The passing of a York's Joe Newton: The passing of an Illinois legend
Coaches are often unfairly judged by wins and losses.
Championships can also be inaccurately used as a barometer of success.
Just using these basic criteria puts Joe Newton at the head of the coaching class in Illinois high school sports. Filling the York trophy cases with 29 pieces of state title hardware — 28 in boys cross country and another in boys track and field — puts him miles ahead of anyone else.
However, to solely use the staggering numbers of trophies he brought back to Elmhurst in his 60-plus years of coaching as the measure of greatness would be a gross injustice. Because Joe Newton was truly a champion of so many he coached, taught and influenced during his 88 years before he passed away early Saturday morning in Arizona.
All of us may run, but few of us want to do it day after day to the point of mental and physical exhaustion. From the time he arrived at York as a teacher in 1956 — and then took over the cross country and track and field programs in 1960 — Joe Newton's brilliance was his ability to get so many kids of all shapes and sizes to push themselves to heights they may not have believed they could reach.
The vast majority of them would not reap the tangible benefits of reaching an awards stand in Peoria. But they did receive a gift that would last a lifetime.
Joe Newton knew he simply couldn't wait for the runners to come to him en route to winning his first cross country title in 1962 or his last in 2012. At the start of every school year, he would pull freshmen out of the gym classes who weren't in another sport and ask them, albeit in a pretty convincing way, to try and become one of his next “mighty mites” in the Long Green Line.
For two weeks I tried but wasn't among those who wanted to run at that point in time in my life. When I decided that was enough, I don't recall any tears being shed since my prospects were likely to make the Long Green Line even longer at the back end.
But he could definitely motivate the gym classes I was in for three of my four years at York. He also provided an aspiring sports writer with what will always be one of his most memorable moments almost 35 years later.
Joe Newton's impact in the international running community led to his friendship with legendary British runner Sebastian Coe. In between winning Olympic gold medals in the 1,500 meters in 1980 and 1984, Coe had come to stay with Joe Newton and do some training. And it was Joe Newton who set up the opportunity for a teenager from a high school newspaper to interview a world-renowned athlete who had been on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Joe Newton had a few prep equivalents of Seb Coe in Don Sage and Marius Bakken. On the surface one would probably figure he coached more than four individual state cross country champions than Ron Craker (1975), Jim White (1984), Sage (1999) and Sean McNamara (2004).
His brilliance was his ability to motivate individuals, in what most see as an individual endeavor, to do everything they could for the team. The proof is in title streaks of six (1989-94) and five on two occasions (1980-84 and 2002-06).
One year the early 1980s streak appeared to be in jeopardy when some of his top runners were injured in a car accident days before the state meet. Other runners stepped in and the streak continued.
One of his runners would be battling an injury, an illness or would get elbowed during the state meet. Another would have the meet of his life and the Long Green Line kept marching on.
And Joe Newton did more than just win trophies on a regular basis. The Long Green Line and the incomparable Craig Virgin of Lebanon, who still holds the state record of 13:50.6 he set 45 years ago, helped make the boys state cross country meet one of the greatest events in IHSA sports when it moved to Peoria in 1970.
Spectators could not even go on the course when it was held at the University of Illinois' Savoy Golf Course. But when longtime Peoria Central and Richwoods coach Bob LaCroix spearheaded a move, it opened the door for what Newton called York's “eighth man” when we talked for a story on the 20th anniversary of the state meet at the majestic Detweiller Park along the Illinois River.
The York band was always there. My junior year there were 13 — thirteen — student fan buses that went to Peoria for the state meet. After the awards ceremony where the team received their awards in tuxedos, Joe Newton shouted “everyone to Hardee's on McClure” to get something to eat before the trip back to Elmhurst.
It's no wonder that LaCroix said in 1989, “I can never think about a state meet without York. It's like it was designed for them.”
Joe Newton's influence extended to runners in the Northwest Suburbs. One of his prize pupils was Pete Reiff, who finished third in state for his third title team in 1968 and then took fourth in the state 2-mile in 1969.
Reiff, who passed away in 2003, led a tremendous program at Hoffman Estates. That same knack for motivation and development led the Hawks to a runner-up finish to York in state cross country in 1990, and the second-place track finish in 1997 is still the only top-three boys track trophy won by a Mid-Suburban League school.
And hearing Reiff shout across an infield “Attaboy, Jonesy” to one of his runners after a successful race sounded almost the same as it did if Joe Newton was shouting “Attaboy, Jonesy” to Dave Jones, one of his top runners in the early 1980s.
That is why Joe Newton was not a great coach just because York won 29 state championships under his direction.
York won those 29 championships because it was blessed to have one of the greatest coaches, motivators and leaders, in any sport or aspect of life, in Joe Newton.