By Mark Maxwell
In the final week of high school football’s regular season, the Muscle Milk Team of the Week is not a football team. Instead, perhaps the most decorated sports team in the Chicagoland area has stolen the show once again.
York cross country coach Joe Newton has filled multiple trophy cases during his 53 years coaching in Elmhurst. His resume includes: defending state champions, 28 state titles, 13 second place trophies, 8 third place trophies, inducted into five different halls of fame (U.S. Track Coaches Association, U.S. Track and Field Federation, Northwestern University, National High School and Gatorade Coaches Halls of Fame), the first high school coach to ever coach in the Olympics, the top-ranked cross country team in the state and the fourth-ranked team in the nation. These awards are only the beginning of a long list of accomplishments that has been 53 years in the making.
Content but not satisfied, Newton has his team in prime position to compete for yet another state title in Peoria on Saturday, Nov. 9. Newton is no stranger to praise and recognition. Not many high school coaches have Wikipedia pages attributed solely to them and far fewer coaches have 90-minute documentaries made about their program’s success. In 2008, Newton's coaching work was commemorated in the documentary "The Long Green Line."
When York was named Comcast’s Muscle Milk Team of the Week, Newton demanded that the attention be directed to his athletes.
“I want them to get all the credit. After 53 years, if I don't know how to do it right, I'm pretty dumb. And I'm not as dumb as I look,” Newton said. “We know how to get them to the top of the mountain but they got to buy in. People say when I go to the clinics, ‘What's the secret workout?’ There is no secret workout. It's your relationship with your athletes. If they know you care about them, they will do anything for you.”
Another one of the secrets to York’s running success has been attracting a large crop of runners every season. Even though only seven runners can represent them at the state meet, they have over 200 students on the team this season.
“The secret is getting a lot of kids out, number one,” Newton told CSNChicago.com. “We have, every year, between 180 and 200 boys on our team. So that's better than having five. We need five good runners, and you can find five when you got that many.”
Newton's ability to connect with each individual athlete has been more instrumental than simply casting a wide recruiting net. Every day before practice, Newton checks the students into practice by calling their names and recording their attendance into his logbook. At a spry 84 years of age, Newton knows the names – and nicknames – of every single runner. Newton takes this time to throw playful jabs at a runner’s recent poor performance or to praise the progress of another up-and-comer. Newton’s long history of success has been outlined by his ability to take less-than-average athletes and build them into top competitors.
“I'll tell you what. Cross country is just like life. I love what I'm doing,” Newton reflected. “When you love what you're doing, you just do it because you love it. Most old people that retire play golf. How much can you play golf? I don't play golf. My hobby is cross country coaching and motivating kids to do the best they can do with what they got.”
It’s estimated that Newton has coached more than 2,500 students during his years. Throughout the years, he has continued to demand excellence from his athletes while maintaining a quality rapport with each of them along the way.
“[Coach Newton] has pretty much taught me everything there is for running. It's not just about physical, it's mental too,” said sophomore runner Joe May. “A lot of the time, [coach Newton’s message] is just to stay calm. We've raced a lot of these kids before so we know we can beat them. We've done it before. Just keep doing what we've been doing all season.”
Senior Jeff Nosek echoed similar sentiments, saying he “would not be the same person he is today without Mr. Newton.”
Assistant coach Jim Hedman has shared a large portion of the journey with Newton. Hedman ran for Newton in the seventies, his sons both ran for Newton in the nineties and now Hedman assists Newton on the coaching staff.
“You hear about coaches over the years, after the years, you hear that their message is lost. You have to replace the coach with somebody else with a new message to keep the program going,” Hedman said. “I find that it's out of the ordinary that here's a man that started coaching in the fifties. The kids from the fifties aren't like the kids from the seventies. They aren't like the kids of the nineties and they aren't like the kids now. Somehow, he has something that is just who he is that connects with every generation. That is what has been special here at York.”
Though the official York team mascot is the Dukes, the cross country squad is better known as “The Long Green Line.” In 1961, a young Newton still hadn’t won his first state title. In a dual meet at the East End Park, the first 15 runners to cross the finish line were from York. A since-deceased news reporter commented, “Look at that long green line.” The alias stuck. Newton’s runners brought home their first state title the following season.
“I remember in '62, we won our first championship and I was like, ‘Geez, if I could just do this one more time,’” Newton said. “Now we got 28, going for 29 because we've had great kids who are willing to work hard.”
When asked about circulating rumors of his retirement, Newton responded, “Bear Bryant was my idol, the old Alabama football coach. He retired and three months later, he died. So I love what I'm doing. Why should I stop? What else have I got to do? I'm 84 years old. I love York High School. Why would I want to quit?”