Director Matthew Arnold was fortunate enough to be a student of Coach Joe Newton, a legendary high school cross country and track coach at York High School in Elmhurst, Illinois.
Few sports fans have ever heard of Newton, who may be one of the greatest coaches in the history of American sports after achieving 27 Illinois State cross country titles and one track state title in over fifty years of coaching experience. Arnold sets out to capture the soul and quintessence of the coaching legend in an independent documentary chronicling teamwork, running and the life skills imparted by Newton on the 221 athletes composing York’s 2005 Cross Country team as they seek their record 25th state title in 50 years.
At the core of the cross country program’s success is the foundation on which Joe Newton has built up the program, turning the team “…into good people first, then good runners,” which is continuously espoused in the film. While inculcating a yearning to win in the sport of running, Newton utilizes a multi-faceted approach to coaching that uses sports as a channel to motivate – oftentimes, blatantly demand -- his runners to achieve excellence in all areas of life. His mixture of tough love, emphasis on self-discipline and respect, and dedication to every single member of the team (He personally greets each runner before and after practice every day.) is admirable, and creates a model which other high school coaches should follow.
The team itself – the envy of many high school teams as they hold the record for the most winning sports team of any high school, in any sport, in the United States – is nothing short of phenomenal. Newton creates a depth in his group of boys which essentially gives him the “pick of the litter” when forced to replace two of his star Varsity runners, expelled after committing over $1 million in arson damage. The York team is forced to rebuild, and the competing, aspiring Varsity runners accurately portray the profound influence Newton has on his team.
Arnold effectively captures the connection made between Joe Newton and these boys. Newton coddles them, but pushes them. He criticizes them, yet wisely advises them. Oftentimes, Newton even publicly chastises them, motivating his runners to do anything and everything they can do to ensure that they are not publicly ridiculed again.
Although there are no secrets on the team, there is a mystery within the film: what else attributes to Newton’s success, besides his coaching philosophy? We are told that Joe Newton is a wonderful high school cross country coach, but we are never told why. Newton is never seen working with athletes on their running form, advising his runners upon different racing strategies, or discussing training methods. The sheer appeal of Newton as a coach does not rest in the fact that he has turned York High School into a powerhouse for cross country runners; it resides in the ambiguity and secrecy surrounding how he turns his good runners into magnificent ones.
But you know what? That’s not a problem, because that wasn’t Arnold’s intention. Arnold wanted to capture how Newton and his team are a perpetual model of leadership. “Some young men lead with their voices, some with their legs and lungs…” said Arnold in a director’s statement. It’s a blueprint on how all high school coaches can connect with their boys on a deeply personal level, resulting in a rewarding and extremely gratifying running season for their athletes.
The film also serves as a journey back to Arnold’s formative years by allowing him to explore what it truly takes to be a success, both in running in life.