Legendary York High School Coach Joe Newton Passes Away

Ilona Koziel

By Tony Jones for MileSplit

Former Elmhurst York (IL) High School cross country and track and field coach Joe Newton passed away Saturday morning at his home in Arizona. He was 88 years old.

Newton taught and coached at York from 1956 until his retirement last November. He became the school's cross country coach in the fall of 1960. Two years later, York won its first state title.

While he was coach, the "Long Green Line" won 28 state cross country titles. He also coached York to a state title in track in 2000, his final season coaching that team. His 2004 cross-country team was the inaugural winner of the Nike Team Nationals.

"I had the honor of spending some quality time with Mr. Newton in the early NXN/NTN years," Bill Aris, coach of the 11-time NXN champion Fayetteville-Manlius girls cross-country team, told DyeStat. "It was a thrill for me and it was a real good camaraderie and time to communicate with him. His York boys teams were powerful and my Stotans and his guys would lock horns and there was nothing but mutual respect.

"I thought the world of the guy. Probably our coaching styles were a little bit different, but in some ways old-school similar. He produced great ones. He produced people of great character and his kids were a reflection of him. I have nothing but respect for him and his legacy."

In 1988, Newton became the first high school coach named to a U.S. Olympic Team coaching position, guiding the marathon squad at the Seoul Games.

Newton meant so much to so many in the world of running and life. On a day filled with tremendous happiness as many cross country athletes around the country --particularly the contingent of boys and girls from Illinois-- competed at Foot Locker Nationals, it's also a shared moment of sadness.

"Today is a sad day for not only myself and the Newton family but also the Elmhurst running community, with the past, and present men of the YORK Cross Country program," Newton's son, Thomas, said in a statement.

Newton's funeral will be private. His family is asking that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Joe Newton Scholarship Award of Excellence. Donations can be made online by going to the Dupage Foundation Website at dupagefoundation.org and do a search for the Joe Newton Scholarship Award of Excellence.

Statements from some of Newton's many admirers, former athletes, and coaching brethren:

Former long-time York assistant coach and current York head coach, Charlie Kern, Sr.:

I first met Mr. Newton in front of the school as the team was running around the circle drive. I was was 24, but nervous to the point of sickness to address the man whose shadow extended all the way to my hometown in NY state.  

"I had secured a student teaching position for the fall of '93 and was hoping to assist the cross country team.  Knowing that I had to ask the man who wrote the book on HS cross country and motivation if I can help him was, in my mind, folly, but perhaps he would be kind enough to let me perform some lowly task and I could soak up as much as I could.  Walking from a distant parking lot towards him was an exercise of courage, my heart was pounding and my legs were weak.  

I repeatedly practiced my speech, making changes along the way.  Once I made it to the steps outside the gym, his glare was focused and directly on me.  He looked over the top of his glasses and was waiting for me to speak.  I immediately fumbled my words, botched the speech and watched his face contort with a combination of amusement, compassion and disdain.  Needing to save face I cut to the chase and said,  "I will be student teaching in the fall and was wondering if I could help you and the cross country program?" Everything changed with that question (in more ways than I could have imagined).  Mr. Newton, sitting in his chair, stood up and declared to his manager, "Kurtis! Can you believe it!  This man, came to me, from God!"  He welcomed me to York with a performance that is symbolic of his existence;  He was larger than life.  

I am having great difficulty coming to grips with the end of the most amazing coaching run, pun intended, in the history of cross country.  The six degrees of separation game is a fun way to see our connection to Kevin Bacon.  In the world of Illinois cross country, there may not be a person who is more than 1 level removed from Mr. Newton.  I am fortunate to say that I have worked directly with Mr. Newton and have been doing so since 1993.

The lessons that he taught his athletes were also learned or relearned as his assistant.  Mr. Newton took advantage of the opportunity to teach young men lessons that will sustain them for the rest of their lives. A winning culture was built, not from trophies, but from a foundation of values that insures success for life! The Newtonisms and references continue to rattle around in the heads of athletes from 1956 to 2015 and guide the lives of young and old men.  In this way, Mr. Newton  has become larger than life, he lives on in his students and athletes and thus becomes immortal."

Apollo HS; Owensboro, KY coach Mark Rowe: 

"For all the success Mr. Newton has had- the State Championships, National Championships, etc.- I think his greatest contribution to the sport is an example he's given us for how to treat athletes. For decades, he has taught athletes life skills that were more important than how to run fast. Along the way, he's inspired a countless number of coaches by simply sticking to his principles of hard work and dedication no matter what decade he was coaching in. I'm convinced that the sport of high school cross country in the United States would not nearly be as strong as it is today without the huge impact that Mr. Newton has had. He's simply the best cross-country coach there's ever been."

Former York runner and Elmwood Park coach Patrick Sheridan: 

"Mr. Newton symbolized bringing out the best in each of his runners and managers. Whether it was being a state champion or breaking 5 minutes in the mile, he made each young man he coached feel special and important. He cared about us and even though he had three children of his own, and two sons, he loved us like sons. Because of that, and his belief in us, we were willing to run through walls for him and for each other."

Palatine coach Chris Quick (one of the few coaches to beat Newton for a state title):

"Hard to explain what Joe Newton meant. It suffices to say that most of us who accomplished something great in Illinois XC either did it because of him or in opposition to him. Either way, he was the center of it all."

Hinsdale Central coach/former York runner Noah Lawrence:

I, like many others, owe my vocation, work ethic, and outlook on life in large part to my high school coach, Mr. Newton.  As a result of running in his program, I developed confidence, purpose, and a sense of belonging - three traits so crucial to navigating the teenage years.  He worked us incredibly hard - the hundred mile weeks are not myth but reality - and yet from that intensity I learned of talents and capabilities I'd never otherwise known I'd had. 

As a coach for the past 15 years, my appreciation for Mr. Newton has only grown deeper. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and in the first decade of the new century, York almost always won all 4 levels at the Conference meet. As a young coach at Hinsdale Central, I wondered if we'd ever be able to beat York on any level. To have that level of success in a conference with so many other good teams and coaches is awesome to contemplate.

When we finally did defeat York, at the 2013 state meet, it was a humbling moment. At that time, I wrote the following: 'Mr. Newton was my coach, and the man who made me who I am today. Several people came up to me today to ask me if I got to shake his hand. Alas, I did not. Amidst the excitement of learning the final results, I lost the opportunity to approach him. I know he will be upset and disappointed with how his season turned out, late-season illness sidelining one of their best runners, leading to a 5th place finish.

Three weeks ago, York beat LT, DGN, and us at Conference, and today finished behind all of us. But we all walk in Mr. Newton's shadow. There will never be another coach like him, and my earnest wish is that he takes some solace from the fact that the team that won today was coached, in part, by a man who ran for him.'  It is the greatest tribute an athlete can give to his coach. As we contemplate the stark reality that Mr. Newton is, in fact, mortal, I'd like to simply add to this that his legacy will live on so long as we as coaches aspire to live up to his example of believing in our athletes more than they believe in themselves, of motivating them to do the work necessary to discover their own untapped potential. 

Dan Iverson, Naperville North girls coach:

"York runners everywhere and our sport are forever better for the time he spent with us. I am certainly a better coach and person for having known him. Rest well, Mr. Newton."

Paul Vandersteen, Neuqua Valley Boys Coach:

"Joe Newton IS Illinois distance running. Where would Illinois distance running be without him? He is the very definition of a legend."

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