Hundreds of friends, family and York High School alumni filled every inch of the school’s commons in Elmhurst, Ill. on the final Saturday of January, 2018. It was called a memorial celebration and if ever there was a coaching life to celebrate, it’s that of Joe Newton, who passed away December 9, 2017 in Arizona. Many of those gathered ran for the legendary York mentor over the past five decades, and they swapped all manner of stories before, during and for many hours afterward.
Cross country is a sport run under any conditions, demanding perseverance, mental toughness, and inner-discipline. Coach Newton taught those qualities and many others to his student-athletes, starting when he became head coach in 1960. In just his third year at the helm, York won their first Illinois state championship. Incredibly, it was the first of 28 Newton-coached teams would capture in XC – the final title in 3A in 2012. It is a number that may never be equaled in Illinois. In 2000, his track and field squad won the 2A state championship, which was the first for Newton.
Newton coached four outstanding harriers to individual crowns, including Ron Craker (1975), Jim White (1984), Don Sage (1999) and Sean McNamara (2004). His distance runners on the track won more than 20 additional state crowns – topped by Sage and his 8:42.89 3,200, 4:07.58 1,600 double in 2000. Sage would go on to run a 4:00.29 mile at the Prefontaine Classic, the fastest ever run by an Illinois prep at the time. Newton also coached the two fastest 4x800s in state history: 7:34.8 in 1985 with White and 7:34.1 in 2000 with Sage.
Newton’s 2004 XC squad, competing as a club per meet rules, famously captured the first Nike Cross Nationals (then Nike Team Nationals) – led by McNamara’s individual title. They qualified for the first nine NXN meets, finishing runner-up two other times. Before the advent of the meet, Newton’s York squads were at or near the top of numerous “Super 25” national rankings by The Harrier editor and publisher Marc Bloom.
Coach Newton was awarded the NFHS National Cross-Country Coach of the Year four times. He wrote four books that concentrated on training and motivation regarding distance running, including the 1969 classic “The Long Green Line.” His motivational talks focused on the psychological and philosophical factors for success – not only in coaching but also in life.
Coach Newton was named to many Halls of Fame in the sport, starting with the ITCCCA (Illinois Track/Cross Country Coaches Association) in 1984. In 1988, Newton was the first high school coach to be named to the staff of the U.S. Olympic track and field team, serving as assistant manager for the marathoners in Seoul.
He may be gone physically, but Coach Newton’s teachings will live on with every York student-athlete that ran for him and all those he encountered.
Did You Know?
Newton-coached teams captured 28 state cross country championships in Illinois.