This Saturday is the final meet for the greatest coach in the history of high school cross country.
Joe Newton has led York High School to 28 Illinois state high school cross country titles. He has won more championships than the New York Yankees. Newton started at Waterman High School in northern Illinois, where he coached track, cross country and basketball. From there, he moved to York and started as a P.E. teacher. In 1956, he was hired as assistant coach of the boys cross country team and was elevated to head coach in 1959. Three years later, he won his first state title. Newton is in his 61st season at York, where he has led the Dukes to more state titles than any sport in the history of Illinois high school athletics. In addition to his 28 championships, Newton has guided York to 12 runner-up and four third-place finishes. That’s 44 state trophies in six decades.
York Community High School is a public secondary school in Elmhurst, Illinois—a suburb 18 miles west of Chicago. Opened in 1918, York has an enrollment of about 2,600 students. The Dukes compete in the West Suburban Conference, one of the most prestigious leagues in the state. Newton has built the most storied high school cross country program in America. Under his guidance, York has qualified for the state meet in every season but one. Newton has coached four individual state champs, won over 2,000 dual meets, and has only three home losses in 61 years. The Dukes have won 96 percent of their meets. The 2004 team finished one-two-three in the ISHA state meet. More importantly, Coach Newton has dedicated his entire life and career to making a difference in the lives of the young men he leads. “It’s easy to take a great runner and make him successful,” says Newton. “My forte is I can take average guys and make them better.” Newton’s training and conditioning methods are successful, but what makes him extraordinary is his ability to lead and motivate. “I learned that in coaching, a guy likes to hear his name. So I try to call a guy’s name out every day in practice, try to yell his name out in a meet. And that’s one of the secrets.”
Joe Newton attended Parker High School [now Robeson] on Chicago’s south side, where he earned three varsity letters each in basketball, baseball and track. He also earned two letters in swimming and one in tennis. Parker had no track coach, so after Newton finished second in three events in the 1946 Chicago City Championships, the basketball coach entered him in the state meet at the University of Illinois. “The coach said, ‘Here’s some money—you go down there,” recalled Newton. “I had never really gotten off my block in Chicago and suddenly I was on a train to Champaign.” Newton received undergrad and graduate degrees from Northwestern University, earning straight A’s in his final year. His first job was at Waterman.
“The Long Green Line” was coined several years ago by Elmhurst Press sports editor Karl Schindl as he noted the long line of York runners dressed in their Kelly green and white uniforms. This season, the Dukes have 170 runners on their team, and some years over 200 boys come out for cross country. Newton comes up with a nickname for each one. “I try to come up with something personal for each guy. I’ll shake their hand at the end of practice and call them by their nickname.” At the end of each practice, Newton leaves his student-athletes with a thought of the day. One is, “It’s nice to be great. It’s greater to be nice.” Another is, “You choose to be average. You choose to be good. You choose to be great.”
Cross country rules only allow seven runners—known at York as the “Magnificent Seven”—to actually compete in a given varsity meet, meaning the vast majority of Newton’s athletes never get the chance to run in a competition. One of his fondest wishes is for his runners to have what he refers to as a “forever moment”—one of those memorable experiences that they can carry with them and remember for the rest of their lives. “You go through life,” says Newton, “and you don’t get a lot of forever moments.” Coach Newton asks three simple questions on the first day of practice. “Can I trust you—because I trust you. Are you committed to excellence—because I am. Do you care about me—because I care about each and every one of you.” He is a strict disciplinarian. “If you are in school, you’ve got to come to practice. If you duck out twice, you’re done.” The York harriers have the highest GPA of any team at the school. The 87-year-old Newton, who still does 100 push-ups each day, believes in being of service. “I found out the people who are happiest in life are people who have a job helping other people. But I’m happy every day. Except when we lose. Then I’m unhappy.”
Newton, who considers Indiana University’s legendary track coach Sam Bell as his mentor, started the “1,000 Mile Club” at York several years ago. To qualify, runners must cover 1,000 miles during summer training—between June 1 and September 1. Athletes record their mileage in a log using the honor system. “You don’t win races in November,” implores Newton. “You win in June, July and August when you are sweating your butt off doing those miles.” Each qualifying runner is awarded a “1,000 Mile Club” tee shirt bought by his coach.
Mr. Newton has written four books and is a member of 16 halls of fame. In 2004, he was inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame, an honor he considers the epitome of his illustrious career. In 1988, he coached the U.S. marathon team at the Seoul Olympics. Increasingly severe arthritis has led Coach Newton to call it quits. Beginning in 2017, Charlie Kern Sr. will be leading York’s cross country program. It will be the first season in 63 years that the great Joe Newton will not be coaching high school athletics.
The Illinois state high school cross country championships will be held at Peoria’s Detweiller Park this Saturday, November 5, where Joe Newton will be leading the York Dukes one final time.
“When you take the day off, you lose two days, one for what you lost and one for what you could have gained.” – Joe Newton