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Legacy of a Champion

Courtesy Payton Jordan

FAST COMPANY: Jordan as cover boy in 1939.

For Payton Jordan, the U.S.-Soviet track meet was a highlight in a career that spanned seven decades. Jordan’s accomplishments as an athlete, coach and promoter have made him a legend in track and field.

As a young athlete, he set world records on grass tracks in the 100- and 220-yard dashes (9.5 and 21.1 seconds, respectively) and ran a leg on a world-record 440-relay team. Considered the premier sprinter of his time, he was featured on the cover of Life magazine in 1939. That same year, he captained the University of Southern California’s NCAA-championship track squad and played halfback on the Trojans’ Rose Bowl team. He was denied the chance to compete in the Olympics when World War II forced cancellation of the 1940 and 1944 Games.

After the war, Jordan quickly established himself as one of the country’s best track coaches, winning two national championships at Occidental College before coming to Stanford in 1957. During his 23 years on the Farm, his athletes broke five world records, won six NCAA individual titles and earned All-America honors 29 times. The crowning achievement of his coaching career came at the 1968 Olympic Games. His U.S. team won 24 medals, the most in Olympic track and field history, including an unprecedented 12 golds, and set six world records.

He returned to competition in the late 1970s as a Master’s sprinter and set world records in the 100-meter dash for every age group from 55 to 80 before retiring in 1998 at the age of 81.

Beyond his competitive accomplishments, Jordan is respected for his influence on two generations of athletes. Chuck Cobb, ’58, MBA ’62, an All-American hurdler at Stanford, went on to become undersecretary of commerce for President Reagan. “There were many hundreds of us that attribute our life successes to his motivation and discipline,” Cobb wrote in the foreword to a new book about Jordan’s career, Champions for Life (Nicholas Ward Publishing, 2004), written by John Scott, ’67, and Jim Ward, ’69.

James Lofton, who won the 1978 NCAA long jump title and became a Hall of Fame NFL receiver, credits Jordan with teaching him how to train, compete and conduct himself. “All the pro football Hall of Fame coaches I played for—Bart Starr, Forrest Gregg and Bill Walsh—were only the tip of the iceberg compared to Payton Jordan. He made me believe in myself as a champion,” Lofton, ’78, said in Champions for Life.

Eighteen of Jordan’s former athletes, teammates and colleagues have named their children after him. Last year, the USA Track & Field Meet at Stanford was permanently renamed the Payton Jordan U.S. Open.

“I’ve always gotten more credit than I deserved. Whatever success I’ve had has been a team effort,” Jordan said recently during an interview in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he lives with his wife, Marge.

“The most important thing to me is the people. The friends I have, the relationships I’ve made with my athletes and fellow coaches. My family. Those are the important things.”

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