- 41 NCAA championships since 1984, including 11 cross country, 18 indoor track and 12 outdoor track. Only 24 other NCAA titles in the three sports combined have been won by other schools during that time.
- More national championships (41) than any coach in any sport in the history of college athletics. The next highest is 26 by Pat Henry, former LSU and current track coach at Texas A&M.
- Five national triple crowns, including three in a row (1991-94). Texas-El Paso has won three national triple crowns. No other school has won one.
- 19 conference triple crowns since 1982, including eight straight between 1987 and 1995.
- 26-consecutive conference titles in cross country, indoor track and outdoor track combined from 1987-1995.
- 67 conference championships in the last 72 events Arkansas has entered since 1981-82.
- 76 conference championships overall since 1974 including 38 in the SWC and 38 in the SEC (in 42 events).
- 12-consecutive NCAA indoor track championships (1984-1995), the longest string of national titles by any school in any sport in collegiate history.
- Coached all but three of Arkansas’ 161 track All-Americans in school history. Those athletes have earned a combined 614 All-America honors.
- Every school outdoor and indoor track record is held by a McDonnell recruit.
- 31-consecutive league cross country championships (1974-2004).
- Has produced 51 individual national champions.
- Has coached 23 Olympians spanning three decades and six different Olympic Games, including a gold, silver and bronze medallist.
- His 1994 indoor track squads won the national championship by the widest margins in the history of the sport. The ’94 indoor track team scored the most points (94) in the history of the NCAA event.
- His 1994 squad scored 223 points at the SEC outdoor meet, a league record.
- Razorback outdoor track facility named for him.
Jazz great Miles Davis knew the significance of his work in the music industry, but he never liked to be called a legend. “A legend,” he once said, “is an old man with a cane known for what he used to do. I’m still doing it.” So while most sports fans would eagerly bestow legendary status on Arkansas track coach John McDonnell, he fails to qualify under Davis’ definition. And that’s fine with McDonnell. He some day might decide to kick back on his ranch and spend his days reflecting on his legendary successes, but not now. And not anytime soon. At 67, he’s still doing it. “As long as our athletes continue to compete this way and as long as I enjoy what I’m doing,” McDonnell says, “I plan to stay with it.”
With a record 41 national titles to his credit, McDonnell has his sights set on No. 42. And if that comes during the 2005 NCAA Cross Country Championships, he’ll go for No. 43 when the indoor season rolls around. If professional basketball coach Pat Riley was right when he said that “Coaches who let a championship team back off from becoming a dynasty are cowards,” then McDonnell is a profile in coaching courage. He’s as hungry for the next national title as he was for the first. “I don’t know exactly what continues to drive me,” says McDonnell. “It must have something to do with everyone wanting to beat us and going out and winning one more time. Our young guys come in here and want to win one of those national championship rings. They’re excited. It rubs off on us.” Most athletes who contribute for McDonnell pick up a ring in their first year. The Razorbacks have won at least one national title in cross country, indoor track or outdoor track in 20 of the past 21 years, including an 18-year streak. The most recent came in the 2005 outdoor season. Athletes who letter four years are likely to leave with more rings than fingers.
If McDonnell draws inspiration from maintaining that tradition for the athletes, then they certainly draw inspiration from his success. The numbers are staggering: 41 NCAA titles – 11 in cross country, 18 in indoor track and 12 in outdoor track. Only four NCAA institutions have won more than 41 men’s national championships. Southern California (72), UCLA (69), Stanford (57) and Oklahoma St. (46) are the only schools whose entire men’s athletic programs have won more than McDonnell’s track and cross country teams. No other coach is close. Former LSU and current Texas A&M coach Pat Henry has 26 national titles to his credit. Ted Banks built a track power at Texas-El Paso and earned 17 NCAA crowns. Banks’ teams won three national triple crowns. McDonnell’s have won NCAA titles in cross country, indoor track and outdoor track in the same academic year five times. Other than UTEP, no other school in the country has won a national triple crown.
“I have followed John McDonnell’s career for many years,” says former president Bill Clinton, who was a law professor at Arkansas before his political career took him to the governor’s mansion and then the White House. “I have marveled at his outstanding accomplishments with the Razorback cross country and track and field programs. His countless national and conference championships are proof of his ability to train and inspire young people to not only compete, but to win at the highest level.” Arkansas’ teams have been even more dominant at the conference level, winning 76 league championships. In the Southwest Conference, where they competed head to head with other powerful track programs like Texas, Texas A&M, TCU, Houston and Baylor, McDonnell’s Razorbacks won 38 titles – 17 in cross country, 12 in indoor track and nine in outdoor track.
The Razorbacks switched to the Southeastern Conference in time for the 1991 cross country meet, and league members vowed to show their strength against the Hogs. But while Tennessee, Florida, LSU and others have been strong, the Razorbacks’ dominance continued. McDonnell’s teams sent a signal to the SEC when the Hogs took the first five places for a perfect score in their first league cross country meet. Arkansas has been nearly invincible since. The Razorbacks have won 38 of a possible 42 SEC titles since joining the league, including all 14 cross country titles. Arkansas’ streak of conference cross country titles now stands at 31, which makes it a particular source of pride for McDonnell. The streak started in 1974, McDonnell’s third season as cross country coach. The Hogs won 17 consecutive SWC cross country crowns before moving to the SEC. Their victory in 2004 was their 14th in a row in the SEC.
“Of all the things we’ve done, winning (31) straight cross country championships might be the most remarkable,” McDonnell says. “They don’t carry the impact of winning national championships but all it takes is a key injury or someone being sick to lose a cross country race. To win (31) in a row is amazing.” Key to the success of any coach, of course, is a steady flow of talented, committed athletes. And McDonnell’s success has had a snowball affect. His reputation for helping athletes achieve their best helps attract the best athletes. One thing every athlete is sure of when he comes to Arkansas is that he will leave better than when he came – as an athlete, as a student and as a person. And in addition to helping the team win conference and national titles, many Razorbacks become champions in their individual events.
Before McDonnell took over at Arkansas, only three athletes in Razorback track history had become All-Americans. During McDonnell’s term, 161 Hogs have become All-Americans and they have combined to earn a stunning 614 All-America honors. “I am his creation,” seven-time NCAA champion and Olympian Alistair Cragg says. “I came in here out of shape and had quit running. He’s got that hand on your shoulder that you know you can’t mess up, but if you do that you’re not going to mess up on your own. You can go into any race or competition with a lot of confidence. When he says you’re ready, you’re ready. It’s a reassurance.” With the best coach in America attracting the best athletes in the world, it’s only natural that Arkansas provides the best facilities anywhere. The current outdoor track was built and renovated under McDonnell’s direction, and in 1998 it was officially named after him. Arkansas has a cross country course on the school’s property north of campus. And the Hogs moved into their new world-class indoor facility, the Randal Tyson Track Center, in 2001, just in time to host the NCAA indoor meet.
“John built this program,” says Mike Conley, a five-time NCAA champion at Arkansas and the 1992 gold medal winner in the Olympic triple jump. “When he recruited me and the others who eventually won the school’s first national triple crown, there weren’t any facilities to speak of. We came because we believed in him and what he thought he could do at Arkansas. The facilities came later because of his success.” That success is built on a commitment to team excellence that often is ignored by other programs. While some are content to focus on a few stars in a few events, McDonnell and assistant coaches Dick Booth and Lance Brauman develop depth and talent in the sprints, the distance events and the field events. The esprit de corps becomes contagious. “We all drive each other,” says McDonnell. That team commitment is best illustrated in the inspirational performances of several Razorbacks at the 2005 NCAA Indoor Championships. After the winning distance medley relay team had been disqualified late Friday night McDonnell rallied his team on Saturday morning, reminding the Hogs that no one could take the national title away from them. A string of lifetime-best performances and second-place finishes from seniors Terry Gatson (400), James Hatch (800) and sophomore Peter Kosgei (3,000) propelled Arkansas to the title.
Balanced scoring is the hallmark of Arkansas’ team success under McDonnell. In fact, at the 2003 SEC Outdoor Championships all but six of McDonnell’s 27 athletes contributed points towards an UA victory. “Everyone feels a need to contribute,” McDonnell says. “I try to never put too much pressure on any one athlete. I will tell our jumpers we need 12 points from them. I don’t tell one jumper we need his 10 points. That puts too much pressure on”. Through it all, McDonnell retains his humility, humor and sense of honor. He believes in giving a good day’s work for a good day’s pay. He believes in instilling proper values into his athletes, holding them to high standards in every aspect of life. He has a quick smile and is comfortable around anyone. And, his hat size has never changed. He’s never been carried away with all he’s accomplished. “I never dreamed it would happen here,” he says. “When Coach (Frank) Broyles hired me, he told me he wanted to compete on a national level, maybe win a national championship every five years. He wanted us to finish ahead of Texas and win as many Southwest Conference titles as possible. If I took him at his word our national championships should keep me around another 190 years.”
As strange as it sounds today, there was a time McDonnell, who took over the cross country program in 1972 and the track program in 1978, quickly turned the Hogs into a force in the Southwest Conference and a contender at the national level, but their first NCAA crown didn’t come until 1984 in the NCAA Indoor Championships. “We had been close, finishing second one year and third another,” McDonnell says. “At the 1984 indoor meet, it looked like we had it won when they started disqualifying relay teams in the final event. We were afraid the disqualifications would allow Iowa State to catch us. After about a 30-minute delay that seemed like hours, we had won. It was a great feeling.” It was a feeling that lasted. The 1984 championship was the first of 12 indoor national titles in a row for the Razorbacks – the longest streak of national titles by any school in any sport in history. The streak ended in 1996, but Arkansas rebounded to win the next four.
The first NCAA cross country crown came in the fall of 1984. It opened a wonderful year for the Hogs, who again won indoors and earned their first NCAA outdoors title to give Arkansas its first national triple crown. Arkansas has added 10 more cross country national titles for a NCAA record 11 overall. The outdoor dominance is more recent. The Razorbacks didn’t win their second outdoor national title until 1992, but that started a run of eight consecutive championships. “John McDonnell has been the most successful and the best coach in the United States from the 1980s on,” says world-class marathoner and Nike executive Alberto Salazar. “His teams have continued to get better and better. He has set the standard for all other coaches to follow.” McDonnell has been national Coach of the Year 11 times in indoor track, 11 times in outdoor track and seven times in cross country for a total of 29 awards. He has been conference Coach of the Year a remarkable 41 times, and district Coach of the Year 58 times. He has also been awarded the NCAA Mideast Regional Coach of the Year each year it has been presented (2003-05).
He also served as Team USA’s middle distance coach at the 2003 IAAF World Championships in Paris, France. In the summer of 2004 he enjoyed coaching Cragg and Daniel Lincoln to Olympic greatness. They were two of four former Razorbacks that competed in Athens, Greece. “I dreamed about this as a kid and it seemed so untouchable,” Lincoln says. “It is an exhilarating feeling. This should show you what Coach McDonnell does. He takes a guy like me who maybe never thought of the Olympics before, and he makes me think of bigger things. That is what a great coach does.” “John McDonnell is a world-class coach because he is a world-class leader,” says Dr. B Alan Sugg, president of the University of Arkansas System. “He inspires young men to achieve goals well beyond what they thought they could ever achieve. Never in the history of the NCAA has a coach won more nationals titels than has John McDonnell’s University of Arkansas track teams. He has developed fabulous publicity and good will for the University and our state. I have tremendous appreciation and respect for Coach McDonnell.”
McDonnell, who was born July 2, 1938, in County Mayo, Ireland, grew up with a love for running, but his first job upon immigrating to America in 1964 was as a cameraman in New York City. When a promised position with ABC was delayed, he accepted a scholarship offer to run track at Southwestern Louisiana. He was a six-time All-American in cross country and track at USL. He was also the 1966-67 AAU 3,000-meter champion, and he won the mile at the 1966 British Selection Games. McDonnell was granted U.S. citizenship in 1969, the same year he graduated from USL. He coached high school track for two years in New Providence, N.J., and a year at Lafayette, La., before moving to Arkansas. He took the job at Arkansas over a similar offer from Oklahoma, he says, because the terrain of Northwest Arkansas reminded him of his home in Ireland. In order to make ends meet, McDonnell taught briefly at Greenland High School, south of Fayetteville, while coaching the Razorbacks. He began in 1972 coaching cross country and assisting Ed Renfrow with the track program. When Renfrow left coaching, Broyles promoted McDonnell in time for the 1977-78 academic year. He’s been a mainstay at the University of Arkansas ever since. When McDonnell is not coaching is enjoys spending time on his 2,500-acre cattle ranch in Pryor, Okla. An ideal day would include riding his horse during a roundup of the over 650 heads of cattle he owns.
McDonnell is also very involved with several non-profit organizations. He is a strong supporter of the American Heart Association, the Central Arkansas Radiation Therapy Institute and works closely with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences to promote Prostate Cancer Awareness. In addition to having the outdoor track stadium named after him, McDonnell is a member of the United States Track Coaches Hall of Fame, the UA Sports Hall of Honor, the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, the USL Sports Hall of Fame and the Mayo Hall of Fame. He’s married to the former Ellen Elias of Bayonne, N.J. McDonnell and his wife have two children, Heather and