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Joe Newton — September, 2012
Joe Newton is a legendary high school cross country and track coach at York High School in Elmhurst, Illinois who is arguably the most successful high school cross country coach in U.S. history based on team championships. Starting with his team’s first Illinois state cross country title in 1962, York has won 27 Illinois state cross country championships and one track state title while four of his runners won IHSA individual cross country titles. Joe’s cross country teams have also finished second in the Illinois state meet 11 times and in third place four times. So in the past 49 years the York Dukes earned a total of 42 IHSA trophies while never finishing lower than eighth place. Joe has been awarded the National Cross Country Coach of the Year four times and has written four books, concentrating on training and motivation. He was an assistant manager in charge of marathon runners on the U.S. team for the 1988 Olympics. Joe has been inducted into at least 13 Halls of Fame including the National High School Hall of Fame in 2004, an honor he considers to be the epitome of his illustrious career. A feature-length documentary was made about his life and successes, called ‘The Long Green Line,’ after his team's nickname. He lives in Huntley, Illinois with his wife, Joan, of 60 years. They spend part of the year in Arizona. Joe was very gracious to spend two hours on the telephone for this interview in early August, 2012 just two days before the York Dukes first cross country practice.
GCR:BACKGROUND You’ve been coaching for over 50 years – what keeps the fire going in your belly after all of these decades?
JNI just love what I am doing so why should I retire. My hero when I was growing up was Bear Bryant, the head football coach at Alabama. At the end of his career they played Illinois in a Bowl game and the Bear retired. He was only in his 70s and three months later he died. So my motto is that I don’t want to be like bear Bryant and die when I’m in my prime. I can hardly wait each year for cross country season to start. I don’t coach track anymore so I have a lot of time to spend with my wife and we just had our 60th wedding anniversary. If I count the two years I coached in the Army, the two years at Waterman High School, four years as an assistant coach at York and this is my 52nd year as head coach at York High School – I’m in my 60th year of coaching. I’m just happy that you found out about me and are writing something as when you get to be my age, 83 years old, nobody knows who you are. Wednesday is the day we start practice and I am chomping at the bit. It gives me something to look forward to every year and I am a fierce competitor who wants my team to win. And we have been doing a lot of winning at York through the years.
GCR:You were a multi-sport star at Parker High School in Chicago. What were some of your athletic highlights?
JNI started out as a freshman on the frosh-soph football team. There was an archaic rule in the Chicago Public League that an athlete could not play both ‘bladder sports,’ football and basketball – you had to make a choice. I loved basketball so starting with my sophomore year I played basketball. In the springtime I played three sports, which you can’t do anymore, but back then you could so I played tennis, played baseball and ran track. In between in my freshman and sophomore year I was on the swim team. I was a 40 yard butterfly swimmer and back then we did the frog kick – not the dolphin kick like they do now. I got three letters in basketball, three letters in baseball, three letters in track, two letters in swimming and one letter in tennis for a total of twelve. I still have my patch with frosh-soph football so I still hold the record for the most letters at my high school. I was like a jack-of-all trades and master of none. Back then they had what was known as junior basketball. It was based on height – in the Catholic League it was for players 5-8 and under, in the Public league 5-7 and under. The taller guys played on the senior team. Parker was famous back then because Marshall had won 99 straight junior games and played Parker for the quarterfinals in the City Championship in 1943. I had just started high school and I was the scorekeeper for the game at St. Sabina and we beat Marshall to stop their 99 game winning streak. I had to run like heck after the game because I was a freshman and everyone from Marshall wanted to beat up anyone from Parker. It was a good thing I was a sprinter because I caught a street car with about 40 people chasing me! My senior year we made the city finals in basketball and I was the starting guard. That was a tender moment and we played at Lane Tech High School against Waller who beat us and they got to go to the stadium to play before 18,000 people in the Public-Catholic Game. We were one game away from that happening so that was a highlight.
GCR:In which events did you compete in track and field and how successful were you?
JNI was a good track runner but I graduated in January instead of June. I took a double promotion and my parents were very proud of me as I went from 5B to 6B. It screwed me up in sports though as I should have been able to run in the 1947 State Track Meet and if it had happened I would have won the 100 yard dash, the 200 yard dash and the long jump. I was already a freshman at Northwestern and my times and distances were all ahead of those at the Illinois High School State Meet. So my last season in track was my junior year in 1946. At the Chicago City League Meet in 1946 I was second in the 100, the 200 and the long jump and qualified for State. We didn’t have a track coach at Parker so the basketball coach entered me in meets as an individual. When I asked him about the State Meet he said, ‘Here’s some money – you go down there.’ I never really got off of my block in Chicago and I was on a train to Champaign.
GCR:That must have been unnerving to be on your own at the State meet. Were you able to perform to your potential?
JNMy father was a Kappa Sig from Lake Forest and got me a room at the Kappa Sig House. What a mistake that was. I stayed there Thursday night before the prelims and I was in the major dorm where lights would come on at 2:00 a.m., guys were coming in drunk and were yelling, screaming and throwing up. It was free but on Friday morning when I walked into the stadium which seated 75,000 people I was all by myself and overwhelmed. I got out of my preliminary heat in the 100 yard dash and back then they ran three heats with two from each heat moving to the final. In my heat was a guy from Calumet City who got second in the finals, but he won the heat. With about two yards to go I was in second place and I thought I was in the final but a guy from Maine East High School dove at the tape and beat me by about a hundredth of a second so I never made it to the finals. For the 200 they used to open a gate and you would start outside the stadium and run a straightaway the whole race whereas now you run around the curve. I didn’t know where to report because I couldn’t find the start. So I didn’t report so I didn’t get to run the 220. The long jump was going on when I was doing the 100 yard dash, and I didn’t know what to do so I didn’t get to long jump.
GCR:By the way, Joe, I was born in Chicago at the Edgewater Beach Hospital though I only lived in Chicago for a couple years as a young child. Was that a familiar area of town for you?
JNWhen my wife and I were just married we would go to the Edgewater Beach Hotel once or twice a month on the weekends because they had shows with big stars and well-known singers. As a Northwestern graduate I would get 15 or 20 bucks off. That was the ‘in place’ to go to.
GCR:You also ran for Northwestern University. What do you recall most about your racing days there?
JNMy only sport at Northwestern was track. In my era we had Eddie Tunniclif and Jim Holland so I was the number three sprinter in the 100 and 220 and the number three long jumper. We also ran the 400 meter relay and 800 meter relay. I think my best long jump was 22-9 and Eddie was at 23-7 and Holland was a 25-6 guy who missed going to the Olympics by two inches as he finished fourth at the Olympic Trials. Eddie scored the winning touchdown in the 1949 Rose Bowl – he was my roommate and is still alive while Holland died about ten years ago. I got to go to all of the meets like the Drake Relays and the Big Ten, because I was on the relay teams. I ran for four years and got my letter but no one heard of me. I was an average runner and worked hard in the classroom. In high school I was third or fourth in my class and at Northwestern I graduated with Distinction which meant I had all A’s my last year. My father was so proud of that.
GCR:Didn’t you stay at Northwestern for your graduate degree? How did that come about?
JNAfter I graduated my father said, ‘You’re not married and all of the teachers know you, so stay there and get your master’s degree.’ I was tired after four years of college, and I didn’t want to, but he said, ‘You’re going to do it!’ But it was a great decision and I got my masters when I was young and free without any obligations so that was brilliant on my father’s part. Both jobs I had in life were through contacts. When I was hired at Waterman High School the reason I got the job is because the Principal went to Northwestern. When I saw there was a job open at York High School about 125 people applied and ray Hosteland who was in what now would be called Human Resources saw that I was a Northwestern graduate, threw the other 124 out and so I got both jobs because I went to Northwestern which was a very high academic school. My father had forced me to get Masters and it was a great decision. Going to Northwestern was also a great choice – I remember that we took a visit to the University of Illinois and that place was gigantic. I thought I would have to bike around campus. I told my dad that it was too big and I didn’t want to go there. Northwestern was a beautiful, small campus on the lake with only about 5,000 students and I fell in love with it.
GCR:When did you start thinking about coaching?
JNI was a lucky guy as when I was growing up I went to the YMCA every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to swim and for a gym class. I like sports and was in their state meets in swimming and running. I loved sports and I just knew that I wanted to be a coach. When I went to Parker High School my basketball coach was a man named Ed O’Farrell, Sr. He was such a great man that I wanted to be like him. He inspired me and he has long since died, but we had a big party for his 78th birthday, but his kid is still one of my friends. So I knew from the time I was 10 or 11 years old that I wanted to be a coach and my role model was Ed O’Farrell, Sr. By the way – there is no parker High School as it is called Robeson after a black man Paul Robeson who was a great singer and they changed our colors from Kelly green and white to red and white.
GCR:HISTORY Let’s make sure we have the facts straight - How many State Championships, Runner-up finishes and other top finishes did your teams accomplish?
JNThe State of Illinois awards three trophies at the State Cross Country meet. I started coaching in 1960 and we have won 27 championships, 11 second places and four third places, so we have 42 trophies. We have qualified in 49 years. We also have two fourth places and two fifth places. The lowest we ever placed was in eighth place. So we kind of own the State course down in Peoria. I also was head track coach for 40 years and in 2000 we won our only state Track title. We scored 74 points which at that time was the most points ever scored. So that was it for me. For a couple of years my wife had left for our second home in Phoenix while I coached track. So after that title I retired from coaching track. I was like Michael Jordan. I stopped teaching in June of 1999 which was a total of 47 years with the last 45 at York. So now I just coach cross country – I love it and every year is a new challenge. It’s hard as this year is the 50th anniversary of our first state title. I remember when we won that first one I thought, ‘I’ve done it, that’s it for me, hope we get another one.’ And now 50 years later we’ve won 27 times and in some of those 11 second places we only lost by one or two points. I found that it is harder to win after the first one. As hard as the first win was, once you get on top. I tell coaches, ‘If you want people to love you, give a half effort. If you want to win and you go at it everyone hates you. They will say you are a cheater, a liar, you are practicing illegally.’ That is what happens. People hate the New York Yankees, they hate Notre Dame and they hate York. We win. I’ve made that choice that we want to win and the joy of winning and the ecstasy is fantastic.
GCR:Despite York High School’s 27 state titles, do you feel your teams could have won more?
JNI remember in the middle 1970s we got beat by Bloom by one point and there was a big controversy that one of their runners hid under a bridge and took a rest for about 45 seconds and then when the other runners came back over the bridge he jumped back in the race. A guy from another high school came to me and reported what happened, we turned it into the officials, but there were no judges at the time, so we lost that year. Now they have about six judges along the course. There was another one where we thought we won and we ended up losing to Shaumburg by one point. So if I could get those two back we would be shooting for 30 wins this year. But though those were close, you can’t get them back – you have to do it on that day. That is what coaching is about as I learned from Arthur Lydiard, the famous coach from New Zealand. My job as a coach is to have my team ready on the day of the State meet, not the day before, the day after or two weeks down the road. I feel that with 42 trophies for finishing in the top three at State and a lowest finish in 49 years of eighth at State that I have them ready on the day.
GCR:What were some of the most competitive State Meets during the time you have coached – races where you knew they were going to be shoot-outs and they lived up to expectations?
JNYes, and as an aside, a friend of mine, Jim Tyree, coached at Willowbrook High School for about 35 years and he is retired now. But in the mid-1970s Jim said that we at York never ran against ourselves or beat ourselves at the State meet. It was the ultimate compliment I received from another coach as he was one of the few coaches who liked me. There were some times we won the State meet when we shouldn’t have because we didn’t hope to win, but without being cocky we knew we were going to win. There were seven or eight times where we had no business wining the State meet as we had no stars. But we found five guys who on the day hung together and we won. The only time we ever really ran poorly is last year. At the two-mile mark we had three guys in the top 30 as there was a guy in the top five, another in the next ten and one more just in the top 30. Our next three guys were all in between 40th and 50th position so with a mile to go I thought we would win or come close – and this was without our top two runners who were hurt and not racing. But in the next half mile the three guys running together slowed from half miles in the 2:20s to 2:40s and we ended up fourth and out of the trophies. So now I can’t say that we have never beaten ourselves as in 2011 we did. I said it was my fault, but without our number one and two runners I just couldn’t get our guys to believe they could do it and we lost.
GCR:Out of all your championship teams are there any of which you are most proud or that really stick out in your mind? Was there a team that overachieved?
JNThere was on year we were led by Bob Schultz, who is now the coach at Loras College went to Willowbrook his freshman and sophomore year, but moved to York for his last two years. His senior year it seemed that there was no way we could win the State meet because we had a group of average guys, but some way or another they got together at the State meet and ran out of their minds to win. It was around the early 1980s. That was one of our greatest wins ever as they had no hope to win – it was the boys as they believed, they went and ran and got it done.
GCR:Who were some of the top coaches you have faced during your tenure as Cross Country Coach at York High School?
JNJoe Johnson of Paladine High School, who passed away a couple of years ago, was the coach there for about thirty years and they were always competitive. Jim MacNider at Shaumberg was a top coach and they won three or four State titles in the 1970s. He just retired. They really stand out in my mind. There are certain programs that win once at State and then they fade into oblivion. Then there is Palatine and Nequa Valley that keep winning because the coaches work their butts off and know what they are doing. I have great respect for those coaches. Jim Tyree and I were close friends, but we would go at it on meet days as we both wanted our teams to win so badly. We had some classic duels.
GCR:How tough was it racing in your conference, region and section meets on the way to State competition? Were your teams able to train through most meets on the way to State?
JNWe trained through all meet and the only meet where we backed off was before the State meet. We ran hard before Conference, Regionals and Sectionals. We backed off for the State meet because that is what we trained for. We went to the State meet and we went to win. We never went to get second or third place.
GCR:Through the years you have attended and hosted running clinics for coaches. Wasn’t there a set of circumstances that led to Peter Coe, father and coach of Olympic legend Sebastian Coe, speaking at one of your clinics?
JNSebastian Coe’s father Peter Coe was an engineer who became Sebastian’s coach. He took his principles from engineering and applied them to training. In his career Seb held 13 World Records in the mile, indoor half mile, outdoor 800 meters and 1,000 meters. My mentor all of those years was Sam Bell the coach at Indiana, as Sam took a liking to me. He used to hold a big track clinic in Indiana every year in January. At a ‘learn by doing’ clinic in Rhode Island a couple of years earlier and we took time out to watch Sebastian win the 800 meters in 1:41.7 to set the World Record. I thought that he was my hero. So now I saw that Peter Coe was coming to speak at Sam’s clinic. So I called him and said, ‘Sam, how did you get Peter Coe.’ I asked how I could get in touch and he gave me Peter’s phone number. I called Peter and he was pretty official since he didn’t know me. ‘How did you get my number,’ He asked. When I told him it was from Sam Bell and that Sam was my friend, he said, ‘If Sam Bell is your friend, you are now my friend.’ So I Invited him to speak at my clinic in Chicago and he said he would be delighted.
GCR:Didn’t the story get even better when your wife came up with a suggestion?
JNSo my Polish bride says, ‘Why don’t you call Peter back and ask him to bring Sebastian?’ I called Peter back and I asked if he could bring Seb. Peter said, ‘He is a Professor at Lockborough College and they are on Holiday so I’ll bring him and you don’t have to pay him – he’s got enough money.’ The next thing I knew Peter called me back and said Sebastian Coe was coming to speak at my big clinic in Chicago which I had for about 15 years where about 400 or 500 coaches would come. So both Peter and Seb came and spoke at my clinic.
GCR:It’s fascinating how they both appeared at your clinic and eventually it led to a more amazing request from Peter Coe. Could you relate what happened a few months later?
JNAround May of 1984 Peter called me and said, ‘The British Olympic Committee will not pay for Sebastian to come to America early. The time change between London and Los Angeles is too great and I have to get him over there. Could you and your wife put Sebastian up for a few weeks?’ So he came to York in 1984 and stayed with my wife and me at our home. He was the most polite guy. It was almost comical hearing him say, ‘Mrs. Newton is it okay if I get a little glass of milk?’ Peter had all of his workouts outlined and we had him train with eight boys at York that were called the suicide squad. When you put Sebastian Coe on the track he was a killer.
GCR:Sebastian Coe already had two Olympic medals – one Gold and one Silver – when you hosted him. What are the most important things you learned from him?
JNHere are the two things I remember the most - we were sitting at the dinner table with my daughter, Cindy and my two sons, Thomas and John, and Seb was right across from me. This was about a week before he left for the L.A. Olympics and I said, ‘Seb, what is it like when you are going to the line at the Olympic games and there are only 12 guys left and you are maybe the shortest and lightest guy. He said, ‘At that stage at the Olympic games the mind is four times more important than your physical ability. Everyone has trained very hard and now it is mind over matter.’ He also said, ‘the hardest thing for me to do is to get my mind straight, those eight inches from my chin to the top of my head. But when I get my mind straight I can beat any man in the world.’ I was thinking, ‘This guy already has a Gold and a Silver Medal and 13 World Records and I’m dealing with high school guys?’ We went to California and there was a clinic at the Carlsbad Seven. I spoke and then Sebastian spoke. A kid asked Sebastian what is the most important thing in one paragraph for a distance runner to know. Seb said, ‘Son, I can do you better – I can do it in one word.’ It was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop. He said,’ the word is consistency. You can’t be up and down and I never forgot that. I still preach it to my guys.
GCR:Sebastian Coe continues to be a major figure in the sport of running and was the head of the London Olympic efforts. Is there anything else you would like to relate about him?
JNSeb’s mother passed away about 15 years ago and Peter died two years ago though his mother had lived to 104 years old. We were really close as I would call Peter whenever I needed Sebastian. When Seb was here I made my tall 6-7 kid Thomas his ‘minder,’ which is what the British called a bodyguard. For the 1984 Olympics, our former basketball manager at York, George Andrews, was now the basketball manager at the University of Illinois and through a player got to know Magic Johnson. So when Magic was a sophomore at Michigan State he was recommended to use George Andrews in Chicago to be his agent. In 1984 George offered to take my wife and me for five days of the Los Angeles games so we went for the first five days to see Seb run heats, semis and the final in the 800 meters since he was the World Record Holder. Magic was in New York with Isaiah Thomas to see their buddy, Michael Jackson in concert. So we stayed at Magic Johnson’s home at the base of a mountain. I was the first guy to hit the pool. We watched the 800 meters and Seb got second. We watched the 1,500 meters on television and Seb took a short sprint before the start and we could see he was just so determined. He won by a huge margin and set an Olympic Record. He ran a victory lap with the Union Jack, which is the British flag. Here’s an amazing finish to the story – last year my wife and I met a guy at our second home in Phoenix named Frank Morgan and he was the guy who gave Sebastian the Union Jack. Seb actually gave the Union Jack back to Frank, so it is a small world and I love Sebastian Coe.
GCR:Getting back to your coaching, how would you compare the quality and quantity of elite runners when you started coaching to the present day?
JNBack when I first started coaching a big workout for my guys was five times 220 yards. Then they would be over on the fence throwing up. What we do now compared to then is something else. In my heart I am still a proponent of the Arthur Lydiard coaching school. I had him in my home five or six times picking his brain and Arthur was the kind of guy where if he liked you he would help you. He didn’t have to worry about me upstaging him. He would visit and I would learn from him and people thought I was crazy having my runners doing all of this long distance 40 years ago. They thought that I was killing my runners.
GCR:In addition to Arthur Lydiard who were the influences that you used to develop your coaching methods?
JNTo this day I use Arthur Lydiard’s ideas for distance and my speed and sprint training from Peter Coe’s methods that he used with Sebastian Coe. My VO2 Maximum training I got from Doctor Joe Vigil, the coach at Adams State. He was the Olympic Distance coach in 1988 and I was his gopher. Guys nowadays are doing stuff that people in the past couldn’t fathom. I’m an old school guy and figure if works why ‘fix it.’ I owe everything to Arthur, Peter, Joe and my mentor, Sam Bell, so I am very comfortable with what we are doing in training.
GCR:With the influence of these coaches and your experience, what do you tell other coaches who are looking for the ‘Joe Newton secret?’
JNWhen I lecture to coaches and they ask me for a secret workout, I tell them, ‘There is no secret workout, but here is the secret – if your runners don’t like you, don’t love you and don’t care about you, they won’t do squat. The biggest secret is that you have to have a great relationship with all of your athletes. They have to know that you love them and that you aren’t using them to build your own record.’ That is my forte. I have an interest in every guy on my team. I want them to graduate and go to college and get a degree. If some runners are really the best runners, they are still learning good lessons for life. We have an alumni race at York every Labor Day Weekend and get 150 to 200 guys from all over the country who come back to run at east End park and reminisce with teammates as it is a culture and lifestyle that stays with you.
GCR:Who were some of the top runners from your over five decades years at York High School?
JNMy top five runners were Donald Sage, Marius Bakken, Jim White, Sean McNamara and Ron Craker. Don Sage won his senior year in cross country and the mile and 2-mile in track in his junior and senior years. My biggest mistake ever was telling Don to save something for the mile at State his senior year and he ran 8:42.7 for the 2-mile which was first. He would have broken the national record, but every lap when he would start pushing it, he would remember what I said and hold back. He came back and ran a 4:07.6 in the mile. If I had let him go all out in the 2-mile he would have run 8:36 or 8:37. He is by far the best guy I ever had. In the State cross country meet Craker and White were both individual champions. McNamara won the State meet and became the first Nike national champ. Bakken got second at State in cross country. He was 30 yards ahead with 600 yards to go, but it was a very hot day and he got dehydrated and he collapsed in the chute and finished fourth . Sage ran a 4:00.23 mile in high school in the Prefontaine Classic. At the time he was the fourth fastest high school miler, though now he has dropped to sixth. We broke the indoor and outdoor high school 2-mile relay record with him. He ran 1:50.7 when we ran 7:34 to break the outdoor record. He was a 49.3 quarter miler. In the State meet he ran 8:42.7 in the 3,200 meters. Sage became a 12-time All-American at Stanford and was magnificent. Bakken was from Norway and I only coached him for one year. He went to college at Indiana for one year and at the NCAA Cross Country meet he was around 25th place, just behind Gabe Jennings. But then he got lonely and went back to Norway. He did end up running in two Olympic Games. In 2003 he finished 8th in the World Championship 5,000 meters. Jim White went to Indiana and holds the Big Ten indoor 1,000 yard record and was conference champ in the half mile. McNamara went to Michigan and placed second or third in the Big Ten Indoor mile in 4:02 or 4:03. Craker went to Indiana and placed in the Big Ten steeplechase four years in a row. But all five of those guys came through on the days that counted.
GCR:You talked about your runners, but who were some of the top adversaries that your runners faced during this time period on the cross country course?
JNA guy from Provisa West, Andy Rubert, still holds the State meet mile record. Shaumberg had a good runner who ended up being the kicker at Notre Dame. And how could I forget Craig Virgin, who is undoubtedly one of the top five high school runners of all time in the state of Illinois. I remember Craig leading through the first mile at State in about 4:19 and he ended up running 13:50 which was so fast.
GCR:BUILDING, COACHING AND KEEPING A CROSS COUNTRY DYNASTY What is harder – building a strong cross country program or staying at a high level?
JNIt is hard to build a program but is harder to stay at a high level. Guys start to think that they deserve to win and you don’t deserve anything –you have to earn it. It is so hard. A couple of times we won State five or six years in a row and guys would start thinking that they were a little tired some days and could take it easy because they were going to win anyway. But you have to stay on top of it as it is such a tough sport and when everyone is working hard to beat you every time you take a soft day someone is working hard to whip your butt.
GCR:How do you replace your runners with a new group since they were constantly graduating and ‘new blood’ was needed?
JNWe keep a strict record of all of our runners’ workouts and use them to motivate new runners. I remember one time in high school we did 12 times 880 and Marius Bakken’s twelfth 880 was 1:55.5. It was the greatest workout that anyone has ever done at York High School. He came back this past summer with his new bride to visit but I wasn’t there. One of the kids asked him about that workout and said ‘Did you ever do this workout Coach Newton is bragging about? We don’t believe him. He said you did ten or 12 880s and the last one was 1:55.’ Bakken told the kid, ‘I remember that workout like it was yesterday.’ So we keep all of the records so the kids can see what Donald or Marius or others did. The legacy of our past runners, the ghosts of them and talking about them keeps them alive. When they come back for the alumni race and they see them it is like pure heaven that day. Then I tell my current guys that it is now their turn. I say that these guys have built our program and do you want to let them down?
GCR:What do you do with your prospective team members to get them started?
JNI have about 200 to 225 guys on my team each year. The top seven guys are ‘The Magnificent Seven, ‘there are seven in group two and seven I group three. Then group four and five have 20 to 25 guys. Group six is my heavy guys and people who are trying to lose weight and may have about 60 people. I don’t let freshman run in any of those groups. I’ll have three groups of freshmen – maybe the top 15 in group one, 30 in group two and the rest in group three. I have learned that freshmen need to be undertrained so that they don’t quit. They may only do one quarter of the workouts, don’t warm up or warm down as far and may run 25 or 30 miles a week. Since they started a Freshman Conference meet I think we’ve won it 36 out of 40 times. If you get three fourths of those freshmen back the next year, then three or four of them will end up being very good runners.
GCR:What do you do to evaluate how your team’s summer training had gone and their outlook for that fall?
JNCharlie Kern, who used to be my assistant, handles the summer program for me. He is in his forties and is still in great shape. In fact, when Donald Sage was running for me Charlie used to run the workouts with Group One so the heat was on. I know that when Charlie is training the guys that they will report for fall training in great shape. We will talk during the summer about how some of the guys are doing. After the first three or four days we will run 20 repeat quarter miles to show the guys who is I shape and who didn’t run a step. The guys who didn’t train are throwing up and getting cramps, so it isn’t a training device, but it lets us see what kind of shape the top guys are in. I can also tell them what guys like Sage and Bakken did so I use the past to stimulate the present.
GCR:Did you find that because of the excitement of cross country at York High that maybe some of the kids who weren’t naturally athletic in other sports – they weren’t big enough for football or tall enough for basketball - saw cross country as an exciting place they could succeed and have a ‘family’ to belong to?
JNThat is a great question and we do have a culture that is based on many things such as integrity, hard work, dedication, loyalty, honor, courage and everybody gets credit when we win. Even group six has leaders as I have three guys who lead them. You are responsible for your group and if your group dogs it that is your responsibility for their actions. My group captains hear from me that they are empowered to make this the greatest team in York history – if it isn’t, it is your fault. So I put the pressure on them. A leader is a guy who gets others to do what he wants them to do though the kids think it is what they want to do. It’s miraculous to do that.
GCR:What do you do to set the tone for the coach - runner relationship?
JNWhen we win all 225 guys get credit. So many youngsters have never had anything like this. Everybody is loved and each guy checks in with me every day. Each guy on the team has a nickname. Last year I forgot to give one freshman a nickname and after about three days he came up to me at practice and said, ‘Mr. Newton, are you mad at me?’ ‘No, why?’ I asked. He said, ‘everybody on the team has a nickname except me. You didn’t give me a nickname.’ So, I gave him a nickname. It is something personal between me and every team member like a guy who moved in from Texas I started calling ‘Alamo’ and he checks in now with that nickname. I learned from my own kids that they wanted me to watch them, so now each kid on the team wants to know I am watching him. Every day I try to call each guy by his name or nickname at least once so they know I am watching them. This has nothing to do with training or racing, but these kids want to know they are loved and that I care about them. I may chew someone out in practice, but before the kids go home they all have to check out with me and I shake their hands and say something nice as I don’t want anyone going home mad. Some coaches only praise and some only yell, but I do both and I find out that there are some guys that I shouldn’t yell at and so I don’t. That’s why you have to know your guys. If someone who has a personal best of only eight minutes in the mile runs 7:58 he is recognized. Guys come out for the team because of the friendships, paling around and the winning.
GCR:How did you get the kids to come together to do the best for their team even though each was also trying to do his best for himself, especially with the second seven guys who were trying to make ‘The Magnificent Seven?’
JNWe don’t talk about individuals. We only talk about the team and I tell them we are only as strong as our weakest guy. I tell the kids in group six that our top guys are busting their butts so they can’t just jog along running nine minute miles. I tell our kids that when they finish they shouldn’t ask me their times, but whether we won as that is far more important. They may have their own individual goals, but I tell them it is far better to get team medals and they all know that.
GCR:TRAINING CHAMPIONS Great cross country teams need summer training to build for the fall season. What type of mileage do your runners do and were there any favorite tempo, stamina or speed sessions included in your summer training program?
JNCharlie Kern is in charge is the summer program now so I let him take care of that. He had wanted to pay me to have my workout schedules to use, but I knew he would do fine on his own. My top 20 guys are running twice a day and once on Sunday and are getting in about 80 to 100 miles a week. My sophomores are running 45 or 50 miles a week. My freshmen are only running 25 miles a week.
GCR:Do you still have the 1,000 mile club for runners to aim for during the summer?
JNYes, we do and it goes from June 1st until September 1st. I tell my guys that they can’t cheat or lie and that if they don’t run they have to put down a zero for the day. When I started giving out the ‘1,000 mile club’ shirts they cost three or four bucks but now they are 20 or 25 bucks. Somewhere between 10 and 15 guys run 1,000 miles or more each summer. If they are cheating, only they and God know that. If they do it two years or three years in a row they get a shirt that says ‘2,000 mile club’ and then ‘3,000 mile club.’ I think we’ve only had three or four guys in all of these years who’ve done it four years in a row as they had to do it in the summer before they entered high school in the fall. It is the key to our program. If we don’t do this we won’t win. You don’t win the races in November – you win in June, July and August when you are sweating your butts off doing those miles.
GCR:What were some of your favorite training sessions as fall practice began and during the early and mid-season? What did you do to combat the summer heat and runner fatigue and then the fall cold spells?
JNOne of my favorites is one that Sebastian Coe liked to do – eight times 300 meters with a 100 meter jog plus a little rest. Then the ninth 300 meters is all out. Seb did that workout three times here at York when he was getting ready for the 1984 Olympics. It seemed like he was always doing it on a Sunday, church bells were ringing and it was hotter than hell. He wanted to do it when it was hot because L.A. was going to be hot. The first time he averaged 41.5 and did the last one in 39.5. The second time he averaged about 39.5 and finished with a 37.6. The last time he averaged 37.5 and ran the last one in 35.9. I remember that day he got done and said, ‘I’m fit.’ A workout I got from Doc Vigil is five times one mile with a three minute rest interval. That separates the men from the boys. Because there are so many runners I can’t logistically have them jog in between so they just stand or walk around even though that isn’t as good as jogging.
GCR:Did you have an overall philosophy that you weave through your entire training plan?
JNThe main thread is consistency. Every day that you practice you have to do the best you can with what you’ve got because if you don’t someone else is. If you do so you will get your just rewards in life because good things happen to good people. The biggest tragedy in running cross country is if you come to the State meet and know you are in trouble because you didn’t ‘do your homework.’
GCR:What are your thoughts on over training versus under training, especially with runners who come into the season in great shape and whom are often burned out by coaches?
JNThe possibility of over training is why coaches need to physically be at their team’s practices every day. If you are there every day you can see what is happening. If it’s 100 degrees outside and you have your team scheduled to run 20 repeat quarter miles, you need to use some common sense. It’s the same if your team has had two or three good workouts in a row and guys are sore or have slight injuries – you need to make adjustments. It is a touchy thing to figure out when to back off a little and when to put the hammer down. I do use examples from my old-timers to motivate the new guys as I want them to get the feeling that we own the State meet course.
GCR:How about any sessions that were unusual to break things up for your runners?
JNWhen you have as many runners as I do it is hard to do something unusual. But one thing I haven’t done in a few years is to have a ‘hat day’ where the kids can wear a hat they want to practice. I’m going to do that again this year as it is a fun day.
GCR:Did you do any hill workouts for speed and power?
JNIn the summer I always took guys about 20 miles over to Hinsdale about six or seven Saturdays in a row. We don’t have any hills around here, but I am a firm believer in hill training and I have to hope the summer hill training carries over into the season.
GCR:When during the season do you start to dial back your cross country team’s training?
JNAbout two weeks before the State meet we cut our volume for the top guys from 80 or 90 miles a week down to 45 or 50 miles a week. We certainly don’t run that many intervals, but we run faster. We want them fresh when they go into the State meet
GCR:During the Championship meet season what did you do differently to keep your kids racing at their best or reaching peak performances?
JNI start four weeks out from the State meet with what I learned from Doc Vigil’s VO2 Max training. He does it Thursdays before a Saturday meet to get his college guys used to running prelims and finals two days apart in track. I do them on Monday four weeks in a row prior to the State meet as follows: The first week you run a 2-mile time trial with spikes, take a 15 minute rest and then run two repeat miles with a 3-minute interval in flats. Week two is the same as week one. Week three is a 3-mile time trial, 15 minute rest break, then a mile under five minutes. The final Monday before the State meet is a mile time trial with spikes on and 15 minutes later a second fast mile under five minutes. Sometimes our guys do that last mile time trial in 4:18 or 4:15 or 4:12 and their confidence is sky high for State.
GCR:RACING Due to the team aspect of cross country, do you encourage runners of similar ability to run together during races?
JNI absolutely suggest to our guys that they work together and help each other. For all of our home meets and for courses that we know we have splits every quarter mile. I have pace charts that hold 14 names so we record the top 14 varsity runners, top 14 in the sophomore race and top 14 in the freshman race. It is a lot of work recording it. But then we can look and compare to historic times. I encourage our guys to run together but it has been harder in recent years. But this year it looks like we are going to have five guys within 10 seconds and that is how you win in cross country. I am a firm believer in even pacing. At the State meet in the early stages people will be commenting on how the York guys are behind, but it is better to be in front in the end, not in the beginning.
GCR:When there are other good teams and expected close team tussles, do your runners know who they have to beat near the end?
JNOur guys know who their top opponents are and who the stars are. They also know what pace they are supposed to run. It has got more difficult as we used to be able to call out splits anywhere along the course and now they have outlawed that and the officials only call out times at the mile and 2-mile. We always have our band at the State meet and they would play during the race. Now that is outlawed and they can only play before and after races.
GCR:Runners tend to slow down in the middle of a cross country race. What did you do to help avoid or minimize this?
JNFirst they know their pace and then I tell them how the second mile is more important than the first or third because that is when so many runners take a rest. In that second mile it is on the backside and no one is watching so it is easy to slow down. We run two races beforehand on the State meet course to get ready for it. That second mile has to be emphasized as it is human nature to slow down in the middle of a race. Most guys go out too fast and then they die.
GCR:What was some of the greatest advice you give your runners so that they raced their best?
JNI tell my runners that the mental aspect is four times as important as where they are physically. That’s what Sebastian Coe said. So if they get their minds straight they can beat anybody in the race. But if they are just ‘hoping’ to do well, they aren’t going to.
GCR:In any relationship, including coaching, trust and belief are so important – both that they trust and believe in you and know you have their best interests in mind and that you believe and trust in them if they say they are injured or sick. What are your thoughts on this?
JNMy runners know that I love them. My first lecture will be at opening practice on the first Wednesday and I will ask them three questions. First, can I trust you because you can trust me? Number two – are you committed to excellence, because I am committed and have to get up at four o’clock in the morning to be here at 7:00 since I live 50 miles away. Number three – do you care about me because I love every guy on my team from number one to number 225. So we have to have trust, commitment and caring. If we have that we can climb any mountain and we will be on the top of the mountain looking down.
GCR:FINAL THOUGHTS What is the primary advice you give to youngsters who are starting out in the sport of distance running that excites them initially and also helps them to look at running as a lifetime sport?
JNOne thing we do at York that most likely is not done in many places is that our freshmen do not get a team uniform until they run their first race. If they take one walking step they don’t get a uniform. I don’t care if they come in first or last as long as they run the course without walking. I tell my guys that all of the other teams give their freshmen uniforms, but my guys are one of the few teams in the country that has to earn their uniforms. At their first meet they are wearing their own t-shirts and see other teams’ runners who have uniforms and they say things like, ‘Look at those guys whose coaches gave them their uniforms – we have to earn ours.’ And it gives them a sense of pride. The only bad part is that when they are seniors they don’t want to turn in their uniform when they graduate. They think they own it and want to take it home. It is special at York and we have a saying, ‘Once a Duke, always a Duke.’ I remember when Marius Bakken went back to Norway after I had only coached him for a year and he wrote me a long letter where after his name he wrote, ‘Once a Duke, always a Duke.’ That touched my heart. I tell my runners that running is a lifetime pursuit and that they are learning things that are good for their health.
GCR:How is your current health and what do you do for fitness?
JNI had a running streak at one time for 21 years and 24 days. I never missed a day starting when I was at a clinic in Gainesville, Florida years ago. We went out for pizza afterward and when I got back around 2:00 in the morning there were about 200 people running on the track – old people, young people, fat people, and skinny people. I thought I would try to run every day for the rest of my life. So I started on August 23, 1973 and continued until August 24, 1994. But I had stress fracture in my knee the last two years of the streak and had kept running. Finally my doctor told me that if I didn’t stop running he would quit treating me. There was an English guy named Jones who had the record streak at the time of 25 years and I was aiming for it. I was always a guy who worked out six or seven days a week. Now I’m 83 years old and I tore a groin muscle five years ago so I can’t run. I can walk okay, but I’m afraid to lift weights. My weight was 145 pounds in high school, 151 pounds in college and now I weigh 155 pounds. I try to keep myself in shape because I want to be a good example. I don’t smoke or drink alcohol because I can’t preach to my runners and then do otherwise. I keep myself mentally and physically sharp.
GCR:How much longer do you foresee yourself continuing coaching?
JNI love what I am doing so I will continue as long as I am able. I can’t wait to see my guys and it fills me with joy. It is a great feeling. I never ever sat down during team practices until two years ago when my groin was killing me. I stated sitting in my chair and then I would get up when I was timing. I do the same thing now not because I’m lazy, but because my groin hurts. I found out that my groin soreness stems from a hernia operation I had about 12 years ago that went wrong.
GCR:What are the major lessons you have learned during your life from sharing your knowledge and experience with others through teaching and coaching and the discipline of running that you would like to share with my readers?
JNNumber one is whatever you are doing in life you must love. If you are working a job your whole life that you hate, what kind of a life is that? So I’m lucky that I learned when I was 10 or 12 years old that I wanted to be a coach and I am doing what I love. It also motivates me to stay in shape as I’m 83 years old and how many people make it to 83? Number two is to have a lifestyle where you are helping others. The happiest people I know in life are those who have jobs like doctors and coaches that are helping other people. Money will not buy success, good health or happiness. When my runners win the State meet and I feel like I helped them I feel like a million bucks. When a former runner comes back and tells me he is a doctor and treats his patients with the care I showed him it means the world to me. So, if you have a profession where you help others, you will live a great life.
 Inside Stuff
Hobbies/InterestsMy interest was working out. I love to read and I don’t read fiction. During the part of the year when I am in Illinois I read about 20 books and when I’m out in Phoenix in the early part of the year I read around 40 books as it keeps my mind sharp. I love history and have been to Tombstone, Arizona about five times and to Gettysburg and walked the grounds of the battlefield
Nicknames‘Fig’ – my group leader at the YMCA when I was a kid called me that because of Fig Newton cookies. I loved Fig Newton’s. In college my nickname was ‘Newt’
Favorite moviesMy favorite of all time is ‘Gone with the Wind’ with Clark Gable and my second favorite is ‘Casablanca’ with Humphrey Bogart. I love those two movies and have probably seen each about 30 times. My wife and I used to go to the movies five or six times a week when they were 25 cents in the Army, but now I only go to a movie when I take my team to the State cross country meet on the Friday night before the meet. When the team goes to a movie I let the kids pick it so it is usually lousy
Favorite TV showsI watch three shows every night from Monday through Friday. I watch ‘O’Reilly’ at 7:00, ‘Hannity’ at 8:00, ‘Greta’ at 9:00 and then the news. They talk about things that are current and I love those shows. So many people laugh at them and say they lie and are too conservative, but my wife just tell me to go in and see ‘the guys’ while she watches her shows in another room
Favorite songs‘It Had to be You’ is a favorite. Also, ‘Stardust,’ by Hoagy Carmichael. Those are my favorite songs of all time
Favorite booksI love books about the west. I must have 20 books about Wyatt Earp and another 20 books about George Custer. I like reading about outlaws, bad men and sheriffs. The book that Stewart Lake wrote in 1931 about Wyatt Earp called ‘Frontier Marshall’ is my favorite. The book was from interviews Lake did with Wyatt Earp before he died in 1929. I once talked with Stewart Lake on the phone and he was kind to answer some of my questions. Lee Silva is another favorite author who has written two books on Wyatt Earp and has one more he is working on. I love to read about historic figures and have over 3,000 books in my basement mainly about famous people, the Civil War, the Vietnam War and generals like Patton and MacArthur. Meanwhile my wife reads fiction stories and murder mysteries
First carIt was a gray 1948 Chevy that my father gave to me when I was a sophomore at Northwestern so that would have been in 1950. He wanted me to be able to drive home to the south side of Chicago
Current carsI have a Ford Escape SUV and PT Cruiser
First JobWhen I was a young guy I used to deliver the mail which was something because of all of the walking. It really kept me in shape and sometimes I would run my mail route. I was always doing something that was very active
FamilyI am of half English, one quarter Irish and one quarter French descent. On my mother’s side of the family my grandmother was Connelly, which was Irish, and my grandfather’s name was Hazzard and he was French. My father was 100 percent English. My wife, Joan, is 100 percent Polish and we were married when she was 19 and I was 23 years old. We have been together ever since. For the first 35 years of my career Joan came to every single cross country meet with our three kids. Our daughter, Cindy, is 52 and she lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia. She has two kids - a 22 year old girl, Kaitlyn, who just got out of college and a 20 year old son, Kyle, who is a junior at Virginia. Our oldest son, Thomas, is six feet, seven inches and weighed 180 pounds in high school though now he goes about 240 pounds. He was an All-American seven foot high jumper in college and Honorable mention All-American in basketball. He has two kids - a 14 year old girl who is a freshman in high school this fall and a nine year old girl who is going into fourth grade. Our youngest son, John, is 46 and is the Human Resources Director for Elmhurst College. Everyone is healthy and life is good
PetsMy wife and I had dogs for the first 40 years of our marriage. We had a female Bassett Hound named Penelope for about ten years and she was part of the family. But just the other day my wife was saying, ‘As much as I love dogs we’re never going to get another dog because you always have to walk your dogs.’ I had the early morning and night shifts and she had all of the daytime shifts. When our kids were at home they would say, ‘We’ll walk the dog,’ but that didn’t happen too often. So now when you get to be 79 and 83 years old like my wife and I, you don’t feel like walking the damn dog morning, noon and night
Favorite breakfast: I usually eat Cheerios or oatmeal and I eat on the run. It’s not good if I skip breakfast because I don’t eat lunch as a lunch meal causes me to get tired and want to sleep when it is time for York’s cross country practice
Favorite mealI love spaghetti and hamburgers
Favorite beveragesIce water, lemonade and Fanta Orange soda
First running memoriesI remember one time when I was about nine years old running at the Sears YMCA and all of the runners had spikes except for me in my high-tops. One of the judges put his arm around me and said, ‘Son, if you had spikes on you would beat all of these guys.’ That inspired me. It’s funny as I remember that like it was yesterday. When I was 11 years old my father took me down to the University of Chicago Fieldhouse to the Chicago Sun-Times AAU Championships. I wore high top tennis shoes and won the 50 yard dash. I thought my father was going to die and go to heaven as he was so proud of me that at 11 years old I was the sprint king of Chicago. From then it was all downhill (laughing). That was my big moment
First Big Coaching memoryOur first State cross country championship at York High School which was in 1962. This is a special year as it is the fiftieth anniversary
Running heroesSebastian Coe
Coaching heroesDr. Joe Vigil, Sam Bell, Arthur Lydiard, Peter Coe and my high school coach Eddie O’Farrell, Jr. Eddie was a basketball coach, but he inspired me. I remember him doing some crazy things like throwing a basketball at my head and one time saying, ‘Newton, you shoot free throws the way that I make bread.’ Somehow it worked!
Greatest coaching momentWhen my team at York won that first State Championship I thought it was my greatest coaching moment. But every time we win the State meet it is my greatest coaching moment
Worst coaching momentsOne was when I told Donald Sage not to lead the two-mile at State when he could have possibly broken the national high school record. Another was when we lost the Illinois State Track and Field meet by one point, 40-39, to East Saint Louis. Evanston dropped the baton in the final event, the mile relay, and that allowed East St. Louis to move up one spot and beat us – so close and yet so far. Then it was another 15 years before we won our first and only state track meet
Childhood dreamsMy dream was to be an Olympic runner. When I found out I wasn’t that good, then my dream became to be an Olympic coach. And in 1988 I was the first high school coach on an Olympic staff as assistant manager. Doc Vigil was the distance coach and we roomed together and became lifelong friends
Funny memory number oneOne had to do with my high school basketball coach, Eddie O’Farrell. Two of my All-City buddies, Brady and Kortz, and I were coming into the gym and the big, rough, tough wrestling coach, Spade, was at the door. It was the city quarter finals against Tilden Tech. Spade let my buddies in and then told me, ‘It’ll cost you a quarter to get in Newton. Coach O’Farrell said you’ve been playing so bad that you have to pay to get in.’ I gave him a quarter and was so mad that I scored five baskets and six free throws for 16 points compared to my normal five points or so. It was my high game of the year. When we got into the locker room after the game Coach O’Farrell said, ‘Newton, here’s your quarter back.’
Funny memory number two About twenty years ago I promised the team that if we won the State cross country meet they could give me a baldy haircut at the All-School assembly. So there were 2,500 people in the gym and they gave me a baldy sour. I was as bald as the day I was born. The gym was up for grabs!
Electrifying memoryIn 1988 I had something happen that made my hair stand on end. It was outside the Olympic Stadium in Seoul as the United States team was ready to come into the stadium for the opening Ceremonies and the temperature must have been 95 degrees. We were wearing blue wool sport coats. We walked through a pitch black tunnel and then into the stadium. The sun was so bright that we couldn’t see. I could hear one section in the crowd of 100,000 people with about 20,000 fans shouting, ‘USA, USA’ while they waved little flags and I could feel my hair stand on end. Oh my God, what a feeling. I will never forget that Opening day parade when I was representing the United States
Favorite places to travelOne time I called up the travel editor of the Chicago Sun-Times and asked him, ‘You’ve been all over the country - what is your favorite place in America to travel?’ He said, ‘Sunset at Marco Island, Florida at Quinn’s bar right next to the Marriott.’ So for the next ten years my wife and I went to the Marriott for 17 days at Christmas. It turned out that the manager had been a pole vaulted on my team at York so we got a $900 suite for 100 bucks a night. We would go to Quinn’s bar every night and the sunset was unbelievable. It is my favorite vacation place in the whole world. Of course, I would just drink lemonade
Final Comments from InterviewerIt was an honor to spend over two hours on the telephone with arguably the most successful high school cross country coach in U.S. history. Bob is sharp, genuine and cares so much about the teenagers whose lives he helps to shape. It is amazing the energy that this octogenarian has! His story is an inspiration to all