John McDonnell, most successful coach in NCAA history, dies at 82

By: Bob Holt
Published: Tuesday, June 8, 2021
Former Arkansas cross country and track and field coach John McDonnell smiles as he watches the action during the Class 5A-7A State Indoor track meet Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014, at the Randal Tyson Track Center in Fayetteville.
( Andy Shupe)
Former Arkansas cross country and track and field coach John McDonnell smiles as he watches the action during the Class 5A-7A State Indoor track meet Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014, at the Randal Tyson Track Center in Fayetteville.

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

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

The Irishman, who became a United States citizen in 1969 and then a Razorbacks legend over the next four decades, died late Monday in Fayetteville, his family announced. He was 82.

"He passed away so peacefully, enveloped in the love of his family and friends," the family said. "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 is survived by his wife of 54 years, Ellen, daughter Heather, son Sean and two grandchildren.

McDonnell turned the University of Arkansas men’s cross country and track and field teams into the biggest winners of all time. 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.

He 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.”

It’s the most national titles won 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 LSU and 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’ long-time football coach and athletic director, 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."

Bubba Thornton, who competed against McDonnell as the track and field coach at TCU and Texas, was among his admirers.

“I mean, they can talk about all the coaches they've had at Arkansas in all the sports," Thornton said in 1998. "But John McDonnell is the greatest coach that's ever been there."

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. "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.”

McDonnell coached NCAA champions and All-Americans who came to Fayetteville from around the state, around the country and around the world. Some were highly recruited, some 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 gut 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.

“He’s just able to make the sound, fundamental decision that needs to be made, and you know to trust him.”

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 and 1983, McDonnell’s cross country and track 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.”

McDonnell said he “over coached” at times earlier in his career.

“So I pulled back a little, and we starting winning the national championships,” he said.

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 championships in the same school year.

Despite all the winning, McDonnell never became satisfied or 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 an Arkansas senior and three-time Olympian for Ireland, recalled seeing McDonnell working in his Walton Arena at 7 a.m. the day after the Razorbacks had won the 1994 SEC outdoor title with a record 223 points with Tennessee second with 145.

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.

“I think few, if any, coaches would have been doing what John was doing in that circumstance. He’s killing everybody as it is, but he wants to beat them even worse the next time around.

“The man is sort of obsessed with continued success.”

McDonnell was hired as Arkansas’ cross country coach and track and field assistant in 1972.

Broyles then made McDonnell the head track coach as well 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.”

McDonnell said he was grateful Broyles took a gamble on him.

“I guess he saw something in me that I didn’t think I had myself,” McDonnell said. “It all worked out really good.”

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.”

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 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.

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 (Kan.) State, but when he got there, no scholarship was available.

In order to pay for school, McDonnell got 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 then 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 TV station WOR.

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, McDonnell returned to Lafayette as a high school coach, then he was hired in 1972 as Arkansas’ cross country coach and assistant track and field coach. 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, Southwestern Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and County Mayo Hall of Fame.

Track isn’t a revenue-producing sport, but Alan Sugg, the former president of the UA system who was a pole vaulter for the Razorbacks, said the notoriety McDonnell’s teams created 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 three 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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