979, he continued to challenge himself as a senior athlete, setting world records in the 100-meter dash for every age group from 55 to 80. A member of the USC, Occidental, Stanford, NAIA, and USA Track and Field halls of fame, he was awarded the Dwight D. Eisenhower Fitness Award by the U.S. Sports Academy in 1999.
Jordan is survived by two daughters, four grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. His wife, Marge, to whom he was married for 66 years, died in 2006. Funeral arrangements are pending.