Coaches Corner with Joe Newton (Elmhurst York High School, IL)
By: Mark Rowe (Boys XC Coach, Owensboro High School)
John Wooden. Vince Lombardi. Joe Torre. Joe Newton. Wooden, Lombardi, and Torre are all household names in their sport. Young runners today, especially in the Bluegrass, may have a hard time identifying who Joe Newton is and why he would belong on that list. However, in the sport of high school cross-country, he is larger than all of the first three names. Wooden won ten NCAA basketball titles, Lombardi won several Super Bowls and Torre coached the Yankees to numerous World Series championships.
Joe Newton, at 82 years old, is still coaching cross-country today. Since 1956, at Elmhurst York High School in Illinois, Newton has been the architect of the greatest high school sports dynasty in history.He remains the only high school cross-country coach to ever be selected onto the United States Olympic track and field staff when he was awarded a position in 1988. KYTrackXC.com caught up with Coach Newton this afternoon as he was working in his office for the upcoming cross-country season.
KY: What is your present position? How long have you been at your school? Where else have you coached at?
JN: I am the head boys cross-country coach at York High School. I have been coaching at York since 1956. Before York, I coached in Fort Lenardwood, MO on the Army base from 1952-1954. After that, I coached at Waterman High in Illinois from 1954-1956. At Waterman, if it was offered, I coached it. I was also the athletic director there. I did everything!
KY: Tell me about your State Championships in both cross-country and track. How many have you won in each? How many runners have you had win individual State Championships?
JN: We have won 27 State Championships in cross-country . We have also been National Championships in cross-country 20 times. Individually, Ron Cracker, Jim White, Don Sage and Sean McNamara have won state championships in cross-country. Our only track state championship while I was coaching came in 2000. It was my last season as head track coach and we went out on top. It was fantastic. In the distances, Cracker, McNamara, and White all won the 3200 meter state title. Tim Hobbs won the 800 and my best guy ever, Don Sage, won back-to-back state championships in both the 1600 and 3200. He ran 4:00.2 for the full mile at the Pre Classic his senior year and is the fifth fastest high school miler ever in the United States.
KY: You have coached teams that have won the State Championship, in arguably the toughest State Meet in the United States, 27 times and finally went out on top in track with a state title in 2000. Which is sweeter: the twenty-seven cross or the one track?
JN: Most definitely the cross-country titles. In cross-country, it’s totally about the team. In track, you can win all kinds of duel meets and local meets and go to the State Championship and not score a single point. Individual stars can win the State Championship for you in track. In cross-country, we can take five average guys that believe in each other and win. Everyone is in it together. We won that championship in my last year coaching track at York. It’s like the saying, “always a bridesmaid, never a bride.” I was beginning to think that would be us!
KY: Was there ever a “near miss” in track that haunts you today?
JN: Jim White’s senior year, we lost 40-39. The whole meet came down to the 4x400 relay and we had no team in the race. East St. Louis finished fourth in the race and moved up one spot after Evanston dropped the baton in the last stretch. It was my most bitter loss ever.
KY: What has been your most memorable team championship in cross-country? Most memorable individual championship?
JN: It would have to be our first one back in 1962. My first year at York, we didn’t qualify for the State Meet. We were 7th my second year and won the third year. Our 2000 championship team was probably the greatest team in the history of Illinois. Don Sage won individually and then we went fifth, sixth, eighth and twelfth for 24 total points and 230 runners were in the race! It was and still is the lowest point total in the modern era in Illinois. Urbana has the lowest with 21 points but only 82 runners were in the field.
My favorite individual championship was in 2004 when McNamara won and Matt and Eric Dettman went second and third. That had never been done before or since. It was incredible.
KY: Regardless of whether they won the State Championship or not, do you have an all-time favorite York team?
JN: Don Sage’s team in 2000 was very special. In 1968, Pete Reiff was our team captain and that group also won state but they were just a fantastic group of guys. A lot of fun.
KY: You coached one of the all-time greats in our sport in Don Sage. What individual race did he have that you’ll always remember?
JN: At the State Championships in track Sage’s senior year, he ran 8:42.7 for the 3200 meters. Tim Keller from West Chicago was with him the whole way and the last 400, Sage ran 58 seconds to win and opened up 14 seconds on him the last lap. The crowd was going crazy and so was I! He comes back in the 1600 and runs 4:07. With 300 to go, he was in 5th or 6th place and ran another :58 on his last lap of that race to win. The crowd went bananas again and I was right there with them. It was a “forever moment.” We won the team title 70-38 and one guy scored all 38 points for the 2nd place team.
KY: How has your coaching philosophy changed over the years?
JN: It definitely has. It’s changed a lot. I listen more than I used to when I was younger. When I was starting out, it was “my way or the highway” with the kids. But, our team rules remain the same as they always have. The big thing now is I am just listening more. You do that as you mature as a coach.
KY: A couple years ago, a documentary came out called the “Long Green Line” about the 2005 York cross-country season. My brother and I watched it with you one time and I remember tears swelling up in your eyes as you watched the team win the title that year. Do you feel the movie portrayed your program like you wanted it to?
JN: I definitely think it did. I didn’t like the part with me swearing and yelling at Nick (Kuczwara) during that one workout scene. I wish they had edited that out! That wasn’t good of me. Other than that, it was great. It’s a great movie about our culture that is built on toughness and integrity.
KY: You have had so many amazing experiences in this sport and impacted thousands of kids’ lives for the better. Ever consider writing an autobiography?
JN: There’s a guy writing a book right now. It’s almost done. I don’t know the title of it yet, but it will probably be out in the springtime. The author is a father of one of my guys and has written three other books, but the manuscript is almost done.
KY: Who are some other coaches who you look up to or admire within our sport?
JN: Pat Tyson – used to be at Mead High School in Washington and built a dynasty there. He is at Gonzaga now. Danny Green who retired from the Woodlands High School in Texas. Two coaches in Illinois that do a great job with their kids are Palatine’s Jeff Quick and Neuqua Valley’s Paul Vandersteen.
KY: Who are some people that have had a major impact on your life and career?
JN: Eddie O’Farrell was my high school coach at Parker High in Chicago. Dr. Joe Vigil, formerly of Adams St. in Colorado, is one of my dearest friends. He taught me about VO2 Max training and coached great ones like Pat Porter and Deena Drossin (Kastor). The late Arthur Lydiard from New Zealand was special. I had him in my home 3-4 times and picked his brain a lot. Bill Dellinger, the former coach at the University of Oregon, has helped me with distance training. I could never forget or thank enough my friend, Peter Coe. Peter was Sebastian’s dad. “Seb” came to my home and trained for 3 weeks before the Olympics in Los Angeles. Peter gave me all of his training and was a great coach and person.
KY: With 175-225 kids on your team, how do you possibly manage them and give every kid the attention they deserve?
JN: I couldn’t do it by myself. I have a great staff! Charlie Kern was my assistant for many years. The great thing about Charlie is that he could do every workout with my top guys. After Charlie got out of everyday coaching at York, I brought in Jim Hedman who was on my State Championship team in 1978. Jim does a great job and loves the kids. We also have Clyde Ware on staff. He is an ex-Marine and in charge of weight training, neuro training and core strength work.
KY: Many people do not realize that you once founded and were the meet director for one of the most prestigious events in high school track and field- The Keebler International meet. Tell me a little about that experience.
JN: When we started that meet, the “big baby” of high school meets was the Golden West meet out in California. We named our meet the Golden Midwest. Several years later Coca-Cola came on board and we changed the name and eventually it became the Keebler International. It was always the same meet for 25 years though and it was great. Teams made up of high school seniors from all over the world came and ran. We used to spend $500,000 on the meet and paid for travel expenses and everything. We had wonderful kids in from Cuba, England, Germany—all over the place. It’s a big job getting kids from all over the world to come to Illinois. It was nuts! I don’t know how I did it. I think the last year for the meet was 2000.
KY: Last question Coach Newton: Most people realize that York (competing as Kroy Running Club) won the inaugural Nike Cross Nationals (then Nike Team Nationals) out in Portland, Oregon in 2004. You guys are the only boys team to have qualified all seven years of its existence. Talk about that meet and if you feel Nike Cross Nationals and the Foot Locker Championships can co-exist or should there be separate meets?
JN: I think Nike and Foot Locker can both stay separate because the Nike meet focuses primarily on teams and Foot Locker is all about individuals. I am proud to say that five of the seven years we have been to Nike Cross Nationals we have been in the top ten, we won the first one ever and been second as well. Coach Charlie Kern coaches the guys after State and does great with them. It’s a little tough on us because we have our State Meet, then Nike Regional the very next week and then three weeks till Nationals, but we do the best we can and keep on rolling. But, I am very happy for our guys when they go to Nationals. Charlie gets them ready and anything can happen once they get out there.
I would like to think Coach Joe Newton for his time and contributing this interview to KYTrackXC.com!