At the 1992 Olympic Trials in New Orleans, L-R, Joe Newton, Longtime York runner and volunteer -the Late Vito “Fido” Purpura,The Late Dr. John Durkin,Jeff Benjamin
The word came out in August, that this would be the last season for coaching icon Joe Newton. Jeff Benjamin sent me a note about it and reached out to Craig Virgin and Jim Spivey for their thoughts on Joe Newton.
Joe Newton has changed generations of athletes’s lives with his coaching and his encouragement. RunBlogRun, American Track & Field and the RunningNetwork wish Joe the very best in his final season and in his retirement (if that actually exists for such a high energy man).
Reflections on the career and retirement of Joe Newton by Illinois Running Legends Craig Virgin and Jim Spivey, by Jeff Benjamin
Joe Newton is retiring. The 87 years-young legend has been coaching at York High School in Illinois for 60 years and has lead the Dukes to 28 state titles in XC, which is the most for any Illinois high school in any sport. In total, York has won 44 state trophies under Newton. Now the 2016 season will be his last, and longtime Asst Coach Charlie Kern will now serve as co-head coach of the York Cross Country team, along with Newton. As Newton’s son Thomas said in an official statement:
“I know that if my father’s mobility was such that he could keep up with the young men of the York High School Cross Country program, he would love nothing more than to continue with coaching. However, his mobility has been increasingly difficult to maintain at the level that is required to sustain such a program that he has built over the last six decades.
“During the last few weeks he and I have had numerous discussions on what is best for him. Additionally, we also have spoken about what is best for the program and all future York High School Cross Country runners. We, the family, believe strongly that this is the best decision for all parties involved and that includes my father.
“I would also like to take this time to thank District #205 administrative personnel, York High School, the City of Elmhurst, parents of the runners who have come through the program, teachers who supported my father and the program, but most of all the men of the long green line for the love and support that they have given my father over the last sixty years.
“What has made this decision possible is the thought that my dad’s successor would be none other than Mr. Charlie Kern. He will always be very special to our family because we believe that he will keep the legacy of the long green line going for many years to come. Personally, I couldn’t think of a more deserving, talented, dedicated and committed young man to lead the Dukes. Thank you and God bless York High School, the Men of the Long Green Line, and the City of Elmhurst.”
Newton’s decision to step down has not only affected the local and statewide circles of High School Sports, but has transcended to the highest levels of the Sport worldwide. Many will remember that Newton was the creator and race director of the Keebler International High School Track and Field meet for decades at York. This meet brought together some of the nations’ outstanding Preps, many of whom would go on to collegiate and world-class greatness. Peter and Sebastian Coe befriended Newton in the early 1980’s, a relationship which culminated in 1984, as Newton helped to play a part in Coe’s dramatic defense of his 1500 meters Olympic Title in Los Angeles– Link–https://www.runblogrun.com/2014/09/the-resurrection-of-sebastian-coe-with-a-little-help-from-his-american-friends–30-years-ago–the-19.html
Newton also became the first High School XC Coach to ever be named to the USA Olympic Track and Field staff, serving with the 1988 team which competed in Seoul.
One of America’s greatest distance runners, Craig Virgin, did not run for Newton at York in high school. The 2-time World Cross Country Champion and 3 time Olympian got his start over at Lebanon High School. “The first time I saw Coach Newton was in my sophomore year, November of 1970, at the State Meet,” said Virgin. “Lebanon was a small school of 412 students, while York had over 3,000!” In the turbulent times of the late 60’s and early 70’s, Virgin talked about how Newton’s charges stood out that day in Detweiller Park. “First, there were a bunch of York fan buses with everyone dressed in green colors and they brought the school band,” said Virgin. “But also during that period of longer hair styles, what stood out to me was that Joe’s boys all had crew cuts.” Virgin would go on to finish 6th that day, but would win the prestigious title in both his Junior and Senior year, setting the still-standing 3-mile course record of 13:50.6. “York won the team titles during those years, and I attribute it to the facts that Joe, most of his career was able to prepare his team to run in a tightly bunched group, and also, due to the quick pole turnaround early in the race, instructed them to start late coming off of the starting line so that they wouldn’t get into trouble,” said Virgin. “I remember them being famous for hesitating and listening to Joe’s countdown after the gun saying, 1001-1002-1003-1004-GO!!”
Virgin is also known for his spectacular 1973 high school record 2-mile track National record performance of 8:40.9, which beat Steve Prefontaine’s mark,and was accomplished at the Illinois Prep Invitational. The Illinois Prep Inivtational was organized and put on by Newton and would be the genesis for Newton’s international prep meets in later years. Virgin remembers prior to his performance, being pressed into service by Newton. “It was hot but Joe wanted me out in front of the people. So I led the athletes in the opening oath, and even helped Joe with some manual stuff. He had me do a lot of things, and my competitor Matt Centrowitz SR (who finished 2nd that day in 8:50) thought I was nuts!” But such was the pull of Newton. “You can never say no to Joe.”
In conclusion, Virgin turned to the co-coach of York. “With Charlie Kern in charge I know he will uphold the tradition and greatness that was started by Joe.” Virgin then finished with a final thought on a tribute for Newton in Detweiller Park. “300 yards from the finish line is a tree called the “York Tree” and I think somewhere around that tree there should be a Statue made honoring Joe….He is a Legend!”
Another 3-Time Olympian, Jim Spivey also has perspectives of Newton going back to his high school days as well. Competing for Fenton High School in Illinois, the 3:49 miler first met Newton over 40 years ago. Says Spivey –
“In 1976 at the Outdoor Track & Field the Illinois High School State Track meet in Charleston, Illinois, I competed in the 2 mile run. A Sophomore, this was my first time to run the Districts as I did not compete as a freshmen in either cross-country or track. The qualifying time was 9:38.0 and I had run 9:41 earlier that season and need to shave 3 seconds off my PR, and finish in the top 5 to qualify for the State meet.
Ron Craker from York high school, a Senior coached by Joe Newton, was the favorite to win that day. He had won the Illinois State Cross country meet in the Fall of 1975 in 14:10 for 3 miles, and was also favored to win the State meet 2 mile. His goal was to run under 9 minutes on a hot mid 80 degree day, and went out in 4:30 at the mile split. I followed Senior Jim Keen from Riverside-Brookfield, a royal blue uniform further back and more sensible pacing, running in 5th place.
With no clue to what splits I needed to run, I did not hear my mile split – we had to be running fast. But with 1 lap remaining, my fellow distance teammates were yelling “Go for the time!” “You have to get the time!” I was still in 5th, and no one behind me, but clung to Mr. Keen around the turn and down the back stretch.
I caught the 2nd and 3rd place runners, both Seniors (from Willowbrook High school and Proviso West high school), and I managed to pass Jim McHugh from Proviso West to finish 4th. My time of 9:21.7 (9:17 for 3200m) qualified me for State.
After a big hug from Fenton HS coach John Kurtz (still coaching after 46 years), I asked him if I could go and meet the legendary coach, Joe Newton, and basically thinking that he coaches 100 runners, would he have the time to say hello? I remember Coach Kurtz to this day, saying “Coach Newton will always take time to recognize a good performance.” I walked over, 16 years old by 2 months and very nervous to where Mr. Newton was sitting. Ron Craker, winner that day in 9 minutes, was sitting next to him. I had seen 8 York school buses pull up at a County cross country meet in the Fall, including the band, with Mr Newton in the lead bus. I had watched the Illinois State Cross-country meet and see Craker win, and again, the multitude of buses and spectators on the State course.
I remember congratulating Ron on his win, and introduced myself to Mr Newton. His reply – “Oh, you are the one we have been hearing about. Only a sophomore, right?” I am sure I replied in the positive, something to the extent of ‘yes sir.’ “You had a great run today – you were 4th right?” Again, a quite yes. “Well, we will be looking for you next Fall in Cross.”
Looking back, a simple “you are the one we have been hearing about,” coupled with coach Newton having his best runners run 1000 miles over the Summer motivated me to ask Coach Kurtz that if I ran a 1000 miles over the Summer, would he give me a long sleeve shirt with Fenton1000 Mile Club on it like York athletes receive? Fenton had never given out a shirt before. “Of course,” was the reply and I ran 1013 mile from June 1st through August 31st. (I did go back and measure my courses later in life, and all were short. So probably only ran 800).
In 1988, Coach Newton, my podatrist John Durkin, Sebastian Coe who had flown in from London, and my wife and I went out to dinner in a Chicago Suburb, to see New Orleans Jazz. Coe loved the sound of Jazz music, and at one point, the band had he and I on the stage with them. We came back to the table, and Coach Newton yelled “How sweet it is!”
As for the Man himself, Newton will be based in his summer home in Arizona, consulting with Kern. “But I’m going to be coming up to York in mid-October,” said Newton as that is when the Championship season is beginning. “I’m going to get them ready mentally for the Championships.”
No matter what the age, Joe Newton is still the Master of Motivation.
Final Lap–A celebration honoring Coach Newton will be held on Sunday, November 6 at York High School, following the cross country state meet that weekend.