John Jenkins impact on Newton High School football is well documented — 143 wins, 41 losses in 17 seasons, two Class 4A state championship game appearances, seven conference titles and 16 consecutive class 4A playoff appearances.
Jenkins, 65, died on Saturday after a 12-year battle with dementia. His legacy is not only in the numbers listed above. It is in the impact he made on the players, coaches, students and other people he was in contact with in his 39 years as a member of the Newton community.
I was not fortunate to know Coach Jenkins. I met him once in my seven years as the Newton Daily News sports editor. I introduced myself and said hello. He smiled.
I have gotten to know the impact Jenkins had on the players who passed through the Newton High football program while he was a coach through interviews with former players and coaches. Also a couple of social media responses to Jenkins’ passing.
Here are their words about the winningest football coach in Cardinal football.
“This is sad news. Coach J was a great man. I’m blessed that I somehow got the opportunity to play for him. My prayers and condolences go to his family. It’s a great family. Coach J treated all his players equally, you could have been a kicker (me), or a running back, offensive lineman, linebacker, corner, quarterback, it didn’t matter. My first football camp at Newton, our catchphrase was “Synergy”.
The interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects. That was my junior year.
My senior year was, “Character”. It morphed into Character First Last and Always — CFLA.
Coach J taught us to be men. Wins and losses, they don’t matter. He set his players up for the battle of life.” — Joe Scaglione, Newton High Class of 2001.
“Such sad news. John was not only a great coach, but a special person. I learned a lot about leadership, organization and especially about how you treat people from John. Thoughts and prayers tonight to Jo and their boys. #RIPCoachJ.”— Shannon Bisgard, Superintendent of the Linn-Mar Community School District.
“My beloved high school football coach passed. He provided a model that so many learned from. A model I follow both in coaching and personal life. Integrity, character, details, preparation, carisma, and faith. We love you Coach J!” — Kevin Ferguson, teacher and coach at Southeast Polk High School.
Jenkins came to Newton in 1980 and started at Central Junior High School. He coached middle school football his first year and then became the high school team’s sophomore coach before becoming a varsity assistant coach under another legendary coach Frank Gilson.
Newton defeated Bettendorf to win the state Class 4A Football Championship in 1980 with Gilson at the helm going 12-0. Gilson died following a Friday night loss to Urbandale in 1985 and Jenkins finished the season as interim head coach. Jenkins was named the Cardinal head coach in 1986.
Ed Ergenbright, who just stepped down in December after 17 years as NHS head football coach, was a member of the 1980 championship team as a player. He said Jenkins became his best friend.
“Actually, there were two calls that year that had an impact on me. First, my dad called to tell me that Coach Gilson died following a football game in the fall of 1985,” Ergenbright said. “In January 1986, John Jenkins called me asking me to come back to Newton and coach with him. John had gotten the head coaching position and wanted me to coach the defensive backs.”
Ergenbright was on Jenkins’ coaching staff from 1986-2003 as Jenkins became the schools’ winningest football coach. The 1988 team won the first of Newton’s back-to-back Central Iowa Conference football championships under Jenkins.
The Cardinals went three straight years undefeated in regular season play beginning with 1988. Newton made the state playoffs 16 years straight and won four CIML championships.
“John decided he was going to retire as head coach after the 2002 season. He wanted to go watch his son Jake, who is now the head coach at Oskaloosa, play college football,” Ergenbright said. “He called me into his office and said I should apply for the head coaches’ job.”
Ergenbright said he didn’t feel he was ready for that spot yet but Jenkins had faith in him. He said Jenkins said he’d stay on and be an assistant coach. Ergenbright became the head coach for the Cardinals and Jenkins was good to his word.
“Coach Jenkins not only helped us be better players. He helped us be better people,” said former quarterback Kevin Custer, who had a career in law enforcement, of the 1988 team. “We had four outstanding coaches at Newton along with a lot of good people behind the scenes scouting. Newton was a special place to play football.”
“I went on to play college football but Newton High School was the first time I experienced big-time coaching. You wanted to play for Coach Jenkins and the rest of the coaches,” former tailback Chad Guthrie said. “They brought a passion to coaching and coached us the right way. It was an amazing coaching staff.”
Ron Wylie, who played fullback and linebacker for the Cardinals in 1988, said he was always talking about the next level, which not only was about going on to play college football but about doing the best you can right now. Wylie played college football as a fullback.
Wylie works as a senior manager for BNSF Railway in Topeka, Kan. Guthrie lives in Grape Vine, Texas, and is a sales manager for Aldinger Company.
“He’s one of my best friends, Coaching with him was special and we did our jobs as coaches to get the players ready for each game.” — Dick Stiles, who was the offensive line coach for Newton with Jenkins.
Darren Hurt, who was defensive coordinator for Jenkins, has a practice schedule from the 1988 season. It is one of his prize mementos because it’s in Jenkins’ handwriting.
“John always looked at us going into a game as the underdog. We trusted him so much and the players trusted him,” Hurt said. “I learned so much about coaching but also about being a good man and a dad from John.
“We never talked about winning, never talked about losing. We talked about doing our job and fighting for our teammates. I owe a lot to John and to Ed as they showed all of us how to do things right as people not just as football players and coaches.”
Jenkins received the National College Football Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010. He was elected into the Newton High School Hall of Fame in 2015.
Newton named the football field locker room after Jenkins. His coaching tree includes two of his sons as Jake Jenkins is the head coach at Oskaloosa High School and James Jenkins is an assistant coach at Newton. All three of his sons — Jason, Jake and James — went through the Newton football program.
The stories are all the same down the line about Coach J.
Jenkins is survived by his wife Jo “Jolene” of Newton; his children, Jason and daughter Josie of Prairie City, Jake (Haley) and daughter Clara of Oskaloosa, and James of Newton.He is also survived by his stepmother Patricia “Pat” Jenkins of Lake Ozark, MO; Aunts, Judy Cameron and Jan Grubish of Henderson, NV; siblings Brenda Lee (Ed) Kautz of Morrison, CO, James “Curt” Jenkins of Warrensburg, MO, Joel Tracy (Kay) Jenkins of Littleton, CO, Jill Jenkins McIntosh of Columbia, MO, and several nieces and nephews.
A funeral mass will begin at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday at Sacred Heart Church in Newton. The family will greet friends at a celebration of life open house from 3 to 6 p.m. Tuesday at McCann Center.