John McDonnell’s office in his Fayetteville, Ark., home holds a lifetime of awards from a 35-year career as the most successful track and field coach in NCAA history.
Yet what McDonnell, 72, who retired at the end of the 2008 season after his University of Arkansas teams won 42 national championships (19 indoor, 12 outdoor, 11 cross country), considers his most treasured item, may be a surprise to people who don’t know him.
“One of the great things I received when I retired was an autographed basketball from John Wooden,” McDonnell says proudly. “Just the idea he knew of me was an honor.”
The late Wooden, who guided UCLA’s basketball to 10 NCAA national championship, wasn’t just known for winning teams. He was a man of principles and high morals who cared about developing athletes as people, just like McDonnell.
“He was one of my favorite coaches,” McDonnell says.
And like Wooden, the “Wizard of Westwood,” McDonnell was also about winning. Boy, was he ever about winning.
McDonnell’s teams won 84 conference titles (46 in the SEC after Arkansas joined the league in 1992, 38 in the defunct Southwest Conference).
His five national triple crowns (winning the titles in cross country, indoor and outdoor in the same season) came in 1984-85, 1991-92, 1992-93, 1994-95 and 1998-99. His streak of 12 straight national indoor titles from 1984 to 1995 ranks as the longest streak of NCAA championships by any Division 1 school in any sport in collegiate history.
How did Arkansas initially hire someone with such brilliance? Surely, there must have been a national coaching search far and wide back in 1978 when the school had a vacancy.
Nope. Former Arkansas football coach and athletic director Frank Broyles was a football practice one day, and noticed the school’s cross country team training. Leading the pack was McDonnell, a young Irishman who was a graduate coach who had handled the Hogs’ distance runners since 1972.
“He’s leading all of them and taking them up the hill,” Broyles says. “And when they all come back later, he's still leading them and I said, 'Boy he's in shape and he leads by example. If he can run with them, he can coach them.' So I hired him and gave him a full allotment of scholarships."
How McDonnell built the Razorbacks into a national powerhouse is fascinating. How he ended up in America and eventually running track for the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now Louisiana-Lafayette) is an even better story.
McDonnell, a native of County Mayo, Ireland, began running competitively in 1958 while attending high school in Dublin. Two years later, he won the Irish Championships and qualified for the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome in the 5,000 meters. Yet, a committee chose another runner to represent Ireland.
In 1965, he moved to the United States to attend Emporia (Kan.) State because he thought he had a scholarship, but he didn't. Still, he stayed a year, helping the school to an NAIA national championship.
McDonnell moved to New York City and, while working out at the New York Athletic Club, he ran into an ABC-TV assistant sports producer named Roone Arledge, who later became president of ABC Sports and ABC News.
The late Arledge got McDonnell a job as a cameraman at WOR-TV, where he worked on a show starring comedian Soupy Sales. Then, Arledge asked McDonnell if he wanted to do camera work for New York Mets baseball games. When McDonnell said he knew nothing about baseball, Arledge replied, "Neither do the Mets," so McDonnell added that duty.
When one of McDonnell's running buddies, an Englishman named Malcolm Robinson, got a scholarship to Southwestern Louisiana (now Louisiana-Lafayette), he told the coach about McDonnell, who was offered and accepted a scholarship in 1966.
"I flew into New Orleans and I was met by my new coach, Bob Cole, who was wearing a cowboy hat and boots," McDonnell says. "We're going out to his car, it's August and I thought I was going to pass out in the parking lot from the heat."
The smothering heat, the spicy Cajun food and the thick French dialect in the Lafayette area shocked every one of McDonnell’s senses.
“It was a totally different world,” McDonnell says. “I eventually got used to the dialect. The people are really great, but the weather was awful for a distance runner. I never got used to it. You couldn’t do any quality training. You could never run in the middle of the day.”
By the time McDonnell graduated in 1969, the year he became an American citizen, he was a six-time All-American in track and cross country at USL. He was also the 1966-67 AAU 3,000-meter champion and winner of the mile at the 1966 British Selection Games.
He coached at New Providence (N.J.) High School (1969-70) and Lafayette (La.) High School (1971). A year later, he came to Arkansas as a grad assistant, coaching cross country and supplementing his income as a shop teacher at a local high school.
“I wasn’t making much money, but I guess I was in the right place at the right time,” McDonnell said. “I’d never been to Fayetteville before, but it was a lot cooler than Louisiana. It certainly was better for running.”
When Arkansas head track coach Ed Renfrow left coaching, Broyles made his genius hire of McDonnell in time for the 1977-78 academic year.
"He took a chance on a guy that never really proved himself," McDonnell says of Broyles. "But I guess he saw something in me that I didn't think I had in myself. It worked out really well."
Somehow, someway, McDonnell began to convince foreign athletes that Fayetteville was a destination stop, a place they could get a college education while he developed their skills. So what if most of them had to learn what’s a Razorback?
“I had a kid from New Jersey tell me he never heard of Arkansas,” McDonnell says. “He said, `Where is it?’
“It wasn’t easy building a program in the beginning. I signed a kid named Randy Melancon who came from Southwestern Louisiana and Niall O'Shaughnessy from Adare, Ireland.
“They kicked it off for me. They were real nice guys, good runners and they liked the situation. We started winning distance races at some of the major meets, like the Drake Relays, the Texas Relays and the Kansas Relays. All of a sudden, people’s ears perked up when they heard about Arkansas.”
For the longest time, the Razorbacks didn’t have the world-class facilities the school now enjoys.
"I remember a lot of time shoveling snow off the track so we could run," says former Arkansas All-American and Olympic and World Championships gold medal-winning triple jumper Mike Conley. "When we did work indoors, it was in that small indoor area in the Broyles Complex. They set up a pole vault pit and we would long-jump into it."
But once McDonnell got his program rolling, it set a standard of excellence that every college coach and team tried to reach.
McDonnell 's contemporaries, such as Texas A&M track coach Pat Henry, who has 31 national championships himself (27 at LSU where he coached for 17 seasons and 4 in seven seasons at A&M), says the legend of McDonnell will never fade.
"He's a gentleman, he's a track man, he's a great competitor and he's the best of the best ever," Henry says. "No one has ever done it better than John McDonnell. He knew how to organize teams and he knew how to use people on the right days.
"There's a lot of people who can win every once in a while. John established himself as the most consistent winner in all of athletics ever. That says a lot about who he is. He made the sport better, and we miss his integrity.”
Broyles says McDonnell might have been the best hire he ever made in any sport at Arkansas.
"John never asked for anything - he never even asked me for a raise," Broyles says. "All he wanted was his sport to be fully funded, and I did that in the beginning.
"He always coached with integrity, humility and dignity. His students always excelled in the classroom. If all my coaches would have been like John, I could have been A.D. until I was 90."
McDonnell developed a tried-and-true formula of making sure his teams annually contended for national titles.
He understood that the fickleness of sprinters - a muscle strain here, a false start there - could wreck a team's point total. So McDonnell concentrated on building depth in the distance and field events.
"Distance runners and field-event guys are usually very consistent," McDonnell explains. "Those guys perform almost the same at every meet. If they are off (in their performances), it's not by much.
"I know Coach Broyles always said I made track a team sport. Well, I turned a great bunch of individuals into a team. I never took the individual out of the athlete. But I'd tell them, 'What about being a great individual on a good team? If you win as an individual and you're the only guy that wins, you can't enjoy it. If you win and everybody around you wins, then everybody is happy.'
"I got athletes to buy into being part of a team. I wanted athletes who wanted us to win as a team and didn't accept anything else.
“I always felt I had my athletes ready when the time was right. And my athletes knew I cared about them as students and people.”
Conley, now a sports agent and the father of Grizzlies' point guard Mike Conley Jr., says McDonnell kept things simple.
"The secret to John's success is there are no shortcuts," Conley says. "He was very clear what he wanted, which was competing for your teammates, not for yourself or a personal best or for Olympic qualifying.
"He'd look you dead square in the eye before a meet and tell you, 'Mike Conley, I need you to get me 14 points to win a national championship.' He'd tell every guy something, like, 'Son, you hadn't done nothing for us all year, we need a half-point from you for us to win.' When that guy goes out and is running against another guy for eighth place, he's motivated, because he feels that whole team is depending on him."
Sports writer Bob Holt of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, who had covered McDonnell's program since 1981, remembers him a "real straight shooter."
"John was real honest, sometimes brutally honest," Holt says. "But he knew what buttons to push with each athlete, whether it's a pat on the back or a kick in the rear."
Just ask Frank O'Mara, an Irishman who won the NCAA outdoor 1,500 meters title in 1983 for Arkansas. O'Mara, now CEO for Allied Wireless Communication Corporation in Little Rock, recalls McDonnell as a master in connecting with athletes.
"He creates a great bond with you and gets you to do more than you thought was possible," says O'Mara, whom McDonnell once motivated by saying he'd send him back to Ireland in a rowboat if he didn't improve his performances.
As McDonnell's teams began to dominate on a yearly basis, track talent from around the world flocked to Fayetteville.
One such runner was Mike Power, now head coach at Bentonville (Ark.) High. Power left his home in Australia in 1996 and was a nine-time All-American and five-time SEC champion under McDonnell. In 2000, Power represented Australia in the Olympic Games in Sydney, running in the 5,000 meters.
Arkansas was the only school that offered Power a scholarship. Power researched McDonnell and discovered his success in developing distance runners. When he met McDonnell, Power loved his down-to-earth quality.
Now that Power is a coach, he respects McDonnell more than ever. He understands McDonnell's theory of developing an athlete slowly his first couple of years in college before demanding he turn it on as a junior and a senior.
"Before my junior year, he sat me down and said, 'Hey, if you want to do this sport right, now is the time to concentrate on why I brought you here,'" Power says. "That junior year made me more of a man than any other year.
"He didn't do that just for me. He had a huge knack of doing that for many, many guys through the years. Just about anything I do now as a coach comes from things he taught me."
McDonnell admits he was fortunate to be at a school - and in a community - that values its track program. The Tyson family, which owns Springdale-based Tyson Foods, the largest chicken, meat and pork processor/producer in the world, donated millions to build the $8 million Randall Tyson (indoor) Track Center that opened in 2000.
Having such support spurred other SEC schools to improve their track facilities.
“You’ve got sink or swim in the SEC,” McDonnell says. “It’s very competitive.”
No coach competed longer, harder or better than McDonnell. But he also knew when it was time to retire.
“I always felt that when there were days that I didn't want to go into the office, it's time to pack it up," McDonnell says. "And I was beginning to get days like that. I could feel myself saying, 'Gosh, I wish I was driving to Colorado today to see the countryside.' I didn't want to do anything to damage the team and the program, so was time to get out."
But not out of town.
Though he and his wife Ellen own a cattle ranch in Oklahoma where they like visit a few days each week, the McDonnells still lives in Fayetteville. He’s usually in the stands at Razorback track meets.
Yet, unlike many coaches and player who regretfully retire, McDonnell now watches track with complete peace of mind. He says he’s able to do that because of what his teams were able to accomplish in his long and winding career.
“I walk every now and then with the new (Arkansas) coach, Chris Bucknam, and he’s going to do a great job,” McDonnell said. “He’s got some great young talent.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever get away from track. I love to watch track meets.”