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A Legacy of Greatness

Part One of a two part series: Family, friends share memories of Newton's winningest coach

“Before every home game, we would sit in silence after coming back in from warm ups. So silent, you could hear the conversations taking place in the bleachers above you, the footsteps, water dripping from the pipes, then every note of the National Anthem being played by the band. As the locker rooms stood silent, we would wait for the off-white coach’s office door to creek open. When it did, Coach J would walk out slowly, and while removing his hat, he’d simply say, ‘All right. Take a knee.’ That was our cue. It was time to say The Lord’s Prayer,” recalled Nick Matsen, 1997 All-State Team, First-Team All CIML selection and UNI offensive lineman, of John Jenkins.

Former Newton Cardinal football players have an immense amount of respect, loyalty and admiration for the diligent John Jenkins because of the man he is and the men he led them to be. His players hold onto each vivid memory of being a member of a team, giving their best efforts and making good decisions, even though John now struggles to recall those memorable years because he recently was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia.

When John and his wife, Jo, moved to Newton in 1984, he had no idea how he would impact the lives of so many young adults or the role he would play in the pride of the community.

In fact, John never thought he would get to coach at the varsity level in Newton because of the tremendous dynasty that had been created.

However, he did make it to the varsity level and stayed there for 17 thrilling seasons, carrying on the hard-fought tradition brought on by the late Frank Gilson.

John Jenkins holds the distinction of being the all-time winningest coach in Newton Senior High School history, leading the team to a 143-41 record and two state championship game appearances.

From 1987 to 2003, the Newton Cardinals reached the Class 4A state playoffs every year, proving they were a consistent, talented and conditioned powerhouse among the largest schools in the state. It was an unprecedented post-season streak, an achievement for the record books.

John started in town as an eighth grade football coach with Burt Strike and then an assistant varsity football coach in Newton before taking the head position in 1986 following Frank Gilson and Dick Stiles.

“I always just listened to him, because he was always coaching,” John said about working alongside Gilson. “If I could learn something from listening to him, I would.”

Growing Up

John was a good listener, and his family describes him as kind and gentle.

He grew up in the small, river town of Lexington, Mo., and is the oldest of five siblings.

Although he is known for football traditions, John’s favorite sport is baseball. His dad pitched in the College World Series; therefore, baseball ran deep in his bloodline.

After graduating from Lee’s Summit High School in Missouri, John went on to attend college at William Penn University in Oskaloosa, where he played baseball and football, but eventually had to concentrate his time and effort on one sport. It was a difficult choice. John chose football.

In college, he was captain of his team, starred at defensive end and earned the tremendous honor of First-Team All-American.

John Jenkins is truly a man of many interests and hobbies.

As an industrial arts teacher, John was a talented craftsman. He built a walnut cradle for oldest son Jason, houses with Building Trades students, and a gun cabinet, armoire and other furniture for his family.

John also loved being outdoors and enjoyed spending time fishing, hunting and gardening.

Near the Jenkins home was an acre of land that was in bad shape. John tended to the land, planted flowers and trees, and turned the area into a beautiful park. He called it his sanctuary, and that was his therapy from coaching and teaching.

“He was all about being in the garden, and he loved it,” his son Jake said. “My grandpa and him used to have a garden, so he had one every year until a few years ago, and I got to help him with that.”

John and Jo love traveling, whether as a family or a couple. The two went to Hawaii twice and fell in love with it, so much so that John said he wanted to move there one day.

With work and school schedules, they took their three sons, Jason, Jake and James, on a family vacation each summer.

“He was very family-oriented, and it was important that he did that with us every year,” Jake said.

The boys agree their favorite family vacation when they were young was a two-week fishing adventure around Alaska, complete with scenes of wild buffalo, beautiful camping sites and a rented RV with no heat.

It was Father’s Day, and John and the boys were salmon fishing at the Kenai Peninulsa, but they didn’t have all the proper equipment.

“I swear he was crying tears, he was so happy, because at midnight the salmon came rushing in,” Jo said.

Family Man:

A Husband and Father

John and Jo met through Jo’s cousin, Al, who was teaching with John at the time in Pomeroy.

Al had been trying to get them to go on a blind date for two years, but they were both reluctant to the idea. Then, one night, as fate would have it, they happened to attend the same party. John’s roommate had hit on Jo that evening, but at the end of the night, she told her cousin she wanted to meet the “big, shy one.”

After a few years of dating, they married in 1981.

Jo had two words to describe John as a husband and father: the best.

“I can truly say that he is the love of my life, and I think that’s both ways,” Jo said.

“You’re the love of my life too,” John replied.

James recalled he was always good at surprising his mother over the years, giving her flowers or taking her out to a fancy dinner when she would least expect it.

“He would do anything for her, and she would do the same. No matter what, he always put her first,” Jake said.

Family is the most important element to the Jenkins family, and it was evident at the stadium and at their home on Friday nights. John’s parents, Jo’s parents and various siblings would visit for every home game in the fall.

“After a game, their house was filled with family and love,” current head coach Ed Ergenbright said. “I really admired that about their family.”

John taught the boys from a young age the necessary fundamentals, how to be coachable and the value of putting time into something. He even taught them how to play chess.

“He was a great mentor and taught us life lessons like working hard, having no regrets, and being honest and liable,” James said.

“I always marveled at how he was able to turn off the coach part of him and just be a dad. He is a great father,” said Andy Bollhoefer, 1998 and 1999 All-State Team, First-Team All CIML defensive football player and close friend of Jason.

Coach: A Leader

and Teacher

Under the leadership of John and his staff, players were introduced to “Character: First, Last, and Always,” a motto he created and one the team proudly lived by. CFLA encouraged, united and held student athletes accountable for being a person of good character. It embodied a way of life that was important to individual success — the idea that being a good person is better than being a good athlete.

Jason, Jake and James had the rare and unique experience of knowing their father at home and in the locker room. Since birth, they have been raised around Newton football and know effective coaching philosophies.

“I like that he related everything back to life. It wasn’t just about winning football games. It was about being a good person and treating people with respect,” Jake said, describing winning as a by-product. “He always says, ‘Winning is a result of putting your heart and soul into your best effort.’”

John set the standard high for individuals and then inspired them to live up to those standards.

“He expected the best out of you,” 1993 and 1994 All-State Team and First-Team All CIML player Josh Foreman said, “not only during the season but after.”

Demanding a player’s best effort, Coach Jenkins taught young men to out-work everybody, including themselves.

“Whether you were the strongest, fastest, slowest, tallest, shortest — it didn’t matter. He knew what you had in you, and he demanded that you gave your all.” Matsen said. “Even if you didn’t believe you could do something, he did.”

John also created the Cardinal Power program to encourage athletic growth, strength and conditioning.

“Coach was tough, but fair. If you messed up, he was going to let you know about it. But on the flip side, if you did something good, he would be the first one to pat you on the back,” Foreman said.

His former players and coaches attest to the fact that John was the most prepared coach they had ever worked with, and the time he devoted to the team was instrumental in its success. They say he was the first one to arrive in the morning, and he didn’t leave until the last person left at night.

Dick Stiles took over as head coach following the shocking and heartbreaking loss of former coach Gilson in 1985. After John became head coach in 1986, Stiles remained by his side as offensive line coach.

“John was the greatest coach I ever worked with, bar none, and the most knowledgeable,” Stiles said.

The Newton Cardinal football coaches enjoyed seeing if they could enable a player to reach his potential. It’s why they coached. They were experts in giving just the right amount of encouragement and criticism to create a better, talented and confident athlete.

“He and all the coaches would get such a thrill out of seeing those kids do the best they possibly could,” Jo said. “That’s what he wanted.”

“Coach took me from an overweight, uncoordinated kid to a well-conditioned and agile young man,” Foreman said. “I am truly blessed to have been a part of Newton Football and what that meant.”

Another of John’s attributes was his willingness to provide guidance and his innate ability to connect on an emotional level.

“The thing I admired most about John was the way he treated the kids, the way he got them to care about doing the right things and what he taught us about character,” current Newton head football coach Ed Ergenbright said. “He always seemed to know the right thing to say to the team.”

John’s door was always open, and he was always there to help when help was needed.

After high school, Bollhoefer went on to wrestle at the University of Pennsylvania and continued to look to John for leadership.

“Even though I wrestled in college, I always found myself seeking his guidance far into my collegiate career. As always, he was happy to help,” he said. “I wouldn’t have had the athletic success if it weren’t for Coach Jenkins’ mentoring.”

A good coach is one who not only teaches, but is one who leads by example, and John is a man whose presence was influence enough.

Former Southeast Polk head football coach Kent Horstman witnessed John do just that with each game. He recalled a memorable moment of excellence and sportsmanship in one of his many encounters with the Newton Cardinals.

“(Newton) beat us pretty soundly in 1996. It was a butt-kicking,” Horstman said, “but after the game, John came over and was very gracious to us. He is one of the most gracious and humble coaches I’ve ever met and he passed on those same values to his kids.”

Read the conclusion of the story in Friday’s edition.

Staff writer Kate Malott may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 422, or at

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