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McDonnell, revered UA coach, dies

by Bob Holt | June 9, 2021 at 7:08 a.m.
John McDonnell (left) spent 30 years as Arkansas' track & field and cross country coach.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Name a college coach in any sport from any era.

None of them ever won as consistently at the highest level as John McDonnell.

The Irishman, who became a U.S. citizen in 1969 and then a Razorbacks legend over the next four decades, died late Monday in Fayetteville, his family announced. He was 82 and had been in hospice care.

McDonnell is survived by his wife of 54 years, Ellen; his daughter Heather; his son Sean; and two grandchildren.

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"He passed away so peacefully, enveloped in the love of his family and friends," the family said in a statement. "He could have settled anywhere in America after emigrating from Ireland, but chose to call Northwest Arkansas home because as he often stated, this was 'God's Country.'"

McDonnell turned the University of Arkansas men's cross country and track and field teams into big winners. He led the Razorbacks to 40 national championships -- 19 in indoor track and field, 11 in cross country and 10 in outdoor track and field -- between 1984 and 2006.

"It's a sad day in Arkansas athletics," said Chris Bucknam, who succeeded McDonnell as the Razorbacks' coach after the 2008 outdoor track and field season. "We've lost a phenomenal mentor and coach.

"My thoughts are 100% with Ellen and Sean and Heather and the immediate family. Their loss is 100 times more. I send all my condolences to them and all the athletes and coaches that he worked with. It's a beautiful legacy."

McDonnell also coached the Razorbacks to 84 Southwest Conference and SEC titles during his 36-year tenure from 1972-2008.

"People will look at his numbers years from now and go, 'No way, no way,'" Arizona State Coach Greg Kraft said in 2008 when McDonnell announced his retirement. "His numbers are so staggering."

Lance Harter met McDonnell in 1990 when he arrived at the University of Arkansas as the women's cross country and track and field coach.

"I've said a lot of people were surprised that I'm as tan as I was because I was under John's shadow for so long," said Harter, who has won six national championships since 2015. "And it was not a negative thing.

"John was always a great mentor. We would run on the trails he created on a daily basis, and I was the benefactor. He was always supportive, and he will be missed by one and all."

McDonnell won the most national titles by any coach at the Division I level, according to the NCAA.

Pat Henry at Texas A&M is second, with 36 national championships in men's and women's track and field at Louisiana State University and with the Aggies, with the most recent in 2017.

"In my opinion, John is the best that's ever been," Henry said in 2008. "There's no question about it when you look at his accomplishments.

"There have been some great coaches in the last 100 years, but there's no ifs, ands or buts that John's the finest coach who's ever been in the NCAA."

Frank Broyles, the Razorbacks' longtime football coach and athletic director who died in 2017, liked to mention Arkansas native Bear Bryant -- who won six national championships as Alabama's football coach -- when praising McDonnell.

"John is the Bear Bryant of track and field," Broyles said in 1997. "It's been astounding the way his teams can continue to crush people and win, win, win."

Hunter Yurachek, hired as Arkansas' athletic director in 2017, praised McDonnell in a UA news release Tuesday.

"We are deeply saddened by the loss of a true Razorback legend and quite simply the greatest collegiate coach in the history of intercollegiate athletics," Yurachek said. "John McDonnell was the personification of success on and off the track ... while even more importantly making an indelible impact on the hundreds of young men who had the privilege to compete for him.

"Coach McDonnell believed in each of his student-athletes and they loved and trusted him. What resulted was a stretch of unprecedented championship success at the University of Arkansas and lifelong lessons that will carry his legacy forward."

Broyles said McDonnell's accomplishments were bigger than what he did at Arkansas.

"You have to put John in a class with anybody in the country, not just here," Broyles said in 1997. "I would say his record proves that he's equal or better than any other coach in any other sport at any other school."

Arkansas had three track All-Americans in school history before McDonnell's arrival. His teams included 186 athletes who achieved a combined 654 All-America honors, beginning with fellow Irishman Niall O'Shaughnessy in 1974.

"Coach McDonnell knew how to get the best out of guys," Boston College Coach Matt Kerr, the NCAA steeplechase champion for the Razorbacks in 1998 and 1999, said in 2008. "He also could spot talent in guys that nobody else could, and he could develop that talent.

"He instilled a lot of pride in putting on that Arkansas jersey."

"John McDonnell was a class act as a human being, a true gentleman, and a close friend of the Tyson family for many, many years," Tyson Foods Chairman John Tyson said in a statement Tuesday. "He was also, as everyone agrees, probably the greatest track coach in U.S. history, and perhaps the most successful college coach in any sport."

Bucknam said the Randal Tyson Track Center, built in 2000 with the help of a $3 million donation from the Tyson family, helped increase interest in indoor track.

The Tyson Center has played host to the NCAA Indoor Championships 13 times, most recently this year, and hosted four American Track League professional meets when other venues were closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

WINNING BIG

McDonnell coached NCAA champions and All-Americans who arrived in Fayetteville from around the state, the country and the world. Some were highly recruited; others were walk-ons.

Daniel Lincoln, the former American record-holder in the 3,000-meter steeplechase and a four-time NCAA champion at Arkansas from 2001-03, said McDonnell excelled as a coach with his combination of attention to detail, common sense and instincts.

"He's written down every workout that's ever been done," Lincoln said in 2008. "He has all the data in front of him, stacks of paper, but he's able to look back on them and be attentive enough to see what effects those workouts had and what needs to be adjusted or tweaked."

McDonnell had his first national championship team at the 1984 NCAA indoor meet when Arkansas scored 38 points and Washington State was second with 28.

Between 1980-83, McDonnell's cross country and track and field teams finished in the top five at NCAA meets six times, but never higher than second.

"I really began to think I might be one of those guys who was destined to come close but never win the big one," McDonnell said in 2008. "When you look back on it now, I know I sound crazy, but that's how I felt at the time.

"I thought I must be doing something wrong -- and I was."

McDonnell said he was thankful for advice he got from two of his best athletes -- long and triple jumper Mike Conley, a 1992 Olympic gold medalist, and distance runner Frank O'Mara -- about putting too much pressure on the Razorbacks before a national meet.

"What they said really helped me," McDonnell said. "That's why I've always said, 'Be a good listener.' You can learn a lot more from listening than talking."

The Razorbacks won at least one national title for 17 consecutive years, from 1984-2000, and five times won NCAA Triple Crowns by sweeping the cross country and indoor and outdoor track and field championships in the same school year.

Despite all the winning, McDonnell never became complacent.

"I've heard people say, 'Well, it's easy for John to win because he gets the best to come to Arkansas,'" O'Shaughnessy, a six-time Razorbacks All-American distance runner from 1974-78, said in 1998. "That's true now, but it didn't start out that way. John built the program that way.

"But John doesn't rest on his laurels, nor has he allowed his teams to rest on their laurels. He keeps them truly motivated, and if he sees people acting real cocky, he'll take them down a peg or two real fast."

O'Mara, the 1983 NCAA champion in the 1,500 meters as a senior and a three-time Olympian for Ireland, recalled seeing McDonnell working in his Walton Arena office at 7 a.m. the day after the Razorbacks had won the 1994 SEC outdoor title with a record 223 points.

O'Mara, a UA law school student at the time, was out for a training run and noticed the light on in McDonnell's office.

"I thought, 'Man, this is crazy. John just won the conference championship a few hours ago by 78 points. What's he doing at work so early in the morning?'" O'Mara said in 1998. "He was making calls to recruits on the East Coast."

McDonnell was hired as Arkansas' cross country coach and track and field assistant in 1972. Broyles made McDonnell the head track and field coach in 1978 when Ed Renfrow retired.

Broyles said he figured McDonnell deserved the promotion after seeing him running ahead of his SWC cross country champion athletes during workouts.

"If John could outrun them all, he sure could coach them," Broyles said in 2008. "So we promoted him, and I've been very proud and appreciative of everything he's done.

"He's done it with integrity, he's done it with dignity, and he's always kept his humility. He's exactly what you want in a coach."

David Swain, a Razorbacks All-American distance runner from England, said McDonnell's legacy at Arkansas runs far deeper than the championships his teams won.

"His legacy is also about people, his athletes," Swain said in 2008. "John is like a father figure to most of us, especially the foreigners.

"We came here at an impressionable age and were a long way from home, and we came into a big family here at Arkansas. He made it a family atmosphere."

A RUNNING START

McDonnell, who grew up in County Mayo, Ireland, didn't become a serious runner until he was 17. Prior to that, soccer was his sport, but McDonnell said he got into running by accident with the help of his older brother, Frank.

"Frank was into running in a big way," McDonnell said. "There was a huge field behind our house, and he used to run there."

One day, McDonnell said, Frank was practicing for a meet and asked him if he'd help by getting a head start of about 50 yards. The idea was that Frank would run better if he had to catch his younger brother.

"Frank ran like crazy, but he couldn't catch me," McDonnell said. "He said: 'John, you can really run. You ought to take it up.'

"I got the idea that maybe I should indeed. So I dropped soccer and took up running."

McDonnell joined a local runners club, then moved to Dublin and continued running while attending a technical school, where he learned to be a TV cameraman. He became a good enough runner to win a combined six titles at the Irish Championships in the late 1950s and early 1960s in the 1,500 meters, 3,000-meter steeplechase and 5,000 meters.

McDonnell qualified to run for Ireland at the 1960 Olympics when he was 22, but for financial reasons a full team wasn't sent to Rome. McDonnell was among the athletes left at home.

"It's something I've gotten over, but it's not something I'll ever forget," McDonnell said in 1998. "It would have been nice to say I ran in the Olympics."

McDonnell figured he'd have a chance to run in the Olympics in 1964, but he suffered an Achilles tendon injury that ended that dream.

"I trained too hard and injured myself," he said.

McDonnell moved to the United States in January 1965 expecting to be on a track and field scholarship at Emporia State in Kansas, but when he got there, no scholarship was available.

In order to pay for school, McDonnell took a job washing dishes in a restaurant before going to class and then practice.

McDonnell helped Emporia State win an NCAA Division II outdoor track championship in the spring of 1965 but decided he couldn't afford to stay in school without a scholarship. He moved to New York and got a job as a cameraman at WWOR-TV.

Among McDonnell's assignments was filming "The Soupy Sales Show" and New York Mets games at Shea Stadium. The Mets finished 50-112 in 1965.

"I didn't know anything about baseball," McDonnell said. "But that was fine, because the Mets didn't know much more about baseball than I did.

"I just filmed the pitcher throwing the ball. You didn't have to be a rocket scientist to do that."

McDonnell continued to run and represented the New York Athletic Club, where ABC sports executive Roone Arledge was a member.

Arledge said he'd try to get McDonnell a job with ABC, but when that hadn't happened by the fall of 1966, McDonnell accepted a scholarship offer to run at Southwestern Louisiana (now Louisiana-Lafayette).

McDonnell became a six-time All-American for the Ragin' Cajuns, graduated and began his coaching career in 1970 at New Providence High School in New Jersey.

In 1971, he returned to Lafayette as a high school coach, then was hired in 1972 at Arkansas. To help supplement his coaching income, he also was a shop teacher at Greenland High School.

The Razorbacks won their first SWC cross country title under McDonnell in 1974 and their first track and field title in 1978.

Over the years as McDonnell built Arkansas into a national powerhouse, he turned down offers from numerous colleges, including Texas-El Paso, Arizona State, LSU, Florida and Oregon.

In 1986, McDonnell was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. He also was inducted into the UA Sports Hall of Honor, the United States Track Coaches Hall of Fame, the Southwestern Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and the County Mayo Hall of Fame.

Track isn't a revenue-producing sport, but B. Alan Sugg, the former president of the UA System who was a pole vaulter for the Razorbacks, said the attention McDonnell's teams garnered with their success was priceless.

"John McDonnell has probably brought as much positive publicity for the university and for our state as anyone I know of," Sugg said in 2008. "We couldn't even begin to afford the kind of publicity he's provided."

McDonnell, reflecting on his career shortly before retiring, said he enjoyed every national championship, but some stood out more than others.

"It was always nice to win NCAA titles in Austin," said McDonnell, whose Razorbacks brought home outdoor championships from the Texas capital in 1985, 1992 and 2004. "I think Texas is the type of team that thought they were a little bit better than you, so it was fun to go into their own backyard and beat them."

Harvey Glance was an Olympic gold medalist sprinter, and as the coach at Auburn and Alabama competed against McDonnell's teams in the SEC.

"The thing that really impresses me about John is that he's had the ability to transcend with the changing times," Glance said in 2008. "He's gone through many generations of athletes with different mentalities, and he's always gotten the best out of his kids.

"John just knows how to win. Every year he got his kids to fight their guts out for him, and that's what every coach in America is trying to do."

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