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Don't expect subtlety from coach Joe Newton when a new school year rolls around in Elmhurst, Ill., and it's time for him to gather fresh bodies for his York Community High School cross-country team. Newton has been many things over the years—one of the nation's winningest high school cross-country coaches, one of only two high school coaches ever named to a U.S. Olympic track team staff, a demanding second father to several hundred York runners—but subtle, never.
On the first day of school the tightly muscled Newton, who is on the small side himself at 5'8", drops by each freshman gym class. Boys huddle nervously on bleacher seats, the smaller ones especially, because they're not yet sure they're ready for the brave new world of high school. They are just the sort of kids Newton is looking for.
"I'll find the scrawniest guy in each gym class," says Newton, "and I'll yell, 'Shorty!' Everybody jumps! And I'll say, 'You come with me, and four years from now I'll make you an all-state runner.'
"So I'll get Shorty, and then other guys are thinking, Well, if he can make Shorty an all-state runner, what can he do with me? So then I get a couple more. Then I'm grabbing guys by the shirts—my goal every year is to get 50 freshmen."
Of those 50, he'll try to keep 25 around as sophomores, and then 15 to 20 of them as juniors and seniors. Winning at cross-country is almost that easy, he suggests. "Most schools don't have two seniors on their whole team."
For 34 years Newton, 64, has been following this basic formula in assembling teams of unlikely athletes and transforming them into champions. Yes, there's some truth in his pitch to Shorty: Newton has coached more than 150 all-state track and field athletes at York; nine went on to become collegiate All-Americas.
But the sport at which Newton and his mighty mites really excel is cross-country. Beginning with his first state title, in 1962, Newton has led York to the championship meet 30 times in 31 years; the school has finished third or higher 27 times, winning 17 times. This season Newton is looking for York's fifth straight state title, a feat that would equal the Illinois record, set by his teams of 1980 to '84.
Newton's success comes from inspiring ordinary guys to work hard for four years at becoming extraordinary as a team, especially on the day it counts most. His system of pack running, in which York competitors calmly bunch together toward the front of the field rather than charge off every man for himself, plays down individual stars in favor of cooperation. Each year a hundred or so teenage boys are running outdoors six days a week for Newton, preparing for the championship meet in November in Peoria, which only seven of them can enter.
The payoff is that when those seven get to the meet and face off against 200 runners from 26 other teams, all of Newton's athletes know they have helped forge a team that will run a smart race, win or lose. "We never beat ourselves," says Newton. "We always run up to our potential."
"He's certainly the best motivator I've ever been around in sports—at all levels, from the pros on down," says George Andrews, who was one of Newton's student managers from 1963 to '67 and is now a Chicago-based sports lawyer whose clients have included Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson.