We asked Jeff Benjamin to reach out to some Arkansas stars to speak about their admiration, and relationship with Coach John McDonnell, who recently died. Coach McDonnell built a dynasty in Arkansas, winning 42 national titles!
Five Arkansas Track Legends Remember Coach John McDonnell
By Jeff Benjamin
42 National Titles.
A Plethora of NCAA, Olympic, and World Championship Athletes.
How did an obscure Irish runner, who originally emigrated to the NY Tri-State area (Including Staten Island!) assemble a Dynastic Cross-Country, Track & Field Powerhouse from scratch in Fayetteville, Arkansas?
It is those intangible qualities possessed by the Late John McDonnell that can never truly be measured or put in a bottle.
Yet his legacy will live on, as those intangibles no doubt will always be a part of those Razorbacks who competed for McDonnell.
Here are some of those intangible insights from 5 Arkansas Legends.
“To have shared life with John McDonnell was a gift that one rarely receives in life. Fortunately for me and our Razorback family, we each individually shared that precious gift. The gift was John’s friendship, mentorship, and sponsorship. We entered the Razorback family as kids and left as young men. John poured himself into each of us and shaped us into men that understood the value of giving back to others. We learned that life was not about our individual accomplishments, but the joys associated with removing self from the equation and seeing the results of a unified Razorback team. When our privilege to complete the Razorbacks ended, John’s influence moved from a Coach/Mentor to a life Sponsor. John became our advocate in navigating life post-collegiate. He cared deeply about his former athletes and went out of his way to support each of us when the challenges of life transpired. I will forever be grateful to have shared life with John. One story to share that embodies the love John had for his athletes and their families. My senior year John worked with my parents to arrange for them to fly to the Penn Relays. Imagine my surprise when we walked onto the track to battle Mount Saint Mary’s in the DMR and John directed me to the finish line VIP box where my parents were cheering for the Razorbacks. Mount Saint Mary’s was the overwhelming favorite, but on that day the Razorbacks showed the world what happens when four individuals remove themselves from the equation and fight united together. Go! Hogs!”
“I think I speak for all of Coach McDonnell’s athletes when I say we are very thankful, appreciative, and honored to have had a chance to run under his guidance. Not only was he a great coach, mentor, and father figure to many of us, but also a man of integrity who taught us the meaning of hard work and valued winning with class. His dedication and passion he showed to his athletes, by endlessly being there for us almost every day of the year, made it easy for us to give back every once of our effort for him.
I was very fortunate to have run my entire running career both in college and professionally for 9 years under his watchful Irish eyes. I am honored to have been a part of a track and field dynasty that he will forever be remembered for by most fans. For those of us that ran for him, we’ll remember him for the family and large band of brothers he brought together to strive for one thing…victory. Both on the track and in life.”
” My Father, who I adored died when I was 15 so John filled an important void in my life. He coached me for 18 years and we were very close. When I went to work, that bond stretched. I had my career and he was plowing ahead. I realized after a few years that I was drawing on what I had learned from him more and more often.
Then I finally understood how great he really was. We tightened up our relationship again and he has been a constant in my life ever since.
He was one of those people you could learn from by just observing. He treated everyone with respect. He always seemed to do the right thing because he had an incontrovertible moral compass. He shaped countless careers and changed so many lives. Those of us who had the privilege to experience it will be forever grateful.
He was extremely humble in victory but he was equally bothered by defeat. In addition to his 42 national titles, he suffered through an additional 18 top 3 finishes, each of them more painful than the last. I know because I was on 5 of them! He was that competitive and ambitious. each defeat emboldened him much more than the victories excited.
He instilled positivity and demanded your full commitment. He led by example, always outworking his assistants and his athletes. He believed in Servant leadership long before the term became popular. It wasn’t about him it was about his athletes and assistants. His role was to enable and empower. Above all, a simple plan well executed is much more effective than a complicated one poorly done.
He also ran the program like a businessman. He used his limited scholarship pool judiciously. He targeted the events with the most scoring potential and recruited to maximize scoring. You may have been a great high school athlete but you had to fit the formula. His management skills were second to none. He would encourage, cajole, intimidate, and gave immediate feedback. Boy, could he run a staff meeting? In business, he would have been CEO.
It takes an extraordinary Coach to manage through all the phases that he coached through. His finest coaching achievement is probably his later years. How do you motivate a team that has won everything? They couldn’t be the first, they could not win the most (the previous generation – 90s had won 3 consecutive triple crowns and 11 of 12 NCAA titles during a remarkable 4-year run) a generation before that – 80s had won the first titles). I have spoken to members of the 2000s teams and they have told me the burden was almost too much. They felt they could not live up to their forerunners. And how did John find the motivation with 30 NCAA titles to keep pushing for 40? Remember, he was in his 60s and had to find a way to be relevant to 20-year-olds. Amazingly. he built the program, he won the first National titles, he utterly dominated the college scene and then he maintained it for 10 years.”
“As I think back about my time as a Razorback and running for him it always brings a smile to my face.
One of the things that brought me to the University of Arkansas was the family atmosphere that was so obvious on my recruit trip. Everyone on the team would stop what they were doing to cheer on the jumper, thrower, sprinter, and whoever was competing at the time, and this was something that I was drawn to.
John built a team that wanted to succeed for him, for the others on the team, and would do this at all costs. It was something about putting on that Arkansas uniform that made you rise up to do things that you didn’t think you could do. You never wanted to be the athlete that let him down or was the reason that the team failed.
He was someone that looked at you more than just an athlete, you were someone that he cared about more than someone that could score points in a meet.
I remember at the 1991 NCAA XC championships in Arizona he gathered us all together and brought us to church or made sure we had the chance to attend the church of our faith.
He was more than a coach to all his athletes, no matter who you were. He was a father figure, a coach, your biggest supporter and when I got into coaching, he was a mentor to me and other athletes that followed in his footsteps.
He will be missed greatly by everyone that had the privilege of competing for him, other coaches that he challenged to be better, the Razorback nations, and the track and field committee.”
“One thing for people to know about Coach McDonnell is that he was very quick-witted and had a strong sense of humor.
When I had decided to end my Athletic career we were doing a workout in the U of A track – 200s with 400/600 and I stopped, walked across the track and told Coach Mac, “I’m done running…I’m going to Grad school to get my Masters.”
The coach said, “I think it’s a great idea!”
So after that day, I did not run a step for over a year and I had not been to the Track Office to see Coach McDonnell for 5 months since I had been in Grad school.
When I came into the office it was the same greeting as always. He smiled, got out of his desk and gave me a hug. Of course, I had a bald head and had put a few pounds on since the last time I saw him and he said, “Hey everybody, look who’s here – Charles Barkley!”
In that split second he said it! He had to have had that one tucked away in his back pocket for sure and that look of, “I gotcha, didn’t I??”
We had a funny relationship, a Father-Son relationship. He cared about me more off the track than he did on it. He’d inquire of a kid, “How are your grades?” or “How’s your Mom doing?” From a single Mom household with no money whatsoever, he realized the importance of my relationship with my Mom – He cared way more about me than if I scored 10 points at the NCAA. I could go to Coach McDonnell for any advice whatsoever and I could always expect him to give me the honest truth – NOT what I wanted to hear.
Coach McDonnell had the ability to reach beyond to reach the Student-Athlete. He was more caring and a loving individual than many not inside his inner circle would ever know.
I’m grateful for the time I had with him.”