By Dan Hardenbrook

If it’s a Friday night under the lights, Newberry’s Joe Austin has been there calling the shots. And when the 2024 season kicks off next fall, for the first time in 48 years, high school football’s one constant will no longer be coaching.

Austin, a 2010 Hall of Fame inductee, the architect and then savior of high school football programs around the state, including Engadine in the Eastern UP, and most recently the man behind Newberry’s resurgence, is officially retiring.

His impact on and off the field, and on those around him, made Joe Austin the latest James Trethewey Distinguished Service Award winner. The award is given by the Upper Peninsula Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association to individuals who have worked to benefit opportunities for Upper Peninsula High School Athletes. It is presented in honor of Trethewey, who was a founding member of the UPSSA, longtime editor of the Marquette Mining Journal, and the first Executive Director of the U.P. Sports Hall of Fame.

How did a self-described “scrub athlete” from upstate New York build a Hall of Fame resume that began and ended right here in the Upper Peninsula?

Austin was a star high school quarterback who was recruited by the Naval Academy. Austin says he “had no business being there”, calling himself an “okay” high school football player and thrived because “gym class was my favorite, and the only subject I really excelled in”.

He didn’t make it on the Navy team, but stayed for 8 months anyway trying to figure out his next move. He called Northern Michigan University, and was offered a spot on the football team.

As Austin sat out during his transfer year, a young player who would become an Upper Peninsula legend led the Wildcats to a historic turnaround and a National Championship. His name was Steve Mariucci.

On a random trip across the NMU campus, Austin made a detour that changed his life, and the lives of those closest to him, forever.

“I had just graduated from Northern Michigan, and was working at the Marquette Power Plant. I decided to swing into the Career Services office and asked if there were any coaching positions available anywhere,” Austin said. “The lady looked it up and said something about Engadine, who nobody had ever heard off, was looking for someone to help out. I went home, and called them, and the rest was history.”

Austin found his way to the rural Eastern U.P. school, where he met longtime legendary EUP administrator Frank Salzeider. Austin was hired on the spot.

Austin eventually won enough games to be inducted into the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2010. While there, he built the program into a championship team and was on the sideline for that famous game that inspired the annual “Weather Bowl” game against EUP rival Brimley.

After eight seasons, Austin took over at Charlotte, Mich., where he course-corrected a team that had lost more than 20 straight games. Then he completed with another incredible turnaround in Niles, Mich. The Niles football program had been on the brink of collapse after winning only three games in five seasons.

At the peak of his success in Niles, Austin was replaced by Michigan high school legend and Notre Dame starter Terry Andrysiak, who went head-to-head with Jim Harbaugh and threw passes to Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown.

Austin, who was also the track coach and athletic director, was fired.

He overcame that adversity, spending short stints at South Bend St. Joseph, where he was interestingly hired as an art teacher, then Lakeshore, where he was the freshmen football coach. He then settled in at Buchanan, spending 10 years there before retiring for the first time.

The ups and downs of Austin’s journey helped shape the man, and the coach, that he would become.

“There is so much you can learn about life from playing this game,” Austin said. “Getting out there and getting knocked on your butt forces you to fight and get back up.”

Austin said he’s been knocked down plenty of times, and always got back up.

“I’ve been blessed to be a part of this game for so long,” he said. “It’s given me incredible memories and experiences, and I have seen first-hand how it has changed kids and their lives.”

Football helped some “lost” students find themselves. It gave them drive and purpose, he said, and many former players became great young men and adults.

“Kids need this,” Austin said. “It’s the challenge; how you handle and react to adversity. Life changes in an instant and on Friday nights, you get to take that test together.”

The other secret to Austin’s incredible career? His wife.

In his second year at Engadine, a new first-grade teacher caught his eye. They soon married, and Pat Austin became what he describes as a “Hall of Fame level wife.”

“She sacrificed so much so many times while I bounced around and chased lives,” Joe Austin said. “She’s given up birthdays, holidays, vacations, and she always right there every Friday night. She’s the first person I look for and she always seems to know exactly how I feel.”

He doesn’t think he could have succeeded without her.

Austin eventually returned to Engadine and was named Eagles head coach for a second time. He spent four more seasons there, leading Engadine to success again. He stepped down after battling health issues. It was time to spend time with family.

His second retirement lasted only six weeks. When the 2018 season was just days away, longtime rival Newberry didn’t have a head coach. The school called Austin on a Friday, and he was back in the game the following Monday.

In his six seasons with Newberry, Austin led the team’s transition to 8 Man Football, coached the program to five straight playoff appearances, and was the 2022 UPSSA 8 Player Coach of the Year.

His teams also shined while off the field. Last summer, when Tahquamenon Area Schools needed to clear classrooms and offices for a construction project, the football team helped. The Tahquamenon Area Senior Citizens organization has a store downtown, with many of the proceeds being donated back to the community. The NHS football program has assisted them with loading and unloading trailers and trucks, moving products, cleaning and repainting parking lots, and assisting with events.

Last fall, as the Indians were scheduled to practice before a must-win matchup, nobody could be found at the football field. Players were helping a local resident move her furniture.

When the football facility was ready for a much-needed facelift, players and parents peeled and repainted the walls, picked up trash and yard waste, and fixed damaged items.

Austin’s Newberry teams have been equally strong in the classroom, showing leadership among fellow students and assisting teachers with younger and special needs students. Team members tutor others, and staff often turn to them to mentor troubled classmates.

In elective classes, players often create items that can be raffled for fundraisers or donated to community organizations. When their 2023 season ended with a first-round playoff loss in a heartbreaker against Norway, the team came together the following week on their first free Friday night in months to clear tables and help serve local Veterans at an annual banquet in their honor. It’s all part of what they call “Indian Pride”.

It’s that pride that Joe Austin says he will miss the most.

“I don’t know how much of an impact I’ve truly made, but I’ve always tried to do it for them and do it the right way. I’m going to miss being a part of that journey. I’ve learned and grown as much as anyone along the way.”