There are folks in this world around whom urban legends spring up. These people, by virtue of being mild-mannered and soft-spoken, have an air of mystery about them that leads to wild speculation and the birth of myth. Bob Newman, wrestling coach at Mountain View High School, is one of these people.
A 1999 newspaper article in the MVHS school paper labeled Newman "The World's Toughest Man," and listed a number of "Can you believe this?" stories surrounding the 54-year-old coach. There's the one about him carrying a chain saw in the bed of his pickup truck "just in case," and one about him single-handedly putting out a desert fire when the rest of his crew ran for safety. There's the fight he broke up outside the MVHS locker room, in which an errant punch accidentally struck Newman and he was able to clear the hallway with only a fierce look at the boys involved. And perhaps most intriguing, someone heard the coach once wrestled a grizzly bear to the ground.
Newman just chuckles when he hears the stories. Yes, he carries a chain saw in one of his two trucks, a habit started during his fire-fighting days. And, yes, he fought a number of fires during his six years as a summer fire crewmember for the Southern Arizona region, but he never put one out alone. And although wrestling his 145-pound son on the living room floor or one of his 215-pound wrestlers in the Mountain View wrestling room might be similar to taking on a wild bear, there's been no hand-to-hand combat with grizzlies.
"Kids," Newman says, shaking his head, "sometimes they just say things."
The 54-year-old Newman has a reputation for being professional, focused and driven to succeed. He's been head wrestling coach at MVHS, 3901 W. Linda Vista Blvd., for 15 years, as well as head of the physical education department. Up until three years ago, he was also the assistant baseball coach, and prior to his time at MVHS, he spent 15 years coaching wrestling and baseball at Marana High School, 12000 W. Emigh Road.
Part of his tough-man image may be fueled by his hobbies: hunting and working on his trucks. One glance at the bulletin board above Newman's desk reveals snapshots of various animals he's bagged, with a "life list" hanging among them: mule deer, white tail, javelina, turkey, mountain lion, elk, antelope - all with check marks next to the animal's name to indicate he's captured those prey. Then the names of three Newman has yet to nab: bear, bighorn sheep and buffalo, which the coach points out is "one of the tougher ones to get."
Game and Fish regulations require hunters carry out "all edible meat," Newman says, so he, his wife of 18 years, Cyndi, and their two children (both of whom grew up hunting) have enjoyed their fair share of wild game over the years. But how exactly does one cook mountain lion?
"Stew," says Cyndi. "Or it makes good chili."
"There's lots of ways to disguise meat in dishes," Newman adds.
There are far fewer ways to disguise coaching - you either produce winning teams or you don't. Newman has, although he's reluctant to talk about it.
Unlike some coaches, Newman isn't a bragger, and unless pressed, doesn't talk about the two state championship teams he coached during his tenure in MUSD or mention that in every year except his first - 1973 - he's qualified wrestlers for the state competition. He won't volunteer that the Arizona Interscholastic Association has twice named him Arizona Wrestling Coach of the Year or that last month the Tucson Citizen named him its Wrestling Coach of the Year.
Neither will Newman say that in 13 of his 15 years at MVHS, he's had wrestlers place in the top three positions at state in their individual weight classes; these facts are listed in the 2003 MVHS wrestling program, right past the page where "The Survivors" - the 45 wrestlers who stuck out the entire grueling season - are listed.
This year, MVHS wrestlers took first at state in the 160-pound weight class, second in the 215-pound weight class, third in the 152-pound weight class and fifth places in both the 125 and 145 weight classes. Overall, the team placed third in the 5A Southern Region State Competition.
"That's actually quite an accomplishment," said Marana Unified School District Superintendent William "Wade" McLean. "They've only been in the 5A region for three years and he was taking firsts all over the place in 4A and to make that jump to 5A and place that well at state in such a short time is an indication of having a solid team and solid coaching."
McLean can speak with a little more authority about Newman than most, as he was Newman's assistant wrestling coach for the first three years of both their careers.
"We started with the district the same day and had been given contracts for wrestling, me as head coach and Bob as assistant," McLean recalled. "But then we went to the first practice and it was obvious that Bob needed to be the head coach. We went back to the athletic director and he changed our contracts."
McLean has kept an eye on Newman throughout his career in MUSD and said that although the legend of the world's toughest man may exist among Newman's wrestlers, "I think he's a puppy dog."
"He has a very caring heart," McLean said. "He really cares about his students. He's quietly demanding - I don't think I've ever heard him raise his voice. But he has an innate ability to get his students to perform."
MVHS Athletic Director Susan Sloan agrees.
"I've known Bobby for 25 years and he is quiet, calm, very knowledgeable and a great advocate for his kids," Sloan says. "He takes care of his wrestlers - he makes sure they are getting passing grades, he makes sure they are eating right and that they treat each other with respect. The thing is, something about all that makes him tough in his wrestlers' minds, therefore to them, he is the toughest guy in the world."
Born the eldest of five children, Newman spent his grammar school years in Michigan, moving to Mesa at the start of his freshman year in high school when his father was transferred with General Motors. Much the way blond hair and blue eyes are programmed into someone's genes, athletics seems to be programmed into Newman's. He played three sports during his four years at Mesa High in Phoenix, wrestling in the 132-pound weight class, quarterbacking for the football team and catching for the baseball team.
Baseball is, he says, his first love, and scholarships for the sport paid his way through Mesa Community College and Northern Arizona State University, where he graduated with a degree in physical education.
"I started out as an engineering major, but then I switched over to PE because it looked a lot more fun," Newman says.
In addition, he says, his head baseball coach at NAU told him "being a PE teacher and coach was the next best thing to being rich," Newman recalls. "You get paid to play all day."
After graduating from college, Newman spent a semester at NAU as a graduate assistant and assistant coach for the university's baseball team before coming to teach physical education and coach at Marana High School. Although his personal preference as an athlete was baseball, when he had the opportunity to be the head coach of either baseball or wrestling, he chose the latter because of the students.
"I liked the wrestlers. They tended to be very independent kids, usually pretty self-assured and self-motivated," he explains. "It's a myth that wrestlers are dumb or wrestle because they can't do other sports. Wrestlers are actually really smart and if you look at the (National Football League), most of the linebackers were wrestlers at some point in their high school years. Wrestling is very good for football, it helps you be very aware of your body and where it is in relation to everything else."
Newman admits wrestling isn't for wimps and that each year about one-third of the boys who start out on the team end up dropping out. That toughness is necessary, McLean says.
"Wrestling is a very demanding sport and can also be dangerous," says McLean. "Bob has the knowledge and experience to know that you can't go out on that mat unprepared or you'll get injured. So he has very demanding practices to decrease the chance of injury on the mat. But he doesn't have an aggressive, demeaning aura about his coaching; it is a questioning, coaching, teaching aura. He consoles wrestlers who lose and then immediately starts coaching with quiet questions to help them learn. He tells them he doesn't expect them to always win, but just to always give their best effort."
The demanding, expectation-driven method of coaching seems to have produced an intriguing offshoot of the MVHS wrestling program: A number of Newman's wrestlers have gone on to military service. In the past four years, the program has produced two Marines, an Army medic, an Army mechanic, an Army reservist and two brothers - Michael and Steven Payton - who placed with the elite Navy Seals.
"I think a lot of the kids are just tired of school when high school graduation comes. In the military, you get paid to learn a skill or paid to go to school, it is a good career option," says Newman. "And I know wrestling helps them. They (the Peyton boys) came back one Christmas vacation after they first entered and told me how they were getting by in the tough training. Mike said that anytime the going got really tough and they thought they couldn't make it, they'd just remember that it wasn't as bad as wrestling practice."
Newman has enough years in MUSD to retire, but he doesn't know if he's ready.
"I saw him at graduation the other night and asked him when he was going to retire and he said, 'You know, I've got a really good freshman (wrestling) class - I think we might be able to take state.' I don't think anybody's ever been Bob's boss. He has a unique way of getting things done and if he thinks we've got a state championship team in the freshman class, I suspect we'll have him here for at least a few more years."