Luck of the Razorbacks

O’Mara helped McDonnell establish track dynasty

By: Bob Holt
Published: Thursday, February 21, 2013
Frank O'Mara has been elected to the 2013 class of the Arkansas Hall of Fame.
Frank O'Mara has been elected to the 2013 class of the Arkansas Hall of Fame.

— Frank O’Mara ran around the world, but always back to Arkansas.

While a professional track career took him to 56 countries - including running in the 1984, 1988 and 1992 Olympics for his native Ireland -O’Mara has made Arkansas his home with his wife, Patty, and their three sons.

“I truly love Arkansas,” O’Mara said. “I don’t aspire to live anywhere else, so I guess that makes me a true Arky now.”

O’Mara, 52, will be among the inductees into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame’s class of 2013 on March 8 during a banquet at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock.


AGE 52

HOMETOWN Limerick, Ireland. Lives in Little Rock.

COLLEGE University of Arkansas. Earned civil engineering degree, master’s in business and law degree at Arkansas.

COLLEGE CAREER Was a three-time track and field All-American and won the 1,500 meters at the 1983 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in his final race for the Razorbacks. ... Won six Southwest Conference titles on relays and individual races.

PRO CAREER Three-time Olympian for Ireland, competing in the 1,500 in 1984 and 1988 and in the 5,000 in 1992. ... Two-time indoor world champion in the 3,000 in 1987 and 1991.

... Personal-bests include 3 minutes, 51.06 seconds in the mile, 3:34.01 in the 1,500, 7:41.14 in the 3,000 and 13:13.02 in the 5,000. ... Competed in 56 countries during a 12-year span.

FAMILY Wife, Patty, sons Jack, Colin and Harry

OCCUPATION CEO Allied Wireless Communications Corporation

The banquet venue seems especially fitting for O’Mara, who has been a Little Rock telecommunications executive since 1997. His current title is CEO of Allied Wireless.

The timing of the honor also seems appropriate coming on the 30-year anniversary of O’Mara capping his University of Arkansas career by winning the 1,500 meters at the 1983 NCAA Outdoor Championships in Houston.

O’Mara became the first NCAA Outdoor champion for Razorbacks Coach John McDonnell - a 1987 Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame inductee - and Arkansas’ first NCAA Outdoor champion since Clyde “Smackover” Scott - a 1963 inductee - won the 110-meter hurdles in 1948.

As a professional, O’Mara won World Championships in the 3,000 meters in 1987 and 1991.

“I’m really proud of Frank, proud of what he did for me as an individual and what he did for the university and the state,” McDonnell said. “He’s been a great flag-bearer for Arkansas.”

O’Mara has traveled backto Ireland many times over the past 30 years and during his pro career maintained an apartment in London for travel convenience, but he’s made his home in Fayetteville or Little Rock since first arriving on the Arkansas campus in the fall of 1978.

McDonnell recruited O’Mara out of St. Munchin’s College, the same Irish boarding school that produced Niall O’Shaughnessy, who became McDonnell’s first All-American distance runner.

“Niall was a superstar when I was in high school and I wanted to grow up to be just like him,” O’Mara said. “So when he went to Arkansas and was so successful, that had a lot of influence on me.”

O’Mara turned down offers from Villanova, Providence and Manhattan College to attend Arkansas, but during his senior year in high school his father, also named Frank, died of a heart attack.

McDonnell thought O’Mara might not come to Arkansas, and O’Mara - being his family’s oldest son - planned to stay in Limerick and take over the family bottling company. But his mother, Mary, insisted O’Mara go to Arkansas and get an education, and she ran the business for more than 20 years.

Mary died recently but knew that her son was going to be inducted into the Arkansas Hall of Fame.

“When I told her, she was very excited,” O’Mara said.

O’Mara received the education his mother wanted, and then some. He earned a civil engineering degree, master’s in business and a law degree.

“Frank’s done it all,” McDonnell said. “It’s nice to look back and see a guy who excelled not only as an athlete, but then went out into the real world and did well, too.”

O’Mara and McDonnell have remained close.

“People say John was like a father-figure to them, but he really was a father-figure to me, with me coming to Arkansas after I lost my father,” O’Mara said. “I just have so much fondness for John that it’s hard to put into words.”

O’Mara said there were some “rocky times” with McDonnell. One of those came at the 1979 Southwest Conference Indoor meet, after O’Mara ran poorly in the 1,000 meters and took fifth about an hour before he was going to run the first leg on Arkansas’ 3,200 relay team.

“John used different motivational techniques with everybody,” O’Mara said. “He would do whatever he thought was appropriate for the individual, and at that moment he decided I needed a right talking to.

“He pulled me by the shirt real close to his face, and he looked around to make sure nobody could hear what he was about to say, and he whispered into my ear: ‘If you don’t hand the stick off in first place in this relay, you can row your butt back to Ireland!’ ” O’Mara said. “It got the desired effect. I handed the stick off about 100 meters ahead of the next guy.”

McDonnell laughed when recalling the story.

“I think Frank thought I really was serious,” McDonnell said.

O’Mara finished his Arkansas career with six SWC titles in relays and individual races and earned three All-America honors. He stayed in Fayetteville to train and attend graduate school, with McDonnell serving as his coach free of charge. O’Mara also was a volunteer assistant for the Razorbacks.

“I had the great fortune of marrying a Little Rock girl, and that helped keep me in Arkansas, too,” said O’Mara, who married Patty in 1989. “My wife’s great grandmother was an O’Sullivan from Kerry, so my kids are 9/16th Irish.”

O’Mara’s oldest son, Jack, is a sophomore at Arkansas. His other two sons, Colin and Harry, attend Little Rock Catholic, where O’Mara is a volunteer coach.

O’Mara retired from competition in 1995 after running a 1,500 in India. He came back to Fayetteville to work as legal counsel for a company that represented track and field athletes, then accepted a job at Alltel as legal counsel and moved to Little Rock.

“I thoroughly enjoyed my athletic career,” O’Mara said. “It was great to compete in so many countries, and I made some great friends.”

O’Mara figured he would move his family to London or Ireland after he went into the business world, but he’s thankful opportunities arose that allowed them to stay in Arkansas.

“It’s been a wonderful decision to make our home here,” O’Mara said. “I don’t regret it for a moment.”

Sports, Pages 17 on 02/21/2013