One of the nation’s greatest boys cross country coaches ‑ and boys cross country programs ‑ resides in west-central suburban Chicago, just south of O’Hare International Airport.
That legendary coach is 82-year-old Joe Newton and his program is at Elmhurst (Illinois) York High School. Since 1959, Newton has directed the York harriers’ fortunes. In the process, he led the program to 27 state titles in 51 seasons, which works out to winning a state title in more than half of his seasons there.
York’s 27 state titles ranks tied for third nationally, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations’ (NFHS) National High School Sports Record Book. After a four-year respite from being an Illinois High School Association (IHSA) boys cross country state champion, the Dukes returned to the top spot in 2010. Spanning three different decades, York has compiled separate consecutive state title streaks of six, five and five.
And while all state championships are extraordinary and are to be forever cherished, perhaps three of them stand out a little more than the rest.
“Winning the first title in 1962 was special,” Newton said. “Our third state championship team in 1968 had great camaraderie. They were all great kids who really bonded. And the 2004 team that finished 1-2-3 in the IHSA state meet was a great team.”
Newton has coached four individuals (Ron Cracker in 1975, Jim White in 1984, Donald Sage in 1999 and Sean McNamara in 2004) to IHSA individual state championships. His squads have won more than 2,000 dual meets, have compiled a remarkable 96-percent winning percentage and have lost only three home meets. In addition, Newton has shared his coaching philosophies with the reading public in four books, including “Coaching Cross Country Successfully.”
However, the true story of Joe Newton goes way beyond mere state titles, individual champions and outlandish winning percentages. It’s the story of a man who has dedicated his entire life and career to making a difference in the lives of the young men he coached. A master motivator, his impact on their lives has indeed been substantial and long-lasting.
“The key is I am blessed with the ability to motivate guys and to get into their minds,” Newton explained. “It’s easy to take a great runner and make him successful. My forte is I can take average guys and make them better.
“For me, the most gratifying part of coaching is seeing a guy come in as a vacillating freshman, see him develop by the time he’s a senior and then he goes on to become a doctor,” Newton said. “I love to win meets, but more importantly, I’m touching lives and making them better people.”
From a very young age, Newton knew that he wanted to be a coach. Following a stint while in the service that entailed coaching three Olympic track performers, Newton started his career at Waterman (Illinois) High School, where he coached track, cross country and basketball. From there, he moved to York High School, where he started out as a physical education teacher.
His life changed forever first in 1956, when he was hired as assistant coach of the York boys cross country team, and then again in 1959, when he was elevated to the head coach position. Once there, he wasted little time as he led the Dukes to the state championship just three years later.
One of the unique aspects of the Newton’s cross country program is its nickname, “The Long Green Line.” It was coined several years ago by Elmhurst Press sports editor Karl Schindl, as he noted the long line of York runners dressed in their green uniforms. Today, it is so renowned that a documentary movie of the same name was produced regarding Newton and his York cross country program.
“It’s unbelievable ‑ that movie has made me famous,” Newton said. “Everyone wants an autograph. People stop me and say they saw your movie. I feel like I’m 45 instead of 82.”
With York’s large enrollment of 2,582, it’s not surprising that a commensurately high number of boys come out for its cross country team. However, that participatory number goes way beyond normal expectations as Newton regularly has seasons in which more than 200 boys come out for the team, despite the fact that only seven runners can actually compete in a given varsity meet. And not only does Newton keep all of those runners on the team, he also comes up with a unique nickname for every one of them.
“That was easy when I had just 50 guys on the team, but now it’s getting harder to do,” Newton explained. “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.
“I’ll try to call every name at least one time in practice. A guy likes to know that you’re watching him while running. Little things like that have to do more with motivation than running.”
On the first day of practice, Newton asks his prospective harriers just three simple questions that both define the expectations of the York cross country program and tells them what they receive in return as part of the bargain.
“Can I trust you ‑ because I trust you,” Newton stated. “Are you committed to excellence ‑ because I am. Do you care about me ‑ because I love each and every one of you.”
While many of his runners are successful while in high school and dozens of them attended college on athletic scholarships, Newton wants to get the most out of them while they are at York, and for them to get the most out of their experience there. With those thoughts in mind, 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 and you don’t get a lot of ‘forever moments,’” Newton said. “It’s 100-percent ecstasy when you get one.”
Among his many recognitions, Newton was inducted into the NFHS’ National High School Hall of Fame in 2004, an honor he considers to be the epitome of his illustrious career.
“I think I’m in 13 halls of fame,” Newton said. “However, this one was the ultimate hall of fame for me. It was the one that counted.”
At an age when most people have been retired 20 years and having absolutely nothing left to prove from a career standpoint, what is it that keeps the 82-year-old Newton coaching?
“I keep looking at Joe Pa (Penn State University head football coach Joe Paterno),” Newton explained. “He’s 85 and still coaching football. And coaching football’s a lot harder.
“My goal is to keep coaching. Bing Crosby died on the golf course ‑ doing what he loved. My wife says I’ll die on the cross country course. What better way to go? I coach half the year and the other half, my wife and I go to Arizona. It keeps me busy and keeps me younger.”