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And how docs the master motivator bring about such stunning success? Partly with gimmicks. Each year, Newton's team rides to the state championship awards presentation in stretch limos (rented for the occasion by the runners' parents), and the guys get to wear tuxedos (donated by a local store) if the team finishes third or better. For the past couple of years Peter Coe—the father and lifelong trainer of two-time Olympic gold medalist Sebastian Coe—has flown in from England to deliver pep talks to York's runners just before the state meet. (Shortly before the 1984 Olympics, Newton and his wife, Joan, put Sebastian up at their Oak Brook home while he trained at the York track for 10 days en route to Los Angeles, where he won the gold medal in the 1,500 meters.)
Yet another gimmick was added last fall, not long after the Games in Barcelona. Several York runners—inspired by the U.S. Olympic volleyball team—turned up at practice with their heads shaved. Asked by his athletes what it would take to get him to do likewise, Newton replied, "Get me another state title." They did so, and Newton gladly honored his promise a few days later when his head was shaved during an assembly in front of the whole school.
Most important, however, is the daily contact between the coach and his runners. Everybody has a nickname, and everybody knows exactly how Newton thinks he's doing at any given moment. ("If a guy does good, I hug him," says Newton. "If he does bad, I chew his butt out.") And every day, Newton employs a three-part program to make sure he stays in touch with each and every runner. First he checks in the runners himself at the beginning of every practice, taking care to make eye contact with each one as he does so. The same goes for checking out, when each boy is required to shake Newton's hand. Between check-in and checkout, Newton says, he makes a point of trying to call out each boy's name at least once while he's on the practice field.
"Here's how I learned that that was important," says Newton. "I had a guy named Malinka, about 1963-64. He was terrible. He ran like a duck. He was about 6'3", burly. Ran the mile in about 12 minutes. Everyday he'd run by me in practice, and I'd say—his nickname was Malinkoff—I'd say, 'Malinkoff, you're lookin' great!'
"I didn't think anything about it. I was just flipping that out.
"The kid moved to Florida after his freshman season, and he wrote me a letter a year later that said, 'You know, I really miss York. I know I was a rotten runner, but I could hardly wait to get to practice every day because I knew that every day I'd hear you yell that about me looking great. Nobody does that for me down here."
Newton hadn't realized what a strong effect a little attention could have on a teenager. Since then he has made sure that every runner gets some notice every day, "so that he knows that I know what he's doing. I know he's working hard."
No one appreciates hard work more than Newton, who scratched and clawed his way to 12 letters in five sports at Parker High School on Chicago's South Side. He ran for four years (1947-51) as a sprinter for Northwestern, then spent two years in Missouri coaching basketball and track for the Army at Fort Leonard Wood. He arrived at York in 1956 and took over the track and cross-country teams four years later.
Today Newton drives himself as hard as he ever has. Each morning he rises at 4:30 and runs two to six miles. He runs seven days a week, straight through Chicago's winters, in sickness or in health—on Aug. 3, 1993, he celebrated his 20th anniversary without missing a run, a streak that has survived such nuisances as a pair of stress fractures and a bout with pneumonia. He gets to school well before his first class, often to lift weights, teaches five gym classes between 7:45 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. and spends much of the afternoon coaching until about 6 p.m.
As hard as his runners practice, they can hardly help noticing that their coach beats them to school every morning and that he is still there when they go home at night.